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Feature 31 Jul 15

In Pictures: Migrants’ Grim Odyssey Across Macedonia

In the southern town of Gevgelija near the Greek border, growing numbers of exhausted migrants continue their punishing journey north through Macedonia towards Western Europe.

Elena Geroska, Tsvetomir Dimov
Gevgelija, Veles, Tabanovce

A line of migrants walks towards the Macedonian-Serbian border near the village of Tabanovce | Photo by: Tsvetomir Dimov

At the beginning of September, Macedonia could be threatened by a severe refugee crisis which would revive memories of the humanitarian disaster of 1999, when 300,000 people who fled the Kosovo war were housed in the Stenkovec refugee camp near the border.

According to humanitarian activists, at least 10,000 migrants are expected to cross the border between Greece and Macedonia in the first days of September, adding to a growing problem in the country which the authorities are already struggling to deal with.

In just 30 days after June 19, 20,605 people applied for refugee status in Macedonia. Most of them - a total of 15,290 - came from Syria. The situation might become even more critical because, according to Greek media, the government in Athens does not know what to do with 36,000 migrants at the country’s largest refugee camp, so many of them could end up heading north into Macedonia.

Hungary is building a fence on its border with Serbia to try to stop the migrants crossing over from the south, but Macedonia has adopted different tactics.

The Macedonian government has changed the law to legally permit migrants to travel through the country for 72 hours after encountering criticism for leaving them at risk of being robbed, kidnapped or killed while hiding from the authorities.

Officials also promised to set up a refugee camp in the southern border town of Gevgelija, to organise healthcare and to arrange transport to the northern border with Serbia.

But so far, these promises have not been fulfilled. The latest information is that the local authorities in Gevgelija plan to establish an improvised refugee camp in the storehouses of the former Vinojug agricultural firm.

Humanitarian activists fear that the authorities might decide to impose restrictive measures or close Macedonia’s southern border to avoid being overwhelmed if Serbia starts sending the migrants back and Greece continues to let them through.

Meanwhile the migrants continue to gather at Gevgelija railway station as they continue their long journey towards Western Europe, exhausted and often hungry or sick, all of them worried about their future.

“I will never go back to Syria. Never again!” one of them, a woman called Rola, told BIRN as she was waiting for the night-time express to get her and her family to the border with Serbia.

Rola, 29, poses for a portrait at the train station in the town of Gevgelija, Macedonia | Photo by: Elena Geroska

“My husband was in the Syrian Army. He lost his eye in a battle. We wanted to run away earlier, but we didn’t have money,” she explained.

“It took us four years to collect the money for this journey. A journey to a better life, I hope. We sold everything we had, now we own nothing. We just want to arrive safely in Germany,” she added.

David, aged 23, said the hardest thing was to leave his wife and children behind in Syria.

David, 23, poses for a portrait at the train station in the town of Gevgelija, Macedonia | Photo by: Tsvetomir Dimov

“My plan is to reach Belgium, then try to get the documents needed to bring my family to me. Then I want to go to the USA, to be with my relatives there,” he explained.

“I'm not afraid of being different in America. Everybody in the world says the problem is about religion. It is not. My friends are Muslim, I'm Christian, and we used to be together. I am not afraid of being treated as different in America, because there is democracy. I believe in democracy,” he said.

An injured migrant is stopped by border police while trying to cross the Greek-Macedonian border | Photo by: Elena Geroska

Khaled, an eight-year-old boy from Syria, stands outside the police station in Gevgelija, Macedonia | Photo by: Tsvetomir Dimov

A migrant woman with her children stands on the railway tracks | Photo by: Elena Geroska

The feet of a migrant washing himself while wearing woman's sandals | Photo by: Tsvetomir Dimov

Migrants’ clothes dry in the sun in the fields near the Greek-Macedonian border | Photo by: Tsvetomir Dimov

A migrant soothes his sick son while waiting on the Greek-Macedonian border | Photo by: Elena Geroska

A migrant child looks out the window of the train going to the village of Tabanovce near the Serbian border | Photo by: Tsvetomir Dimov

A migrant looks out the window of a train heading from Gevgelia to the northern village of Tabanovce | Photo by: Elena Geroska

A barefoot migrant jumps of out of a train window at the station in Gevgelija, Macedonia | Photo by: Tsvetomir Dimov

A rainbow rises over the mountain near the southern village of Miravci, a regular stop on the migrants’ route through Macedonia | Photo by: Tsvetomir Dimov

A group of migrants sleep near the police station in the town of Gevgelija, Macedonia | Photo by: Tsvetomir Dimov

A migrant holds his sleeping child while trying to get on the overcrowded train heading to Tabanovce | Photo by: Elena Geroska

A large group of migrants trying to get on an overcrowded train in Veles, central Macedonia | Photo by: Tsvetomir Dimov

Alaa, a former captain in the Syrian army, talks to his children on the train heading to Tabanovce | Photo by: Tsvetomir Dimov

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