Macedonia is a small country located in the heart of the Balkan Peninsula, with a population of around 2 million citizens. Although small, it plays a key role when it comes to international transport between these countries, due to its convenient geographical position. Refugees coming from across the Mediterranean Sea have been working their way up north, most of them inevitably passing through this country.
First Signs of Problems
Up until June, 2015 the small number of refugees that illegally entered Macedonia were forced to take risky and uncertain forms of travel, such as walking along the railroads. This resulted in the death of many refugees, who found themselves in the way of the passing trains. However, in mid-June, the Macedonian government changed its policy on migrants entering the country’s territory. This meant that the refugees crossing the border obtained a document that allowed them to freely travel through the country and the right to apply for asylum within 72 hours. The migrants could now take the train and travel much faster, without fear of authorities. In other words, the costs decreased greatly, which made more migrants opt out for this route (Turkey-Greece-Macedonia-Serbia-Hungary) instead of the one through Libya and Italy, a far longer and more expensive journey.
Apart from transport, other issues remained unsolved. During the summer, 3,000 to 4,000 refugees crossed the Macedonian border on a daily basis. Once the locals saw that there was such a great influx of starving and tired migrants, they quickly found a way to take advantage of their situation. As the migrants passed through the small towns and villages, they were sold essentials for their survival, such as bread and water, for insanely high prices. There were instances where certain individuals requested even triple the price of what the product originally cost, and the refugees had no other choice but to pay it.
There were many cases in which the refugee groups were mistreated by Macedonian police. Human Rights Watch held the Macedonian police responsible for beating and verbally abusing a group of refugees on the borders. According to some video footage that can be found online, police officers used batons on the crowd of refugees that was chaotically waiting to cross the border.
Macedonia was largely criticized for the government’s uncoordinated treatment towards the refugees. The government claimed that this was due to Macedonia’s political relations with the neighboring nations. However, Macedonia’s president announced that refugee centers were not to be opened and that this country was to remain what it was – a transit country.
The public opinion on the refugee crisis was split. Some believed that the refugees should not be allowed to enter Macedonia, some insisted that help was immediately provided, and some were even barely informed on what was going on.
Very quickly, Macedonian activist groups started to raise awareness about the refugees’ situation in the country. A lot of the above mentioned ill-treatments were brought to attention on social media and the news. People started organizing events for collecting food, drinks and clothes and some volunteers were sent to aid the refugee groups on the spot. It was important that Macedonian people stopped seeing the refugees as a threat.
As the weather conditions get colder, the number of refugees waiting at the border and travelling through Macedonia decreases. This is due to the fact that most of them have already reached their destination, especially after Germany suspended the Dublin Regulation which bounds the refugees to seek asylum in the first country they reach. Angela Merkel also announced that Germany will be providing temporary shelter for all of the refugees, which is why a good number of them have set this country as their goal.
As for the impact the refugee crisis has had on the countries on the Balkan Peninsula, it has only made the countries relations more strained. These countries have never faced a problem like this before. Near the end of September, the Croatian prime minister said, “If Serbia doesn’t change its refugee policy the borders will be shut down again, this time hermetically.” Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria warned that they will close their borders too, if Austria, Germany and Hungary do so.
On the 25th of October this year, the leaders of 10 countries on the Balkan route were invited on an urgent summit in Brussels. The invited countries, Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Serbia and Macedonia, discussed the refugee crisis and possible ways to deal with it. The leaders agreed on a 17-point plan of action, that offers practical and operational solutions. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said, “Countries affected should not only talk about and at each other but also with each other.”
Neighbouring countries should work together not against each other. Refugees need to be treated in a humane manner along the length of the Western Balkans route to avoid a humanitarian tragedy in Europe. I am therefore pleased that today we were able to jointly agree on a 17-point plan of pragmatic and operational measures to ensure people are not left to fend for themselves in the rain and cold.”
Exactly so, in times like these we should remember that after all, we are dealing with human lives, who unlike us, are not lucky enough to have a safe place to call home. Countries should be encouraged to work together to achieve success, instead of looking to ‘pass’ the refugees on to the next one. This is what the 17-point plan strives for, and we all hope that with the equal efforts of the involved governments, it will work.