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News 08 Jun 15

Macedonia Probes Migrant Kidnapping Claims

Police are investigating media reports about the alleged large-scale kidnapping of illegal migrants from the Middle East by gangs who are said to be holding them for ransom.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic

Refugees in Macedonia | Photo by: AP / Dalton Bennett

Police said they had launched a probe after Britain’s Channel 4 News programme broadcast a report about hundreds of migrants from countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen being held for ransom by gangs in at least one Macedonian village, alleging that local police has been colluding with their captors.

“We still don’t know and are investigating whether such an event involving the kidnapping of several hundreds of migrants did happen, like the reports say, and were they indeed kept for several days,” said police spokesperson Ivo Kotevski.

The Channel 4 News report said that migrants who were initially promised safe passage in train carriages through Macedonia are being pulled off the train in their hundreds by a gang near the town of Kumanovo, forced to walk two hours to the village of Vaksince and held and abused there in an overcrowded house until they pay a ransom.

The report alleged that the gang is led by a boss of Afghani origin, nicknamed ‘Ali Baba’, who is colluding with the local authorities.

Police said they have raided the house in Vaksince mentioned in the report several times in the past, as well as several other locations, after receiving reports that illegal migrants might be held there.

They said that dozens of people have already been charged with human trafficking, both foreign citizens and locals, and are already serving sentences.

But they said that the smugglers are hard to catch as they often change their hideouts and manage to escape raids.

Police spokesperson Ivo Kotevski admited that Macedonia is struggling to cope with the influx of migrants from conflict-hit countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and that numbers have quadrupled in the past few months.

He said that in the past week alone, some 8,500 migrants entered Macedonian from Greece in railway carriages, seeking to illegally cross the country towards Serbia and then Western Europe.

“There are days when our forces prevent the entry of up to 2,500 people [from Greece],” Kotevski said.

The government recently said it was mulling whether to change legislation to allow migrants to legally cross Macedonia in three days. The authorities hope this will keep migrants away from the notorious railway tracks where most of the kidnappings take place.

The railway line from Greece towards Serbia has also become notorious for train accidents involving the deaths of refugees who travel along it on foot, risking their lives while traversing narrow gorges, often in the dead of night. So far at least 25 people have lost their lives after being run over by passing trains.

The goal of the refugees, as a BIRN investigation showed, is to use the track, which is part of the Macedonian section of the pan-European Corridor 10, to eventually reach the European Union.

The EU has recently called on its member states to ease the burden on Greece by accepting some of the migrants on its soil. But Macedonia, as it is not part of the EU, has so far followed a bilateral treaty with Greece and sent illegal migrants back there.

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