The view from the ground.

Fortress Europe’s Balkan Outpost

In giving up on Greece, Europe is betting on the tiny, corruption-ridden non-EU state of Macedonia to save the Schengen treaty from collapse. Is it ready?


GEVGELIJA, Macedonia/IDOMENI, Greece — The group of asylum-seekers being escorted back to camp on the Greek side of the border looked crestfallen.

GEVGELIJA, Macedonia/IDOMENI, Greece — The group of asylum-seekers being escorted back to camp on the Greek side of the border looked crestfallen.

The men — a group of six from North Africa — had left the camp three days before, walking more than 30 miles to the west to find a way around the fence that separates Greece from its northern neighbor. After walking for 19 hours, they got jumped; all of their money and mobile phones were stolen by a band of armed marauders, they said. Without the GPS on their phones that they had come to rely on, they tried to follow the train tracks, and made it across the border — only to be intercepted by Macedonian police. As North Africans from Morocco and Algeria, they weren’t to be allowed in the country, per Macedonian rules, which only allow in Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans.

The police “pushed us to our knees,” says Yasik Tasak, 22. They “told us that they would make it physically impossible for us to walk across the border again.”

These men were among the lucky ones; they were only returned to the Idomeni camp, and were not sent directly back to Athens like many others. They said they planned to regroup back at camp, sleep for a night or two in the heated tents, then try their luck again. But if the European Union, and the Macedonian government, have their way, that group of asylum-seekers will face precisely the same treatment next time.

It’s no secret that Greece has been struggling to cope with the constant flow of asylum-seekers arriving on its shores. More than 850,000 refugees and migrants arrived from Turkey last year; in 2016, despite the winter conditions, almost 80,000 have already come ashore. Greece’s fellow EU members have been complaining since last summer that the Greek government, in hopes of encouraging new arrivals to leave for other European countries, has neglected its duty to register and fingerprint asylum-seekers, and has dragged its feet in setting up so-called “hotspots” for processing them.

Europe’s response to Greece’s inability to stanch the influx of refugees has taken several forms. Members of Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone — including Austria, Denmark, Germany, Slovenia, and Sweden — have introduced temporary border checks. On Friday, EU leaders laid the groundwork for a plan that would allow countries to invoke emergency measures to impose border checks for up to two years should Greece fail to put its border affairs in order over the course of the next three months.

The EU has also shifted its attention to shoring up Macedonia, the next stop on the route taken by most asylum-seekers coming from the south. As part of an effort to decrease the number of asylum-seekers arriving in Western Europe, EU leaders have begun making moves that could, in effect, shift Europe’s defended boundary from the Greek coastline to the Macedonian town of Gevgelija, population 16,000, which straddles a mountain pass near the border between the two countries.

Today, that border is blocked off by a concertina wire fence, which the Macedonian government put up in the days after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks to stanch the flow of migrants that had swelled in August and September to up to 12,000 migrants per day; a second fence is now under construction. It is this stretch of border, administered by a tiny Balkan nation of 2.1 million, that the EU is increasingly relying on to help save the Schengen zone from collapse.

“They are exporting the problem to us,” said Gevgelija Mayor Ivan Frangov. “We are protecting the European Union from the European Union.”

Europe’s plans have already been met with fury from the Greek government, which claims they would turn Greece into an open-air camp. And by placing its faith in a country that is not in the EU, has long struggled with issues of corruption, and whose government has been mired in political crisis for the past ten months, Europe may be relying on a partner that is ill-equipped to handle the challenge.

Macedonia seems to have started auditioning to become Europe’s designated border guard in November, when, following Slovenia’s lead, it abruptly stopped admitting anyone who is not “SIA”: Syrian, Iraqi, or Afghani, the three nationalities deemed most likely to have valid asylum claims. Aleksandar Dimoski, a shift leader at the Gevgelija transit camp, says the police have been vigorous about examining asylum-seekers’ passports, birth certificates, and other identifying documents, as well as using language analysts to determine their countries of origin. Graffiti on the side of a tent in Idomeni testifies to Macedonia’s commitment to enforcement: “United: Maroc (Morocco) + Iran + Pakistan + Somalia + Lobane (Lebanon) + Ghana + Bangladesh are starving. Let them Cross,” it read.

But Macedonia has not been shy about expressing how expensive the screening process has been. “This is costing us a hell of a lot of money — in the tens of millions of euros,” said Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki. Because Macedonia is not a member of the EU, it received no financial assistance from the bloc in 2015 for the refugee crisis (although the EU does fund the efforts of the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees in Macedonia).

In addition, Macedonia, which is also not in the Schengen free-movement zone, does not have access to the Schengen-wide database of asylum-seekers that contains electronic copies of the fingerprinting and registration forms that were supposed to have been collected upon their arrival in Europe. Nor does Macedonia have the ability to host a mission by Frontex, Europe’s border management agency.

EU countries like Hungary and Croatia have already helped supply border guards under bilateral agreements. But there’s worry that, unless it receives further assistance, and some assurance that countries further along the migration route aren’t planning on closing their borders entirely, Macedonia could be on the verge of shutting down its border altogether, including to those from war-torn countries. On Friday, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz visited the Macedonian capital Skopje and said that Austria was close to reaching the target of 37,500 asylum-seekers it plans to accept in 2016, and that it could soon close its borders — a move that it would ask Macedonia to replicate on its border with Greece.

In late January, a leaked letter from Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar to his EU counterparts asked for “direct assistance” to Macedonia in order to prevent “certain irregular migrants” from entering the country from Greece. Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission, wrote back to Cerar, assuring him that the Commission supported his plan for all EU countries to “provide assistance [to Macedonia] to support controls on the border with Greece through the secondment of police/law enforcement officers, and the provision of equipment.” Juncker did not specify the exact type of assistance the EU planned to provide, but this week, the European Commission said it would give the country 10 million euros for border management.

But there’s reason to doubt whether Macedonia, a country that has never been an island of stability, will prove a reliable partner. The state struggles with high-level corruption; Human Rights Watch researchers have raised concerns about brutal beatings of migrants allegedly committed by Macedonian border guards; and relations between the country’s two major ethnic groups have long been tense. Although Macedonia was the only former Yugoslav republic to secede without breaking into war, it only narrowly averted a conflict in 2001 between ethnic Macedonians, who are Slavs, and ethnic Albanians, who make up a quarter of the population, and systemic discrimination against Albanians remains a problem and a source of frustration.

The EU’s pending reliance on Macedonia comes at a time when Macedonia is mired in a political crisis. It began ten months ago, when opposition parties began releasing recordings of wiretapped conversationsallegedly recorded at the order of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, but somehow obtained by the opposition — in which top officials discuss plans to engineer elections, rig courts, and clamp down on the media. The recordings triggered massive protests and the resignation of several top ministers; the fallout is still ongoing, and some analysts believe the ruling party is seeking to use the refugee crisis, and the prospect of domestic instability, to win European backing for its government, and thus gain an upper hand on its political competition.

This politicking seems far away, however, in Gevgelija, a sleepy border town living off of its casino industry. Greeks drive across the border to access cheaper health and dental care, and to gamble at lower stakes. In the same entrepreneurial spirit, Gevgelijan businessmen began selling bicycles to refugees and migrants in the spring because it was illegal for asylum-seekers to take any public or private transport until June 2015. There are 700 taxi drivers in the tiny town, most of whom are newly registered because they saw a business opportunity in driving the asylum-seekers north to the border with Serbia.

Frangov, the mayor, said at its peak, the refugee crisis had almost doubled the population of his town, which was 16,000 before the camp was set up in a field next to the train tracks.

“Two months ago this border area was like Swiss Cheese — completely open,” said Frangov in his office. “We weren’t ready as a state.” Months later, they may still not be ready.

Valerie Hopkins is a journalist based in the Western Balkans. Follow her on Twitter @Valeriein140.

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