Migrants cross to Macedonia.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
GEVGELIJA, Macedonia – The bridge of Suva Rega has never seen so many people try to cross it. More than a thousand refugees fleeing wars and poverty in the Middle East and Asia attempted to enter Macedonia from Greece on Thursday morning, but the border town and municipality of Gevgelija has become a kind of choke point. They were routed onto the bridge while police and civil defense units tried to create an orderly queue for buses that would take them 150 km. north to the Serbian border. In recent days it has been the scenes of massive numbers of migrants crossing the border here to reach destinations in northern Europe.
“Go back, go back,” shouted a tall Macedonian policeman dressed in fatigues. Police outfitted with riot gear tussled with people desperate to find a ride north. The migrants negotiated with the officers.
“Why can’t you let us seemed to serve as a kind of spokesman for the group shouted. “Wait, wait for more buses. If you don’t want to cross here, you’ll have to walk dozens of kilometers. Just be patient.”
Eventually a woman was asked by the police to use a bullhorn to ask the crowds to wait in Arabic. Although the nearby highway has a well-maintained border crossing, there don’t seem to be any real border checks here, just a desire to control overall numbers so that the transportation can keep up with them and move them north beyond Macedonia.
None of the migrants are crossing at the main, official crossing, since they have also crossed into Greece without a visa. Their goal is to reach an EU state that they plan to seek asylum or settle in.
Hundreds of taxis have been pressed into services as well as dozens of buses, to move migrants across Macedonia. A local police commander noted that for the past six months his town has been a transit point for migrants, although numbers have increased in the last few weeks. The UNHCR has set up several hard-plastic sheds for migrants to stay in, but it’s clear few of them want to stay in Gevgelija if they can help it. One man, a Syrian from Damascus, shows off wounds from the war on his leg. He can barely walk and says he waited, pressed against hundreds of others, on the bridge for three hours to cross. He is waiting for the rest of his family. “We want to go anywhere but this.”
Another man named Muhammad is from Hasakieh, in the Kurdish area of Syria, the site of intense fighting this year between ISIS and the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units). He hopes to go to Finland.
Najmeh Hoseini and his six-month-old daughter have also just crossed today.
Those waiting for buses are from all over the Middle East and Asia. Some from Bangladesh and Afghanistan mix with thousands of Syrians. They are many families as well as younger men in groups. Very few old people seem to have made it and the ones that have are suffering in the damp weather from various injuries incurred along the way. A small industry has grown up around the migrants pouring into Macedonia.
Men sell cigarette packs for €3, and Coca-Cola for €1.
A Roma family has opened a makeshift store selling bananas at two for a euro.
In the sleepy village of 15,000 residents nearby, few of the refugees seem to have made it beyond the police cordon. A local commander explains that his job is to get them on the buses to Serbia and beyond, where the migrants all seem to agree they want to go. The locals have a bemused looks on their faces as they observe the hundreds of people slogging by. Some tell the refugees that their shops or restaurants are closed, but others are more sympathetic. They try to shoo away those who, seeking shelter from the drizzle, have parked themselves on doorsteps and under awnings.
At around 2 in the afternoon, as the rain picks up a bit, a group of migrants breaks away from the police cordon and begins walking toward town, storming taxi cabs and mini-buses for seats. The cost of transport is reasonable at around €20 per person for transfer to Serbia. They are desperate to keep moving. Many tell stories of having waited a week for a ferry from the Greek island of Lesbos to the mainland after paying $1,200 for the boat trip from Turkey on unstable rubber inflatables.
But they are buoyed by the success of the 100,000 others who have been making their way north toward Germany.
For many of them, the hardest years are behind them. This is a middle class migration: many of the people are educated and women with piercings mix with others in head scarves and long jackets. One mother with her two daughters came from Dubai to Turkey in order to make this trip. All along the highway north of Gevgelija, as the weather breaks and the sun comes out, the gas stations are festooned with taxis and tour buses with Syrians and others buying sodas and coffees and charging their phones.