20 Aug 2015

Migrant crisis: Macedonia declares state of emergency

Struggling to cope with thousands of refugees and migrants passing through the country, Macedonia’s government declares a state of emergency on its southern and northern borders.

“No one cares about us” complained Rabee Orfahlle, gesturing at people sleeping on the open road “we are here since yesterday and and we sit here, sleep here – no food, no water, nothing.”

He is one of over a thousand migrants being held without shelter in the no man’s land between Macedonia and Greece, just outside the small Macedonian town of Gevgelija. Some hold up signs begging for help from European authorities.

But the governments of Europe have so far failed to agree any common policy to cope with the increasing numbers of people arriving.

According to state television, the Macedonian government said it would bring in the army to tackle the situation.

Gevgelija, formerly known for its casinos, has become a new frontline in the crisis. Macedonian police are letting people go in small groups to the railway station where they will continue their journeys northwards into Europe.

At the station families are also sleeping in the open before running to cram on the few trains leaving for Serbia, the last country they must cross before reaching Hungary and the edge of the EU’s borderless Schengen zone.

On Wednesday Macedonia pleaded for neigbouring countries to send more train carriages to carry more passengers. But the UN High Committe for Refugees (UNHCR) urged the Macedonian government to find a site to house some 1,500-2,000 migrants now arriving every day. In May that number was 200.

Knock-on effect

And with 21,000 people landing on Greek shores during last week alone, the flow of migrants is unlikely to diminish. A passenger ship sent to Kos to act as a floating registration centre is expected to dock in the northern port of Thessaloniki on Thursday. If the passengers are allowed to disembark there it is highly likely they too will head for Gevgelija.

With colder weather coming, Alexandra Krause, a senior protection officer at the UNHCR, urged the Macedonian government to prepare in advance, warning: “depending on how Greece uses ships to decongest the islands, that will also temporarily increase the arrivals here.”

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said a temporary shelter would be set up in Belgrade to house people currently camping in a park outside the railway station there before making their way north to Hungary.

However, with Hungary building a fence to keep migrants out, Serbia has become a new bottleneck.

‘An emergency situation’

In July 2015 a record 107,000 migrants arrived in Europe according to border agency Frontex, an increase of 35 per cent on the total arrivals in June, and three times more than arrived in July 2014.

Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri said on Wednesday “this is an emergency situation for Europe that requires all EU member states to step in and support the national authorities who are taking on a massive number of migrants at its borders.”

Germany also warned that it could not go on taking 40 per cent of the new arrivals, and echoed the call for fellow EU states to accept more people.

Britain has rejected an EU plan to resettle people according to a quota, insisting the focus must be on stabilising the countries that the migrants are coming from to stop the flow.

Most migrants came via Turkey and Greece, with nearly 50,000 detected in the Aegean Sea.

Of the migrants arriving by sea from Libya, nine out of ten are Africans, mainly from Eritrea and Nigeria.