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The precarious road to Europe

After fleeing civil war, refugees crossing the Balkans are at the mercy of smuggler gangs, ambushes and police brutality
Photo shows Syrian refugees traveling on foot through Macedonia

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.

For some, like Zahraa and Motaz, who arrived at the Greek-Macedonian borders in June, the issues did not start until later in their journey.   

Zahraa and her cousin crossed the Greek borders in a group of nine in August.

They ran into trouble in Serbia when they split from the group and a driver charged them €2,800 on the pretext of driving them to Hungary. After taking their money, he locked them inside public toilets promising to return; he never appeared.

They were trapped for a day and a night, until a Turkish family travelling towards Germany rescued them and took Zahraa and her cousin to Budapest where they were reunited with the rest of the group.

While in the Hungarian capital, Zahraa tried to stay off the grid as much as possible for fear of being arrested.

Her cousin and his son were not so lucky, and the Hungarian police arrested and fingerprinted them. Three days and €500 later they boarded the train to Germany. Zahraa arrived in Sweden four days later.

Motaz, a 19-year old Syrian, left his home country in August. He arrived at the Greek–Macedonian border in late August. Motaz crossed Macedonia and Serbia easily; his biggest fear lay in Hungary.

He knew about the presence of gangs in the Serbian-Hungarian borders but he did not want to use a smuggler to help him cross – he relied on his GPS.

Once near the border he was mostly afraid of the Hungarian police rather than the criminals.

Motaz and his friends hid for six hours in the fields of the Serbian-Hungarian borders while police helicopters were flying above them.

When they were sure they were safe, they ran for almost two miles until they reached the nearest petrol station, from where they took a taxi to Budapest.

Three days later Motaz met a smuggler who took him and his friends to the German border; they paid €500 each for the service.

Responding to chaos

All these stories are typical.

The Balkan route is fraught with dangers that shift each time a country’s policy changes. Macedonia's border blockade in August, Hungary’s fence and Germany’s initial unexpected hospitality, followed by sudden temporary controls at the border with Austria highlighted the lack of a common line among those at the centre of the crisis.

The direct outcome of such ambivalent policies, however, are the risks asylum seekers face while trying to reach Europe, and the enforcement of criminal activities near each country’s borders.    

“Europe is creating chaos,” said Annette Groth, a Die Linke party member. “The crisis is Europe’s shame.” Groth considers the refugee crisis a catastrophe and because Europe is not sure of the solution, it remains unable to act.

The majority of those crossing the Balkans are fleeing conflict in the Middle East and have faced much worse conditions than those they find in Europe.

According to Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, head of UNHCR in Greece, the fact that refugees risk their lives and physical safety crossing the Mediterranean and the Aegean, and use criminal networks and dangerous routes in order to reach their destinations makes the refugee crisis a political issue.

Tsarbopoulos insists that one or two neighbouring countries cannot solve the crisis on their own.  

“There is a lack of a European policy,” he said.

During his 2015 EU State of the Union address, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, admitted the EU’s failure to respond to the refugee crisis; however, the following emergency summit on 14 September did not yield any results either, as EU interior ministers did not agree on the Commission’s proposed refugee quotas.

According to Dr Zenonas Tziarras, an analyst security and Turkey at the Diplomatic Academy of the University of Nicosia, Cyprus, the EU has been incapable of finding a solution to the crisis because there is a lack of consensus when it comes to practical measures.

He attributes this to the EU’s inability to reconcile the different and often clashing political and economic interests of its member states.

In addition to political and economic considerations, Dr Tziarras told MEE that security risks stemming from geopolitical instability in the Middle East, in conjunction with the ascendance of nationalist political parties in many EU member-states, contribute to the conditions that prevent a more effective and collective management of the refugee crisis.

Following the failure of the emergency summit and Hungary’s implementation of strict new refugee laws, Angela Merkel called on Monday for unity and another emergency summit.

Europe’s delayed and arguably inept response combined with its member states’ unilateral measures could lead to a greater disaster.

*Some names have been changed.