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Feature 01 Feb 13

Asylum Seekers Transform Sleepy Balkan Villages

Serbia and Macedonia are struggling to cope with the fast growing number of asylum seekers crossing their countries on their way to Western Europe.

By Darko Duridanski, Momir Turudic and Lavdim Hamidi
BIRN
Lojane, Bogovadja, Lipjan

The presence of knots of people, standing around and chatting in Arabic, Somali, Dari or Pashto, have long ceased to surprise the ethnic Albanian locals in Lojane in northern Macedonia.

The village is a known stopping point for migrants from Africa, Asia and Middle East seeking illegal passage into the EU.

Thousands of such migrants pass through the village each year, according to reports. For many, the next stop is some 380 kilometres to the north, in the Serbian village of Bogovadja, home to one of Serbia’s two asylum centres.

Life in both communities has been radically reshaped over the last couple of years, since the influx first began, with newcomers from all over the world constantly arriving.

Neither country has much capacity to deal with the rapid growth in the number of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers.

While Macedonia has problems with illegal immigrants transiting to Serbia, Serbia struggles to accommodate them when they stop there before trying to enter EU-member Hungary.

Macedonia and Serbia both lie on the so-called trans-Asian corridor, which runs from the Middle East to Europe via Turkey.

Migrants from the Arabian Peninsula, North and Eastern Africa, as well as from Asian countries such as Myanmar and Bangladesh, join this route on their way to the EU.

No exact figures  are available on how many illegal imigrants pass through Macedonia and Serbia, as many cross unnoticed.

But some estimates say that between 15,000 and 20,000 cross both countries annually.

The number of illegal immigrants and asylum seeker increased drastically over the last four years ago, since the old routes through Italy and across Romania and Bulgaria were tightened up.

Hardly any of those who apply for asylum in Macedonia or Serbia intend to stay.

But asylum status allows them to avoid arrest, if caught illegally, and rest, as it entitles them to basic food, health care, toiletries, clothing, footwear and a place to stay, if there are free beds.

The problem facing migrants in neighbouring EU members Bulgaria and Romania is that if they obtain asylum status there, they cannot later claim asylum elsewhere in the EU.

Frontex, the agency in charge of securing the EU’s borders, has worked hard to cut migration flows through the old entry points of Italy, Spain and Malta.

In spite of that, the number of illegal immigrants to Europe has risen since the start of the so-called Arab Spring, which has destabilized several North African countries.

Until the onset of the financial crisis, many migrants remained in Greece. But the lack of jobs there today, and rightist attacks on immigrants, have prompted many to move on.

From village to metropolis:

Lojane, 55 kilometres north of the Macedonian capital, Skopje, and close to the border with Serbia, is a village of about 600 hundred houses, home to 4,000 mainly ethnic Albanians.

Around noon, when pupils from the school disappear back into their classrooms, the centre suddenly becomes a metropolis in terms of ethnic variety.

People from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, Algeria, Somalia, and East Africa gather in the lanes.

At the end of last year, about 300 immigrants were stationed there, all waiting for better conditions to continue their travels.

Most were shy of answering questions. However, one older, tall, skinny man with dirty clothes said he was from Afghanistan and had paid 3,000 euro to get this far.

“I was traveling by foot, train, car, everything. I came here from Greece,” he said in broken English, refusing to disclose his name.

Passing through Pakistan, Iran and Turkey before reaching Greece, the man entered finally Macedonia. His journey had taken six months, three of which he spent in a Greek prison.

His goal now is to reach any country in Western Europe.

While immigrants praise the locals in Lojane and say they do not have problems with the police, the villagers themselves have divided opinions.

Some derive economic benefits from the influx, offering the migrants beds, for five to 10 euro a night.

But Selami Mehmeti, president of the local community, says the locals do not feel safe with so many foreigners wandering around.

“I have complained everywhere but no one helped. The police come and take some of the immigrants, but later most of them come back,” Mehmeti said.

Vladimir Pivovarov, a university professor and expert in migration, says the authorities have no clear approach to the issue of illegal imigrants.  

"We practically have an illegal collective camp there but no one is doing anything. How it is possible that the police and the government don't react?" he asks.

By law, and under international conventions covering migration that Macedonia has signed, illegal immigrants should be deported back to the country they entered from - in most cases, Greece.

If they seek asylum, their cases are shifted to the Ministry for Labour, which accommodates them in their reception centre for immigrants.

Back in 2007, there were only 17 such demands. By 2010, there were 147, and by 2011 the number had risen again to over 660, an increase of 400 per cent on the 2010 figure.

Ivo Kotevski, spokesperson for the Macedonian Interior Ministry, says the police are doing what they can with a number that has grown drastically.

“The [scale of the] problem of illegal migration can be seen by looking at the number of reported immigrants and asylum applications,” Kotevski says.

While some imigrants will wait until spring to continue their journey, many stay in Lojane for just a couple of days, until they  grab a chance to cross to Serbia.

However, crossing the border with Serbia is not easy. The migrant from Afghanistan says the Serbian police carefully watch the border.

“I and some of my friends were arrested in Serbia already,” he said.

No room in Bogovadja:

Photo by BIRN archive

In the vicinity of the Bogovadja monastery, in Serbia, just a hundred or so metres from the road, a big group of people is standing around.

More are coming from the woods over the road.

In decent English, a 25-year-old Afghan who calls himself Ali, shivering in the cold, explains that they are in Bogovadja because this is where the Asylum Centre is located.

But the actual centre is full, so Ali explains that many sleep in the nearby woods.

"By day, they let us in to warm ourselves a bit over there at the centre and use the bathroom, but look at these people, half are practically barefoot," he said.

"We are desperate because of the cold. If it weren’t for these parcels, many would have nothing to eat."

Handful in Kosovo:

Kosovo’s has a centre for asylum seekers in Lipjan Municipality, but it held only one asylum seeker in November 2012.

The number of asylum seekers in Kosovo generally is far lower than in Serbia and Macedonia.

While 31 people applied for asylum in Kosovo in 2009, 267 applied in 2010 and 189 in 2011. The number fell again in 2012. By November that year, Kosovo had received only 31 applications.

Most asylum seekers in Kosovo came from Afganistan, Palestine and Iraq and enter from Macedonia and Serbia.

But Macedonia and Serbia remain the preferred transit points for migrants seeking a new life in the rich West.

The centre can hold 150 people but has been full since spring, so between a hundred and two hundred live outside the Centre and have to wait for someone to leave in order to get in.

Priority is given to families with children and pregnant women, while the others simply have to wait, sometimes for months.

In December, between a hundred and two hundred people were camped outside the centre.

To help as many people as they can, the number of beds has been increased and some are placed in areas not designed for such purposes.

Police say the number of break-ins has risen in Bogovadja since winter started.

“We have to break in,” admits Mohamad, a 19-year-old Iraqi while trying to catch the last rays of the weak winter sun on a meadow near the centre in the company of his friends.

“We are not thieves, but the nights are freezing, so we don’t have any choice,” he says.

Tension in Banja Koviljaca:

Serbia has a second asylum centre, in Banja Koviljaca, which can accommodate 86 people, but it has been full since 2010.

Moreover, there is tension between locals and migrants in Banja Koviljaca, so many prefer to stay near Bogovadja.

After the Serbian police arrested an Afghan suspected of raping a British national in Banja Koviljača in October 27, 2011, locals organised protests, demanding the evacuation of all illegal immigrants and relocation of the centre.

Vladimir Cucic, Serbia's Commissioner for Refugees, denied that asylum-seekers had previously caused much trouble in Banja Koviljaca, adding that of 500 reported misdemeanours and crimes, only two involved acts committed by asylum-seekers.

All the others involved assaults, beatings and extortion of money from asylum seekers on the part of locals.

The centre remains open, but since then few asylum seekers are to be seen wandering the streets of Banja Koviljaca.

In Serbia, 52 people filed for asylum in 2008, while the number increased fivefold to 275 in 2009. The following year, 522 people applied for asylum, which jumped to 3,000 people in 2011.

In 2011, Cucic asked the government for permission to adapt an abandoned military barracks and turn it into an asylum centre “which would provide a more adequate and permanent solution».

The problem of asylum-seekers’ accommodation needs to be solved, as “they shouldn’t sit out the winter out in the streets, naked and barefoot’’, he said.

However, his words have fallen on deaf ears. No new new accomodation centre for Serbia's clearly unwanted migrants has opened since then.

This article was produced as part of the Alumni Initiative of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence . Both are initiated and funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the ERSTE Foundation.

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