Seeking Refuge: Migrants trekking to EU find helping hands in Macedonia

Thousands of refugees travel each day through Macedonia, so much so that authorities declared a state of emergency on Thursday. So some Macedonians are offering aid of their own accord.

Darko Vojinovic/AP
Migrants wait to board a train headed for Serbia, at the railway station in the southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija, Wednesday. Record numbers of migrants from countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan uses the so-called Balkan route that passes trough Macedonia.

It’s around 10 p.m., and a train has just arrived at this lonely outpost on the northern edge of Macedonia. It’s packed full of hundreds of refugees and migrants on the road to western Europe.

A group of around half a dozen Macedonians is assembled, waiting for them with supplies they will need for the long trek to the next resting point, in Serbia. The train doors open, and a human flood rushes out. But near the front of the train, there’s a problem.

“Open the door! Open the door!” screams Aleksandra Davidovska, pushing on the train door from the outside. Inside is a Somali man, his hand stuck in the door.

It finally opens, and she helps him. Around him, hundreds of people rush to take the packages of food and bottles of water members of the group are handing out, and ask them questions about the Serbian border.

Once the arrivals have left, she takes the Somali man, along with two of his relatives, to the hospital to have his hand X-rayed. The young man, who gave his name as Yasin Omar, was relieved to find out his fingers were not broken – and surprised to learn that Ms. Davidovska belonged not to Doctors Without Borders, but that she was simply a volunteer.

This is a typical night for the network of volunteers who help refugees and migrants in their journey across Macedonia. With little assistance provided by the government or international organizations, these activists are the main lifeline for the thousands of people traversing the country every week. Day after day, motivated by compassion, they provide food, water, and information, relying on private donations and often reaching into their own pockets to help others.

“I feel like I have to do this. They could be any of us,” says Davidovska, who works at her family’s small shoe company by day and by night directs the volunteer efforts at the northern border. “Someone needs to be at the border,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be us, but someone needs to be there.” And because there is, largely, no one else, she and the others come. “These people need me more than the world needs shoes.”

The Balkan route

The refugees and migrants passing through Macedonia are part of the massive flood of asylum seekers looking for safety and a better life in Europe this year, and this route through the Balkans has become one of the most-traveled paths. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said yesterday that more than 160,000 refugees and migrants have entered Greece so far this year, with the number rising rapidly each month.

The majority of the arrivals are Syrian refugees, while others come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and elsewhere. Few want to stay in Greece because of the economic crisis there, so many of them travel north through Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary to reach countries in western or northern Europe where jobs are more plentiful.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

In Macedonia, volunteers began to organize their efforts as the number of migrants increased this spring. Earlier in the year, Macedonian police rebuffed refugees at the border, pushing them back into Greece, and some of those who made it through reported being robbed or exploited by police or civilians.

In June, the government passed a law giving asylum seekers 72 hours to transit the country legally, via public transportation. That led refugees and migrants to congregate in Gevgelija, at the southern border, where they wait for registration with the police and for trains or buses, and at the northern border, where they cross into Serbia on foot.

Volunteers say around 2,000 people a day are passing through the small Balkan country, many of them families with children. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said police had registered more than 37,000 people – the vast majority of them Syrian – in the two months since the law was passed. But volunteers say many squeeze onto the trains without waiting for the police registration, meaning the real number crossing the country is higher.

The increasing numbers spurred Macedonian authorities to declare a state of emergency Thursday. Police on Friday fired tear gas in Gevgelija to disperse the thousands of migrants trying to enter from Greece and traverse Macedonia to reach Serbia.

A great need

The volunteers began helping because they saw a need that was not being met, says Jasmin Redzepi, head of civil society organization Legis in the capital Skopje. He says around 30 people are usually working on the ground: around a dozen people come daily to Tabanovce border, and a handful of people help in Gevgelija. There are others in Skopje and other cities who travel to help and collect donations.

The UNHCR and the Red Cross are contributing; the Red Cross has mobile medical teams in Tabanovce and Gevgelija and has provided a small amount of food, water, and packs of hygiene items, and the UNHCR is installing toilets in both locations, and has funded data entry clerks to work with police to speed up the registration of refugees and migrants, and a team that will provide psychological support. The agency also facilitated coordination meetings between the volunteers, organizations, and government entities working on the issue.

But the activists say those efforts are not enough amid a flood of arrivals, and they are working overtime to meet the needs. Mr. Redzepi says volunteers have given out more than 70,000 meals since April, along with items like shoes, clothes, and baby wipes, though their donations have started to wane.

Many of the volunteers come every day, often staying at the border until the wee hours of the morning, and spending their own money on gas and supplies. Davidovska says her salary was cut in half because she spends so much time volunteering, and her family thinks she’s crazy for spending nearly every night at the border helping. She rarely sees her friends. Since she began spending most of her time helping refugees in June, she says she’s only taken two or three days off.

But she's not complaining. "It sounds unbelievable or crazy, but I enjoy this work more than my job," she says.

'You can't turn a blind eye'

On the southern border, in Gevgelija, there are fewer activists and more refugees. The formerly sleepy town near Greece has become a major stop on the road to Europe. The large numbers pouring in have led to significant delays in registrations, leading to crowds of thousands waiting for their papers with no place to sleep.

On a recent afternoon, several thousand people were packed onto the platform at the train station. Activist Gabriela Andreevska, who comes six days a week from her home half an hour away to offer help to the refugees, moves through the crowd with ease, smiling and joking with people and cheerfully answering their questions. When one man approaches to ask for information about how to get to Tabanovce, she takes a piece of paper and a pen and kneels down on the ground to draw him a map and give directions.

Many of the residents of this town resent the refugees, annoyed with the crowds, the trash, and fearing that they are terrorists or will bring diseases. But for Ms. Andreevska, it’s a simple decision to help.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she says. “So many people sleeping on concrete. They’re there, and you can’t turn a blind eye.”

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