Macedonian town a new front line in refugee crisis

Migrants with their children trying to pass the line and get in a train heading to the Serbian border at the train station in Gevgelija yesterday. Macedonia says it is doing everything it can to deal with the refugee problem, but the scale of the cri
Migrants with their children trying to pass the line and get in a train heading to the Serbian border at the train station in Gevgelija yesterday. Macedonia says it is doing everything it can to deal with the refugee problem, but the scale of the crisis has already far outstripped the country's resources.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Thousands hope to get on trains to Serbia, then Hungary before border fence goes up

GEVGELIJA (Macedonia) • Small children are pushed through open carriage windows each time a Serbia-bound train pulls into the railway station in this Macedonian border town.

A dangerous crush ensues as hundreds of Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis wrestle to climb aboard their quickest means to Serbia's Belgrade, the last stop en route to Hungary, one of the countries on Europe's borderless Schengen zone.

A few police officers and a Kurdish man with a large stick represent a half-hearted effort to keep order.

This scene is repeated daily now in Gevgelija, rapidly becoming a new front line - like Kos island in Greece or the French port of Calais - in the migrant and refugee crisis engulfing Europe.

A Red Cross official estimated that 2,000 a day are crossing from Greece into Macedonia - up from 1,000 several weeks ago - and converging on the train station.

SOURCE OF THE PROBLEM

This problem was not created by Macedonia or Gevgelija. The problem is arriving through an EU member state, and that's Greece.

GEVGELIJA MAYOR IVAN FRANGOV, on the refugee crisis

Many are racing to Hungary before the completion of a 4m-high fence along its border with Serbia at the end of this month.

The fence, with its Cold War echoes in formerly communist Eastern Europe, risks creating a bottleneck. This year alone, 90,000 people have sought asylum in Serbia, thus avoiding arrest before continuing north to Hungary. The real number passing through is likely much higher.

Macedonia says it is doing everything it can to deal with the problem but, as in Serbia, the scale of the crisis has already far outstripped the meagre resources of the former Yugoslav republic.

Thousands try to board the two or three international trains that pass through each day. The platform has turned into a market, with local Macedonians selling drinks, cigarettes and confectionery. One man rents out phone chargers.

Mr Hassan Ahmad, 50, from Damascus, Syria, said he had spent US$16,000 (S$22,500) since July 23 to get himself and his son this far, most of it going to smugglers and corrupt police officers. He said he had been kidnapped and tortured in Syria and forced to flee.

"There's no way for me to survive there. I left my wife to her family and my son left his fiancee."

Last Friday, a young boy was hospitalised, his face covered in blood, after he climbed an electricity pylon to spot an oncoming train and was shocked by touching a live wire.

Gevgelija Mayor Ivan Frangov was quoted last Friday as saying Macedonia and Serbia should consider building their own fences.

"This problem was not created by Macedonia or Gevgelija," he was quoted as saying by the Serbian state news agency Tanjug. "The problem is arriving through a European Union member state, and that's Greece."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 16, 2015, with the headline 'Macedonian town a new front line in refugee crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe