Thousands of refugees continue to cross into Macedonia from Greece daily. While authorities in both countries are doing a better job of managing the crowds at the border, it is a fragile order that quickly evaporates when trains fail to run and the weather takes a turn for the worse.
Story and pictures by Marc Perry
Gevgelija railway station near Macedonia’s border with Greece has returned to sleepy normality following scenes of chaos last month as thousands of migrants and refugees tried to cram onto trains bound for Serbia.
The numbers of people arriving from Greece and wanting to continue through Macedonia to Serbia and Hungary have not dwindled, but they are now directed to a temporary holding facility next to the train tracks two kilometres south of town that is processing 3,000 to 8,000 mostly Syrian refugees a day.
Refugees are admitted into the new camp in groups of 50 via a short walk down a river-stone path, mirroring their bit-by-bit release from across the Greek border. An improbable amount of coordination seems to be taking place between these two, at times, antagonistic states.
At the camp boundaries, security is tight and media access is restricted. Inside, the Red Cross, the International Organization for Migration, the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR, and four local NGOs provide shelter, distribute food parcels and hand out water bottles (there is no running water).
The refugees’ controlled access to the camp is timed to coincide with train departures. About five leave for Serbia every day, some of them 10 carriages long. Any overspill is directed to fleets of coaches, mini-buses, and taxis waiting a short walk from the camp on the edge of town.
When IRIN visits, 25 coaches and many more taxis are lined up. One taxi driver attempts a sale by telling a group of Syrian refugees he can avoid the reception camp in Serbia, but they don’t believe him. "Okay you go to camp," he retorts, his face reddening angrily.
Refugees pay 10 euros for the train, 20 for the bus, and only 25 per head for taxis. As every form of spare transport in the country seems to have converged on the town, there is less scope for overcharging.
Hanging outside a train window readying for departure, Ali and Mohamed from Herat, Afghanistan, say they are heading to Germany. Everyone we ask says the same: "Allemagne!"
For them, like many other refugees, Germany is a beacon of a hope. What they don’t know is whether German authorities will give them the same refugee status as their fellow Syrian travellers.
Smoking and smiling, they refuse the packet of cigarettes a local trader tries to sell them for three euros. It should only cost one euro. The trader tries again. "[You have to go to] Greece for two-euro cigarettes!” They don’t take the bait.
On Thursday, as the weather turned wet and cold, chaos returned when a strike stopped trains running and border police struggled to contain thousands of refugees forced to wait for buses in the mud and rain.
Macedonia’s foreign minister hinted that his country might soon follow Hungary’s example and build a fence at its border.
“We too will need some kind of physical defence to reduce illegal border crossing... Either soldiers or a fence or a combination of the two," Nikola Poposki is widely cited as telling a Hungarian business weekly Figyelo.