Balkan frontiers fray as migrant numbers surge

Only traffickers profit from current border regimes in region, activists say


“Nothing will stop the refugees!” cried Vasilis Tsartsanis, waving towards hundreds of migrants in a dusty clearing on the border between Greece and Macedonia.

Behind him, families and young men from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq lined up to get food and drinks from Greek volunteers, and basic medical supplies from a team from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Then they rejoined the throng in front of three Macedonian policemen and their ageing Land Rover, which stood beside rusty railway tracks where it crossed an otherwise invisible international border.

Every couple of hours, the policemen would stand aside and quickly wave a few dozen migrants into Macedonia, not giving them another glance as they rushed on through the parched fields towards the town of Gevgelija, where they hoped to board trains to Serbia, another step closer to western Europe.

“The border system is bulls**t,” said Tsartsanis, a photographer who has been helping migrants at this crossing point near the village of Idomeni for almost a year. “When politicians decide to ‘close’ a border, all they actually do is give control to the mafia and corrupt police, and make refugees pay them much more to get across.”

He was speaking last month, after Macedonia relaxed control of the border following reports from MSF and other groups that thousands of migrants were trapped at Idomeni in increasingly squalid and dangerous conditions.

Tsartsanis and others said that earlier, to cross the woods and fields between Idomeni and Macedonia, the migrants had been forced to pay about €100 each to mafia groups whose enforcers would ambush and beat them if they refused.

At that time, about 1,000 migrants were passing through Idomeni each day – giving big profits to gangsters whose henchmen lay in wait in the woods on the border, and who allegedly gave a healthy cut to police and officials.

Grip of criminals

Foreign criticism pushed Macedonia to allow asylum seekers to cross its borders and use public transport, weakening the grip of criminals who had controlled the migrants’ entire journey through the country – escorting them in from Greece and out into Serbia, moving them through Macedonia in cars and buses, and keeping many prisoner in guarded houses until they paid the required “fee”.

Now however, with the clamour for trains increasingly chaotic and violent at Gevgelija station, Macedonia is again tightening control over the border.

Yesterday, several migrants were hurt after riot police fired stun- or tear-gas grenades near Idomeni, where thousands of people – mostly Syrians – had been stranded overnight after Macedonia declared a state of emergency on the frontier, amid reports of 1,500-2,000 migrants now crossing the area each day.

Some of those stuck at the border were Syrians who had been brought north by ferry from the Greek island of Kos, to ease overcrowding there as ever-greater migrants numbers make the short sea crossing from Turkey.

Aid agencies fear a humanitarian crisis if cash-strapped Balkan states try to seal their borders to thousands of migrants arriving each day.

“Europe’s inadequate system for dealing with refugees is not only failing to protect people but is also increasing their suffering,” said Jane-Ann McKenna, director of MSF in Ireland. “This is a situation caused by lack of political will and the EU is simply not providing necessary resources.”

Hungary intends to have razor wire in place along its border with Serbia by the end of this month, and is building a four-metre high security barrier on the frontier, after 130,000 asylum seekers entered the country so far this year.

“There is a clear contradiction between demands to tighten borders and the obligations countries have to allow people to apply for protection,” said Ivana Vukasevic, legal adviser at the Humanitarian Centre for Integration and Tolerance in Serbia, noting that most refugees are fleeing the Middle East’s deadliest conflicts.

“The more tightly controlled a border is, the more dangerous and expensive it becomes to cross. It will be same with Hungary’s fence. But people will always find a way through. With money any border can be crossed; those without money, the most vulnerable, will have the most problems.”

A major shadow economy now surrounds migration, starting with the $1,000 or so that people pay for a place on an often-rickety boat from Turkey to a Greek island.

Using social media to communicate with contacts who have successfully made the journey to the EU, and with smugglers, migrants acquire phone numbers along the route for people who can assist them in each country. They pay in the region of €100 for a guide to help them cross a border on foot and, once in Hungary, they pay several hundred euro to drivers to take them to Austria or Germany.


“They might pay €500-€750 per person for a ride to Germany,” said Zsuzsanna Zsohar, a volunteer helping migrants in Budapest, Hungary. “They are sometimes caught by the police, and often deceived by the drivers, who tell them they are in Austria or Germany when they’re still in Hungary. One Syrian family paid €2,000 to go to Vienna, and were dropped off on the edge of Budapest.”


Many middle-class Syrians and Iraqis are fleeing their countries, and tend to have considerably more money than the Afghans, Pakistanis, Eritreans and Somalis with whom they are following the Balkan route to the EU.

As a result, Syrians and Iraqis are generally more able to buy train and bus tickets and to pay traffickers to ease their journey into the EU; poorer migrants have longer, riskier and more arduous voyages, and spend more time walking and sleeping rough.

Tsartsanis stays in touch with many migrants he meets at Idomeni. “They are all in the EU now!” he said, in a plea for Europe to overhaul its border and asylum systems.

“But wouldn’t Europe prefer them to arrive with some cash in their pocket,” he said, “instead of having been robbed and beaten by criminals along the way?”

Monday: Daniel McLaughlin reports from Budapest on the volunteers working to ease the plight of illegal migrants

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