Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Macedonia a transit route for illegal migrants to EU countries

Statistics from the Macedonian Interior Ministry show a rise in the number of illegal crossings through Macedonia to EU countries, mainly via the border with Greece. At the same time, however, the country's police are becoming more efficient.

During the first three months of this year, for example, the authorities stopped 716 people from illegally crossing the Macedonian border -- a 145 per cent increase in prevention, compared to the same period last year. In the first nine months of 2005, a total of 1,181 attempts at illegal crossing were recorded, a rise of 21 per cent over the previous year. The data suggests that more and more people are willing to break the law in the hope of gaining a better life in the West. Most illegal migrants interviewed by the police cite economic reasons as their main motivation.

The migrants come from various national backgrounds, and even from different continents. The largest number -- 1,057 last year -- are Albanians. The data from 2005 also recorded 59 Macedonians trying to cross into Greece, along with 54 Serbians and Montenegrins, ten Bulgarians, three each from Romania, Peru and Turkey, and one each from Tajikistan, Russia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A similar diversity of nationalities has been represented this year. Most illegal crossings occur at the border with Greece, followed by the borders with Albania, Bulgaria and Serbia.

Behind the statistics are dramatic life stories. The criminals who organise illegal crossings are unscrupulous, to say the least. They charge thousands of euros, and their creativity in devising means of transport is limitless. In a May incident, Macedonian police discovered 12 Albanian and eight Chinese nationals in a specially constructed bunker in a truck. The passengers were squeezed into a pile of scraps and old car bodies.

A more drastic case that fortunately did not have a fatal end happened in January, when a Macedonian border patrol saved three would-be emigrants from freezing to death. They were Albanians trying to get into Greece. Having crossed into Macedonia legally, they were wandering around on Kajmakcalan Mountain and got caught in snowy weather. They used cellphones to call their families, who then informed the police. A swift rescue operation was mounted.

Greece offers the promise of jobs on orange and tangerine plantations in summer, and in the olive groves in autumn. The pay is around 25 to 30 euros daily. Greece is also a popular embarkation point for illegal ferry transfers to ports in Italy.

In general, police say there are three main routes to EU countries. The first one, originating in Macedonia, is to Italy via Greece. The second route starts in the Albanian port of Durres, with Bari as the destination, and the third is a land transit route across Balkan countries to Slovenia, Italy, Austria and -- more recently -- Hungary.

The Macedonian police have become more successful in detecting gangs of traffickers. Much of the success, say experts, is due to the introduction of an integrated border management system. Police have taken the job of border security from the army, and improved e-communication between the border crossings has been established. Now that Macedonia has gained the status of EU candidate, it has a powerful incentive to boost these capabilities further.

The judicial battle against organised networks is also intensifying. A court trial against a group of 28 people charged with trafficking migrants and vehicles is under way. The charges were brought by the Anti-Organised Crime and Corruption Department with the interior ministry. During the investigation process, special measures such as monitoring, recording and eavesdropping of the suspects were carried out.

According to the indictment, the group has existed since 2005 and was organised by two of the defendants. They used trucks as their main vehicle for transport, furnishing them with special bunkers. The fees charged ranged between 1,000-1,500 euros per migrant.

In addition to efforts by the police and courts, the ministry of labour and social affairs is carrying out a prevention project in collaboration with OSCE. The goal is to promote improvement of ties among state-run institutions and civil society, using public information to educate people about the issue.

Experts view Macedonia primarily as a transfer zone, rather than a source zone of emigrants.The population is only 2 million, and the socioeconomic conditions as well as the country's traditions tend not to fuel a large number of migrants. Indeed, British immigration authorities only recorded 15 cases involving Macedonian nationals trying to present themselves as asylum seekers or staying in Britain illegally in 2005.

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