MO*reporter undercover in human trafficking in Macedonia

Macedonia is the link in the Balkan route which frightens migrants the most. The two hundred kilometres from the Greek border to Serbia are regarded as the most difficult. The migration routes through the country are almost completely controlled by criminal groups, while the government looks the other way. The biggest victims are the refugees, left without any protection

This was not the plan. This was really not the plan. The heavy side door of the freight train falls into the lock. Suddenly it’s dark, pitch dark. You can keep your hand before your eyes without seeing anything at all. Inside the metal colossus, fifty to sixty people squat together on the floor. Nobody says anything, nobody moves. Most are Syrians, young men, but also some families with children. Furthermore, a Somali family and  four smugglers. And I.

© Toon Lambrechts
© Toon Lambrechts


Three hours earlier. A the food distribution somewhere in the fields on the Greek side of the border I talk with some guys from Raqqa, Syria. Their plan is to pass the border towards Macedonia tonight. My request to go with them is met with laughter. ‘You do not look strong enough to undertake such a thing’, is their answer.

Turns out that the real problem is that the smugglers - mostly Afghans and Pakistanis - have mixed among the group of refugees  awaiting the night. These people, of course, are not so eager to have  a curious journalist hanging around.

We decide to take the risk anyway. To make me look a little bit more convincing like a Syrian, Ali wraps a scarf  around my head. I have to promise to be quiet and especially not to speak a word of English. He also gives me a new name, Samir.

Fortunately, the night falls quickly. Twilight is always the best cover. The place where the refugees are camping out is nestled among the orchards. Some sheds built by farmers to store their equipment now serve as shelter, together with  an unfinished summer cottage. But clearly there isn’t enough space for everyone, half of the refugees sleeps under the sky. The place is littered with trash, here and there a fire tries to break the cold. Most refugees are men, but there are quite a lot of women and children around too.

Obviously, the smugglers are not so eager to have a curious journalist hanging around.

The waiting takes about an hour, then the smugglers start rounding up a large group of people. First, we walk a narrow, muddy path, then we cross through the vegetation. The smugglers run nervously up and down the line to keep the group together. Somewhere a dog barks. Everyone crouches until the beast keeps his mouth shut.

It goes like this all the time. Walk, squat, wait, walk, … Somewhere in the distance music lingers on, probably from the casinos just across the border. It’s Friday night anyway. It’s bizarre how the light and the darkness  cover two completely different realities.

The smugglers make us squat in a ditch. One of them goes around and takes the raincoats that have been given to the refugees by the Greek volunteers. The creaking noise of the plastic jackets sounds too loud to them. Also the bottles water have to remain in the backpack, because ‘too much tac-tac’. One takes Ali by the shoulder and  points at his coat. ‘This, white, big problem’. The young man will have to go on without a coat.

Then we get the order to come out of the ditch in small groups and crawl under a fence. Suddenly it becomes clear where we are, at the railway station of Gevgelija, the first town on Macedonian territory. Apparently, this is our goal. We crawl under a first row of freight trains, a second row, then a third on. If I get out from under the third row of  trains, I see how one of the smugglers has opened a boxcar and chases us into it.

That was not foreseen, but weaselling out is no option anymore. I jump on the train.

Perfect darkness

Inside the freight waggon, the darkness and the silence seem to take forever. Nobody looks at his mobile phone or smokes a cigarette. Too much light. A snorer is immediately awakened by one of the smugglers. The complete uncertainty about what is going to happen is exhausting.

How does that child of ten endures this? Waiting endlessly on a cold, metal floor? If people are willing to wrestle themselves through such situations to reach Europe, there is little to imagine what could stop them.

Suddenly there is noise outside. Voices, and also the deep sound of metal on metal.

Suddenly there is noise outside. Voices, and also the deep sound of metal on metal. The Macedonian border police decided to inspect the cargo trains. After a while it becomes clear that they are also checking our train, and that they are closing in, but without rushing. Yet it remains silent inside our boxcar. Perhaps there is a still a dash of hope we are not going to be found, maybe it’s the fear of the police that keeps our mouths shut.

When the Macedonian police finally opens the boxcar, neither they nor the refugees seem surprised. The smugglers have suddenly become refugees, for the police it is  impossible to figure out who has organised this trip. They don’t even give it a try, the whole event has something of a routine over it.

All of us are lined up two-by-two on the tracks. It’s dark enough to conceal my presence with a scarf. The Macedonians would not appreciate my presence neither. Then comes the order to bugger off, back to Greece, along the railway.

Some policemen have long sticks, which they use to spur on the last ones of the group in a way you drive cattle. With a tap. After ten minutes we are back in the Greece. Ali rolls out his sleeping bag to catch a little nap. The whole event did not discourage him the least.

‘Tomorrow afternoon I try again, but then by foot’

© Toon Lambrechts
© Toon Lambrechts

200 km of fear

Macedonia frightens. Most refugees know only too well what can happen on the 200 km that separates them from the Serbian border. There is the Macedonian police, who abuses and rob  migrants with impunity. In the worse case you end up in the dreaded detention centre of Gazi Baba, just outside Skopje.

Besides the police, criminal groups operate on the border with Greece, lured by the money of the migrants.  And the smugglers themselves, divided into  Afghan, Pakistani and Albanian networks, also are not known for their gentleness. Crossing the Macedonian-Serbian border usually takes place in the villages Lojane and Vaksintse, located just before the mountainous border region between the two countries. Both villages are completely under the control of the smugglers, who can go about their business undisturbed by the authorities.

For Ashraf, one of the two brothers I met three weeks ago in Idomeni, northern Greece, Macedonia is no more than a bad memory. While we have a coffee somewhere near the Central Station of Belgrade, he tells his story.

‘We left Greece on our own, without the help from a smuggler. Me, my brother and two friends. We walked among Gevgelija, then we continued to follow the railroad. It was a hard road in the cold and rain. The first night we slept somewhere in an abandoned house, the second night under a bridge. At any time, someone stayed awake to stand guard. At one point we were without food, without water, and with only soaking wet clothes and sleeping bags. My friends wanted give up and hand themselves over to the police.’

If we paid the conductor 100 euros each, he would let us go.

‘But we didn’t, in the end. Instead, we took the risk to take a train. The conductor found out immediately that we were Syrians and wanted to inform the police. He already caught two other Syrians on the same ride. But, so he said, if we paid him 100 euros each he would let us go. So that’s what we did. One stop before Skopje we got off. We are walked further and ate something in Skopje. But once back on the street, the police arrested us anyway. We didn’t  had the energy anymore to run away.’

The police took Ashraf and his companions to the detention centre of Gazi Baba. ‘There were already a lot of people locked inside, including women and children. It’s no good there, really not. The first day they didn’t gave us food, the second day neither. Only the third day we received something to eat, but we had to pay for it. The next day we were approached by the agents. They were given the task to deport us, but to where was unclear.’

‘They proposed us to pay them, and if so, they would take us somewhere in the direction of Serbia. We discussed it, but we did not trust them. Someone before us had written on the wall of the cell not to pay. When the police car took of, I opened my gps. After a while it became clear that we drove towards Serbia. We were lucky, I know others who have been with us in the centre being send  back to Greece.’

The Henchmen of Ali Baba

Gazi Baba, which has a capacity of 120 people, sometimes imprisons up to 350 people.

Gazi Baba, officially the “Reception Centre for Foreigners” has a bad reputation. In February this year  Amnesty International  launched a urgent call to do something about the living conditions in the centre. Gazi Baba, which has a capacity of 120 people, sometimes imprisons up to 350 people, including families with children and unaccompanied minors. Sanitation and medical care are very limited or absent, refugees are required to pay for food. There is no limit on the period of detention, which can last up to six months. Ngo’s are denied access to Gazi Baba.

‘In the detention centre, I met a smuggler who worked for Ali Baba, an Afghan who runs one of the smuggling networks near Lojane. For 500 euro he would help us cross the border. His colleague outside the centre took us to Vaksintse where Ali Baba has a big house. At that time, more than hundred people were staying there. Once inside, you can not get out. I saw with my own eyes how someone tried to escape. Ali Baba’s abetters brought him back, completely beaten up. Also, I saw how another guy who didn’t wanted to pay got mauled by the men of Ali Baba. Everyone there lives in fear.’

Ashraf pauses for a moment. ‘Do you want know how we crossed? The first time we walked more than 14 hours through the snowy mountains. An old man, an Afghan, could not follow the pace of the group. I tried to help him, but one of the smugglers screamed he was slowing down the group. They left him alone in the snow. I am sure that he didn’t survive. After our first attempt we were arrested by the Serbian police and kicked back over the border. So it went the second time, but that time, we didn’t return to Ali Baba. I looked for another smuggler who took us by the railroad Serbia, this time with success. And now I’m here.’

‘Want to pass the border?’

‘Lojane? No. No taxi.’ Not a single taxi driver from the long line of taxis outside the bus station of Kumanovo is willing to take me to the border village. Finally, I find one that is a little more helpful than the others. ‘Are you Syrian or Afghan? Do you have a passport? Without documents, I don’t drive.’

My Belgian passport puts the man at ease. Once in the car, he tells why his colleagues are so uncooperative. ‘Every day, dozens of people without documents arrive here, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan. The police checks the roads leading to the border, and if  they find someone without papers in my car I could loose it.’

What he forgets tell is that it is indeed possible to go the border – and over it.  Only, this is done by smugglers at a significantly higher price than a regular taxi and most likely they want to protect their market share.

The man seems to understands the refugees somehow. He served in Afghanistan, working an American construction company. ‘A golden time’, he concludes. As he speaks, we pass the railway, the same line as before at the Greek-Macedonian border. In the distance, a group of fifteen or twenty people walks along the tracks towards Serbia. Here also, migration has become part of the landscape.

Smugglers den

Lojane appears to be no more than a village of several streets. Graffiti on the walls of the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) recalls that this village has an Albanian population. Three cafes and a small supermarket along the town square, to summarise the place. On the terrace of one of the cafes, I get immediately approached by a chubby guy. Do I want to go to Belgrade?

‘I’ll bring you a coffee and talk with my friends.’ Lojane is clearly a smugglers nest, even the children in the street cling to you asking if you have documents and if you want to cross. On the streets, small groups of Syrians and Afghans pass by, but unlike in Greece, they have absolutely no desire to talk.

© Toon Lambrechts
© Toon Lambrechts

It would be particularly interesting to play along the game, but this friends a few tables further do not seem the type of guys who would understand the humour of the situation.

When my coffee is finished, the guy pops up again. ‘Come with me, I’ll bring you to a group of Syrians. You can cross tonight.’ It would be particularly interesting to play along the game, but this friends a few tables further do not seem the type of guys who would understand the humour of the situation. I make clear that I am from Belgium, the man stammers that he just wants to help people and walks away.

Back in Kumanovo it is equally easy to find a smuggler. A unfamiliar face sitting near the bus station is enough to be approached. By Boris example, a young guy somewhere in this early twenties. He commutes - in his own words - almost daily between Kumanovo and Serbia.

Boris has no problem to talk about his work as a smuggler. ‘I pick people up here at the station. Then I bring them to my village, close to the border. There we wait until early morning and then we cross over to Serbia. The trip cost them 100 to 200 euro per person.’

Smuggling people is not without danger. Boris tells how a guy who didn’t wanted to pay put a gun against his head. And of cousre there is the police. ‘If I get caught, I risk five years for smuggling.’ Still, in a country where an average salary is about 250 euro, earning several hundred euros for each ride is quite tempting, of course.

Also in this dossier:

‘Europe, still one country ahead’
Greece: The starting line
Bulgaria: Exquisite back door to the Balkan
‘I saw on TV how everyone was leaving Kosovo, so I went myself’
‘Do you know the way to Hungary?’
‘Welcome to Hungary (But not wholeheartedly)’
‘Human traffickers never keep their word’
Why some refugees do return to the hell of their homeland

But just like the smuggler in Lojane Boris pulls out the humanitarian card. ‘I only want to help. Those people can not pass legally, they have no passport. Sometimes I give families with children and without money a free right’, says Boris, who insists that he is a Christian, not Albanian. ‘These people, the Albanians, rob the refugees. They steal everything from them, money, food, shoes, phones,…’ A claim backed by the stories of the refugees themselves.

Macedonia is perhaps the shortest but by far the most difficult stage in the Balkan route. There are no ngo’s or local organisations to take care of the refugees. The interweaving between the police and the smuggling networks is rather obvious, although hard proof lacks. Impunity is the norm.

In Lojane and Vaksintse the police is simply not present. There are indications that traffickers recruit potential customers even in the detention centre of Gazi Baba, such as Ashraf explained. Pressure from international ngo’s has so far gone unheeded. Migration is absolutely not a priority in Macedonia. It seems that the first hurdle on the Balkan route will remains the most difficult for a while.

This report was produced with the support of Fonds Pascal Decroos.

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Over de auteur

  • Freelance journalist

    Toon Lambrechts is freelance journalist tegen beter weten in. Behalve in MO* Magazine en op is hij ook te lezen in onder andere Knack, EOS en Vice.