In Mace­do­nia, EU-bound mi­grants cy­cle to bet­ter lives

The China Post - - ARTS & LEISURE - BY JAS­MINA MIRONSKI

Flee­ing their trou­ble-torn coun­tries in Africa, the Mid­dle East and Asia, streams of EU-bound mi­grants are driv­ing an un­ex­pected trade in a quiet town in Mace­do­nia — bi­cy­cles.

Thou­sands have ar­rived in Demir Kapija, a few kilo­me­ters from the Greek bor­der, af­ter jour­neys by foot, train and boat. But in this pic­turesque town it is bi­cy­cles they seek for the next leg.

The mi­grants aim to head north across the small, land-locked Balkan state into neigh­bor­ing Ser­bia and fi­nally a Euro­pean Union coun­try, where they hope to build bet­ter lives.

In Mace­do­nia, author­i­ties ban mi­grants from us­ing public trans­port but they tol­er­ate walk­ing and cy­cling — which has seen the price of two-wheel­ers quickly dou­ble in this town of about 3,500 peo­ple.

Walid Amoud, a ge­og­ra­phy pro­fes­sor from Damascus, looked over dozens of bi­cy­cles — new and old — lined up out­side a small shop in the cen­ter of Demir Kapija be­fore ne­go­ti­at­ing to buy one for 125 eu­ros (US$140).

“I’m trav­el­ing with my four daugh­ters, my son and a five­month-old baby,” he told AFP. The fam­ily’s dream des­ti­na­tion is Ger­many, which they be­lieve is their best chance for a new start.

Like Amoud, the vast ma­jor­ity of mi­grants ar­riv­ing in Mace­do­nia are Syr­ian, but some hail from Afghanistan or restive African states.

‘Die on the road’

Near the town’s old train sta­tion, a group that walked all the way from Thes­sa­loniki on Greece’s Aegean coast, a trek of 130 kilo­me­ters (80 miles), rested in the shade.

While Greece is part of the EU, its grave eco­nomic cri­sis has prompted the mi­grants to try their luck else­where.

“We fled death to die on the road. Our sit­u­a­tion is get­ting worse ev­ery day,” said 37-year-old Bara, an English lan­guage pro­fes­sor from Homs in western Syria, trav­el­ing with her four daugh­ters.

The youngest one, a five-year-old brunette with blue eyes, is autis­tic.

Bara said they had faced lit­tle in­ter­fer­ence from author­i­ties in the ar­eas they crossed — Tur­key on foot, the Aegean Sea by boat to Athens, Greece by train to Thes­sa­loniki and then again on foot to Demir Kapija.

“To us ev­ery­thing is for­bid­den, but nev­er­the­less they let us con­tinue our jour­ney,” she said in tears.

The price of bikes ranges from 120 to 200 eu­ros and ac­quir­ing one spares mi­grants the other op­tion — walk­ing across the coun­try.

A lo­cal trader, de­clin­ing to give his name, told AFP that the price of bi­cy­cles had “dou­bled within a week.”

“One has to live,” he said sim­ply, re­fer­ring to the ex-Yu­goslav state’s own trou­bles as it faces a po­lit­i­cal cri­sis and eth­nic ten­sions in­volv­ing its Al­ba­nian mi­nor­ity.

On Mace­do­nia’s main north­south road, groups of sev­eral dozen mi­grants cy­cle up the Var­dar val­ley, bear­ing mea­ger back­packs with all their be­long­ings.

The route is long and dan­ger­ous: in late April, 14 mi­grants from So­ma­lia and Afghanistan died when they were hit by a pas­sen­ger train while sit­ting too close to the tracks.

Smug­gled into Ser­bia

Once they reach the town of Kumanovo in north­ern Mace­do­nia, mi­grants sell their bikes for at most 50 eu­ros — now an un­nec­es­sary bur­den since cross­ing into Ser­bia is done se­cretly in oper­a­tions ne­go­ti­ated by smug­glers.

Ac­cord­ing to the latest re­port by EU bor­der agency Fron­tex, Macedonian smug­glers charge be­tween 120 and 200 eu­ros for pas­sage to the Ser­bian bor­der.

While author­i­ties tend to turn a blind eye to the cy­clists and pedes­tri­ans, in­te­rior min­istry spokesman Ivo Kotevski said they were tar­get­ing the smug­glers since they “earn a lot of money from illegal im­mi­grants.”

Last week po­lice ar­rested four sus­pected smug­glers and de­tained 128 mi­grants hid­ing in houses in the north­ern vil­lage of Vaksince as they waited to cross the bor­der.

If the mi­grants make it into Ser­bia, the coun­try has land ac­cess to three mem­bers of the 28-na­tion EU — Croa­tia, Hungary and Ro­ma­nia.

With the mas­sive flow of peo­ple try­ing to reach Europe, the num­ber en­ter­ing Hungary shot up from 2,000 in 2012 to 54,000 this year so far, with 95 per­cent of them ar­riv­ing from Ser­bia, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial fig­ures.

Hungary re­acted Wed­nes­day, say­ing it was build­ing a bar­rier on its bor­der with Syria to keep them out — trig­ger­ing “sur­prise and shock” in Ser­bia whose prime min­is­ter said it “can’t be re­spon­si­ble for the sit­u­a­tion cre­ated by the mi­grants.”

The move was an­nounced as Pope Fran­cis hit out at na­tions that “close the door” to those seek­ing a safe haven from war, poverty and per­se­cu­tion.

Mace­do­nia’s par­lia­ment is due to vote next week on a law that would en­able mi­grants to use public trans­port legally. Now, “all those whom we de­tain are ex­pelled to Greece, hun­dreds ev­ery day, but their num­ber is too high,” said spokesman Kotevski.

So for now the mi­grant con­tinue to cy­cle, with hun­dreds ev­ery day vis­i­ble wind­ing their way up the Var­dar val­ley.

(Left) A group of mi­grants ride their bi­cy­cles on a road on Mon­day.

AFP

(Above) A group of mi­grants push their bi­cy­cles on a high­way on Mon­day, June 15.

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