GEVGELIJA: 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 Belgrade, the last stop en route to Hungary and Europe’s borderless Schengen zone. A few police officers and 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 frontline 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 per day are crossing from Greece into Macedonia, up from 1,000 several weeks ago, and converging on the train station.
Many are racing to Hungary before completion of a four-metre (13-foot) high fence along its border with Serbia at the end of August. The fence, with its Cold War echoes in ex-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 ex-Yugoslav republic. Beyond a couple of police officers, a Reuters reporter saw no sign of any official attempt to keep order at the train station on Friday and Saturday as thousands tried to board the two or three international trains that pass through each day.
The platform has turned into an open-air market, with local Macedonians selling drinks, cigarettes and confectionary. One man rents phone chargers. “I’ve been here nine hours and haven’t eaten anything today. Shame on this country,” said 27-year-old Aziz Hasoon, who said he was from Syria.
Hassan Ahmad, 50, from Damascus, said he had spent $16,000 since July 23 to get himself and his son this far, most of it going to smugglers and corrupt police officers. Ahmad said he had been kidnapped and tortured in Syria and forced to flee. “There’s no way for me to survive there,” he said. “I left my wife to her family and my son left his fiancÈe.”
On 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 on 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 an EU member state, and that’s Greece.” Anas Sifrini, a young Syrian man from the devastated city of Aleppo, said he was jailed for almost a year and paid 11,000 euros to be released. He said he had been traveling for four months. As he spoke, a police officer prodded him with a rubber baton to keep him back from the train.
“That’s nothing,” he said. “In Greece, I was arrested and beaten by a police officer and when I complained to his boss he beat me again.” “My wife and my daughter are in Sweden. I will do everything to get there, not just four months but four years if necessary.” – Reuters