Tabanovce, Macedonia / AFP
Mohamad Jomaa breathlessly recounts his covert journey from Greece to Macedonia: a 10-day trek through the mountains, getting robbed by local “mafia” and handing over costly bribes to police.
While the so-called “Balkan route” is now officially closed to migrants, hundreds are still finding ways to cross it every day—whether furtively by foot or in the hands of smuggling gangs.
“Maybe today or tomorrow I’m going to Serbia, walking again. I don’t care (about) police or mafia or anything, I want to go to Germany,” says Jomaa, 20, a law student from Syria.
He and his four travelling companions, other Syrian and Iraqi young men, are spending a couple of days recovering at the Tabanovce refugee centre in northern Macedonia before readying for their next leg north to Belgrade.
They tell of intense haggling and deals struck at the camp between refugees desperate to leave and the smugglers who visit at nightfall.
“It’s a bazaar here,” jokes floppy-haired Jomaa.
After countries along the Balkan route shut their borders to migrants back in March, around 1,500 people were stuck at Tabanovce. Now just a few hundred remain as those who are able have left.
Before the border lockdown, when thousands were passing through Macedonia each day, “we didn’t know who is poor and who is rich,” says Driton Maliqi from Legis, a Macedonian NGO working with refugees.
But the ones still here are clearly poor, “because people who have money, they manage to go,” he says, adding that some get cash wired to a nearby town from their families.
The camp’s numbers are boosted by those using Tabanovce as a quick stop-off point on their way to Serbia and beyond.
They arrive from Greece, where thousands have been detained in overcrowded camps for weeks as they wait for asylum under a shaky EU-Turkey deal—spurring some to just get up and leave.
“Even though the Balkan road is closed, we can say that every day new refugees are arriving, but everyone knows they are coming in smuggler channels,” says Maliqi.
Pregnant Nour Monajed, a 17-year-old Syrian stranded in Tabanovce camp since the border shut, says the going rate for a lift to Belgrade is 200 euros (226 dollars).
Setting off on foot is too risky for those who are pregnant, or infirm, or with young children.
“If you have money, no problem, but I don’t have money. It’s very expensive,” Monajed tells inside the large communal tent which for now is her home.
The refugee crisis has offered rich pickings for ruthless smugglers, with horror stories including the deaths of 71 men, women and children who were found suffocated in a lorry in Austria last summer.
Gangs smuggling migrants to Europe raked in up to $6 billion in 2015 alone, according to a joint report released on Tuesday by Interpol and the EU’s law enforcement agency Europol.
More than 90 percent of migrants use smugglers at some point on their journey—paying an average of 3,000 to 6,000 euros—and that percentage is expected to rise this year, the report says.
It warns of a likely increase in migrants being targeted for labour or sexual exploitation as a way to repay their debts.
‘Dangerous to go alone’
Before the borders of Balkan countries began closing, officials had arranged cross-country buses and trains for migrants, cutting down the need for more clandestine activity.
Now in Belgrade, refugees sleep rough in parks near the main bus station as they take stock of their options.
Between 250 to 290 migrants are still finding ways into Serbia each day, estimates Mirjana Milenkovski, a country spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
“People are very determined to cross and they will always find some kind of way,” she says, fearing they will now “fall prey to smugglers more often”.
Many continue to Serbia’s border with Hungary, a member of the passport-free Schengen zone, where they can wait for weeks in squalid conditions before being allowed into caged-off “transit zones” to apply for asylum.
As for Jomaa and his friends, they eventually make it to Belgrade by train after a tip-off from Macedonian police about where to cross the border.
They too plan to travel up to Hungary with the help of smugglers charging them 800 euros each, but Jomaa says it is worth the cost to avoid strict police en route.
“It’s very dangerous if you go alone.”