Tighter Balkan borders drive migrants into smugglers’ arms

Trafficking resurgent as border controls and winter weather fail to halt refugee crisis

Lamine Buasida placed his sodden shoes in the weak winter sunshine, peeled off his soaking socks and gingerly rubbed his painful feet. Their soles were a sickly white and the waterlogged skin sloughed off in his fingers.

His three fellow Algerians weren't fairing much better, their clothes soggy and spattered with mud after another failed attempt to sneak from Greece into Macedonia and move a little closer to their dream of a future in western Europe.

“Four times now we’ve tried it, and each time the police brought us back. This time we made it to the windmills up there,” said Kais Bulbsal, pointing to a row of white wind turbines turning on a ridge several kilometres inside Macedonia.

But now they were again at Idomeni, sitting in a muddy field beside the railway tracks, wondering how to cross a frontier that is officially closed to all asylum seekers except those fleeing war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.


Balkan states imposed the restrictions under pressure from the European Union in November, after the deadly Islamist attack in Paris compounded alarm about the largely uncontrolled arrival of more than one million people to the bloc last year.

The EU also offered Turkey €3 billion and other incentives to reduce the number of migrants taking the perilous sea crossing to Greece.

‘No life’

At Idomeni, however, it is clear Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the second World War is still growing, and that migrants face mounting danger from freezing weather and traffickers who charge a high price to smuggle them through “closed” borders.

About 3,000 migrants still reach Greece each day – compared to around 5,500 during the whole of last January – and though some are stopped at a registration point on the island of Lesbos, most continue north through the Balkans.

"We can't go back to Algeria – we have no life there, no job or prospects. So every day we try to get over there," said Bulbsal, pointing to the fields and scrubland of the border zone, and the wooded, snow-dusted hills of Macedonia beyond.

So far, the Algerians tried to find their own way across, crawling at night through a section of the border fence that had been cut open.

"But now we'll probably go back to Athens, try to get some money sent there, and maybe find a smuggler to help us. They charge about €1,000 to get you from here to Serbia, " said another member of the group, Husam Gargat.

Many people stuck at Idomeni – from as far apart as Morocco, Iran and Pakistan – have unsuccessfully tried to cross the border with fake Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan identity papers and passports bought in Athens.

Profiting from crisis

Others describe paying up to €1,400 for a smuggler’s services in a mobile phone shop or other front for trafficking operations in Athens.

“We bought fake Syrian papers, but they didn’t work and police stopped us at the border,” said Aziz Boukali, a Moroccan travelling with two compatriots.

“Then we each gave a smuggler €600 to get us to Serbia, but when we crossed into Macedonia he left us and the police caught us and brought us back here.

“Now we have no money left – not even €30 for the bus back to Athens.”

The Greek bus companies ferrying migrants to and from the border are not the only ones profiting from this crisis.

In petrol stations on the main road near Idomeni, the usual travel fare and car accessories have been ousted from the shelves by products for the new migrant market – winter jackets, boots, backpacks, children’s clothes and tinned food.

A short walk from the border, hidden from the main road in a cluster of trees, stand several derelict buildings with gaping holes in their roofs and walls, where migrants of all ages shelter before attempting a nocturnal border crossing.

In one house, men brew tea in an old plastic water bottle. It dangles over a wood fire that warms them a little but fills the dank building with smoke, as they explain that they are Afghans but have lost their passports, and so must try to reach Europe covertly.

In the field behind the trees, dozens more people from north Africa and Asia huddle under coats and blankets, some chatting, some sleeping. There are over 100 migrants here, and more arrive regularly – a typical number, local aid workers say.

Among them are a few people – apparently Afghans or Pakistanis – who are particularly watchful, unwilling to talk and are here every day. One of them enters the smoky room and conversation instantly dwindles; another stands, apparently eavesdropping, at the hole in the wall that was once a window.

Severe beating

The aid workers are sure these men are part of the smuggling operation, and it must be equally obvious to the police who are out in force in the border area, and who have a patrol car parked barely 500m from this sprawling camp.

While Greek police seem inattentive to illegal migrants, their Macedonian colleagues are accused of severely beating some that they catch.

Many still make it through, though, and continue northward: last week, three Pakistani migrants were injured in a car crash in Macedonia, and more than 400 migrants were turned back recently having reached Slovenia's border with Austria.

At Idomeni, doctors running a mobile clinic for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have treated several people who complained of police beatings in Macedonia, and now they see a spike in chest and throat problems after temperatures dropped well below freezing with the turn of the year.


If conditions are harsh for those trying to slip into Macedonia however, they are often little better for Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans who have permission to cross.

After migrants protested and one was killed by electrocution on the rail line at Idomeni last month – continuing months of disruption on a major regional cargo route – Greek authorities no longer allow large numbers of people to gather there.

‘Seriously concerned’

This leaves a complex of huge, heated tents run by MSF and other aid groups – complete with hot showers, cooking facilities and wifi – standing empty at Idomeni. Migrants who are refused passage at the border are not allowed inside, and Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans are made to wait for their turn to cross the frontier at a petrol station 20km away, sometimes for 24 hours in bitterly cold weather.

“Here, just last week, there were around 2,000 people each night forced to sleep in the open as temperatures dropped as low as minus 9,” said Gemma Gillie, a spokeswoman for MSF, which provides shelter, food and firewood at the petrol station.

“With up to a third of people arriving at this station children . . . we are seriously concerned about the potential medical impact this could have,” Gillie added.

As Europe stumbles into a dangerous winter for the refugee crisis, it is clear to many that the greatest beneficiaries of this fiasco are the people smugglers.

“Our teams have seen, ever since the closure of the border to some nationalities, the return of smugglers in the area,” Gillie said.

“These trafficking networks had disappeared in June with the legalisation of the border crossing but have notably increased again since the new restrictions were implemented.”