It has only just caught the public’s attention, but the route to Europe that traverses the Balkans has been dangerous for a long time.
In June, the Macedonian government introduced a 72-hour permit that allowed refugees to cross the country freely. Before then, vast swathes of fields and forest – which stretch from Greece to Macedonia – were under the control of people-smuggling gangs. Beatings, muggings and kidnappings were common. Police complicity was an open secret among refugees and locals alike.
For many, however, paying people smugglers to take them to Europe was their only option. They walked for miles, picking their way along Europe’s railway tracks. Dozens were injured or killed by trains. Those who survived were loaded onto trains and herded like cattle.
Faisal and Marwan tried to cross the border between Greece and Macedonia in May.
Faisal, a former Free Syrian Army fighter, left Syria for the sake of his family and tried to cross the border many times. Once, after three hours of trekking through the dense Macedonian forest with 11 other Syrian refugees, his group was ambushed by an armed gang.
“They took everything from my friend, they wanted to kill us. But we fought. I didn’t want to die – I didn’t die in my country.”
The gang had guns and as the group fled, one of the Syrians was injured by a bullet that grazed his head. They hid inside the hollow of a tree for six hours until they finally ventured out. After hours of walking, Faisal told Middle East Eye that the group stumbled upon Macedonian police officers who said they had already heard of the ambush.
The refugees begged the police for help, but with no success. They decided to return to Greece and seek medical help for their wounded friend. After many further attempts, Faisal finally made it to Sweden in early July.
Marwan too struggled to make it across the border.
He left his home in Fallujah, one of the most conflict-affected cities in Iraq, in order to work in Turkey. After two years of living and working in southern Turkey, he decided to flee to Europe. He arrived in Greece in March.
For two months Marwan tried to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia, but he was caught every time and beaten, either by gangs preying on refugees or by the police. Finally, Marwan found a smuggler who promised to take him along with a group of other refugees to Serbia. He boarded the smuggler-controlled freight train in Gevgelija, southern Macedonia. The service cost €700 per person.
Marwan and many others were locked in the airless, windowless wagon for 10 hours. Before the train set off, the door was opened and a Macedonian police officer peered inside with a flashlight at the terrified refugees. Satisfied, he shut the door – Marwan told MEE the man pretended to be staring into an empty wagon. After another few hours the train arrived at its destination – Idomeni station back in Greece; the refugees had been conned.
Marwan finally made it to Austria on his 26th attempt.
In June, news broke of a refugee kidnap gang operating in Macedonia, reportedly with the help of local authorities and the police.
Amid criticism by local NGOs and international attention of the dangers refugees faced, Macedonia issued a 72-hour permit which would make the refugee’s journey safer.
Hungary’s decision to secure its borders with Serbia with a 110-mile wall, however, had an immediate result but not the one expected as human smuggling networks and criminals moved to the north – responding to the refugees’ need for alternative ways of crossing.