Macedonia: A transit state for refugees
Interview with Vladimir Bogoeski, a lawyer with the Hertie School of Governance. Interviewer: Anna Fedas.
ANNA FEDAS: Can you describe the situation of refugees and civic society involvement in helping migrants in Macedonia?
VLADIMIR BOGOESKI: Before I start answering the question, I would like to state that I am by no means an expert on migration and asylum regarding the latest refugee crisis, nor on civil society in Macedonia or in the wider region of South Eastern Europe. I have been based in Germany for the past six years and therefore I have been mostly following the situation from an observer’s perspective (via media, academic observations and personal contacts with people who were involved on the ground). Professionally, in Germany I have been involved with projects focusing on labour migration, which were conducted by the German Confederation of Trade Unions. The projects dealt with intra-European mobility of workers, primarily coming from the Central and Eastern Union Member States to work and live in Germany.
My closest encounter with the Macedonian situation, regarding the latest refugee crisis, happened in November 2015. Together with colleagues and friends in Berlin, we called for the donation of winter clothes for refugees passing through the “Balkan route”. I was told by friends who were actively involved in the field that the biggest problem in the face of the upcoming winter was that the refugees were not equipped with the winter clothes and shoes necessary for marching through the Balkan Route during wintertime. Our request resulted in a massive response, and we ending up with eleven tons of winter clothing and shoes to be transferred to the transit camp in Gevgelija (on the Macedonian-Greek border), so that the people who worked and volunteered there could distribute this equipment to the refugees in need. In order to conduct the transfer (in terms of organizing a warehouse, collecting information on the cross-border import of humanitarian aid, finding a partner organization as formal recipient and distributer of the aid, etc.), I contacted several NGO activists who helped me to successfully complete the whole procedure and transport the donations to the Greek-Macedonian border. As a result of this project, I went to the camp for a couple of days myself, which was where I was able to take a closer look at the situation. I was also able to observe the implications and impacts of the refugee situation itself, moreover, I gained an impression of the whole structural setting regarding the civic society engagement with the respective crisis.
The information I am using to answer the question is therefore based on my personal view formed through the glimpse into the situation gained during the organization of that donation, as well as from following the regional media reports.
Macedonia was one of the countries that was majorly affected by the refugee movements towards Western Europe in the second half of 2015 and the beginning of 2016. However, it was not a destination itself, but rather a transit country. According to the Ministry of Interior’s statistics, in the period between the 19th of June and the 31st of December 2015, 388,233 refugees registered their intention to apply for asylum in the country, whereas in the period between the 1st of January and the 7th of March 2016, 89,623 refugees registered such an intention. On the 8th of March 2016 the “Western Balkan route” was officially closed to the refugees. This decision was closely related to the EU-Turkey agreement. During this period thousands of refugees were trapped at the Macedonian border. According to the UNHCR, for the period between February and March 2016, 1,160 refugees were trapped at the Vinojug – Gevgelija Reception Centre and the Tabanovce Transit Centre as a result of the closed borders. One of the problems which arose out of this situation was that the refugees were at greater risk of becoming victims of human trafficking, as the majority of them started turning to smugglers in order to reach their final destination.
The involvement of statist and governmental structures seemed to be quite limited from the beginning, so the situation at the Greek-Macedonian borders appeared to be managed through the small UNCHR unit. The lack of solid and permanent structures was compensated for by volunteers and members of various NGOs and civic initiatives. Many of these different NGOs had an online presence under the provisory umbrella association called “Help the refugees in Macedonia”. It served as a Facebook platform for exchanging all manner of information. In ethnically divided Macedonia, it was gratifying to see that multiple religious NGO organizations (Muslim, Christian – Orthodox and Evangelic) were working together. In the field, I was informed about the various difficulties and misunderstandings among them, but ultimately they achieved a functional level of cooperation and a substantial portion of the assistance to the refugees crossing through Macedonia fell to them. There were diverse NGOs providing different types of help and assistance: from the dissemination of clothes and food, through to medical first aid (the Macedonian Red Cross was continuously present); from filling in forms and helping to locate family members, to NGOs who managed to establish platforms and workshops for childrens’ creative expression on the camp.
Many citizens were volunteering under the organization of the NGOs. I had the impression that the running of a formal institution such as a refugee transit camp was mainly covered by this rather informal structure of diverse NGO actors and individual volunteers.
Another organization which drew a lot of attention to itself, but also to the various problems refugees were facing, was the Macedonian Young Lawyers Association – MYLA. Before the summer of 2015, the refugee crisis was scarcely discussed by the Macedonian media and within public discourse, and therefore the Macedonian public was barely aware of the large numbers of refugees which were crossing the country. However, even less was known about the problems these peoples were facing on their way from their home countries to Western Europe. MYLA has successfully brought several cases to the Macedonian courts on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers, and thus this burning topic has been transferred from this scene of specialists, civil society and grassroots movements to the mass media and national public discourse.
For the moment, as the border is still closed for refugees, the activity of the civil sector regarding this matter remains quite low compared to the situation prior to March 8th 2016.
Does this governmental approach to refugees influence the situation of immigrants and minorities? Does the level of civic movements influence the political situation of the country?
As previously stated, Macedonia has only been involved as a transit country in the refugee crisis. There have been almost no refugees applying for asylum and residence in Macedonia. Therefore, to my knowledge, there is not any particular governmental policy towards immigrants (refugee seekers) in the country, which would be worth mentioning here. The question of minorities in Macedonia has been continuously persistent over the past twenty years, but it affects ethnic minorities rather than immigrants. One particular moment worth mentioning here was that in June 2015 the Macedonian authorities made certain changes to the Law on Asylum and Temporary Protection. According to these changes refugees were obliged to register with the intention to apply for asylum at the border, for which they received a document allowing them to transit through the country legally within 72 hours. A significant aspect of these changes was that refugees were no longer treated as “illegal immigrants” and did not have to hide from the state authorities. Otherwise they would have been instantly deported or detained. Moreover, these changes have partially resulted from the pressure of Macedonian civil society.
Even though the topic of refugees has not been a significant part either of the government’s or parties’ political agenda, at some point some of the activities of the civil sector have attracted media attention and were included within certain public debates. The reader might be surprised but the debates were not of a constructive nature, discussing the relevance of the actions these NGOs are trying to implement or what the aim of these actions should be. The debates focused on the legitimate purpose of having these actions for supporting refugees at all, regarding to the big portion of the Macedonian population struggling in poverty. So many NGOs found themselves under attack and forced into the position of having to justify their causes, because of the attacks flowing through various online discussion platforms and social media. This was present in the overall discourse.
Are there any grassroots movements/NGOs which appeal to the government to change the policy towards refugees?
The Macedonian Young Lawyers Association has previously implemented different projects regarding asylum seekers and refugees in Macedonia, and they are still very active in this field. Their activities, which managed to gain considerable press coverage, are gradually becoming a louder and louder engine campaigning for the better protection of the aforementioned groups. This most certainly helps for the improvement of the public perception of the refugee image, as well as for general awareness raising for this problem.
There were also several rather “leftist” (still meant very positively) grassroots movements, as well as more established initiatives and organizations, which ran some small scale (poster) campaigns representing slogans such as “refugees welcome”. This could also have contributed towards positive awareness-raising and pushed towards shifting the topic to governmental and authorities’ circles as well as media.
In particular, some individuals who were helping refugees on their own or through NGO networks gained some quite wide media attention (also promoting volunteering as a less common phenomenon compared to the western societies), acting at the same time as proponents for the better protection of refugees.
The governmental feedback still continues to be rather insignificant, but as a result of the deep political and economic crisis Macedonia has been drowning in for the past several years, it is rather natural that the government does not prioritise a topic such as the protection of refugees and asylum seekers.
Do you see any chance for Central and Eastern Europe to change the governmental policy towards refugees and join the resettlement programme to look for a solution to the refugee crisis?
As a non-expert on this topic, I would refrain from giving an extensive answer or opinion regarding this question. However, as someone dealing with the topic of “Social Europe” in my doctoral thesis, I do see some similarities between both the issues. In this context, I would say that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe need to change their governmental policy towards refugees and join the relocation/resettlement program. That would be the only solution for strengthening European solidarity in times of crisis and thus preserving the existence of Europe as a polity, but at the same time giving a chance for a common European response to the refugee crisis, which is the only alternative to the status quo situation.
Vladimir Bogoeski is a Phd candidate at the Hertie School of Governance with a focus on EU Law.
Anna Fedas is a senior specialist on civic education at the European Solidarity Centre based in Gdańsk. She is currently pursuing a PhD at Wrocław University.