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Migration Intelligence Indicates Potential Security Breakdown in Macedonia and Mediterranean

May 15, 2016

By Chris Deliso

Fast-moving current events, including multinational network destabilization across the Balkans, protests throughout Europe and uncertainty over the future course of Britain and Turkey are creating a situation in which a single breakdown at one point of pressure could have serious ramifications for European security. A small but critical pressure point in all of this is the Republic of Macedonia.

The Impending Macedonian Troop Drawdown

On May 13, Alfa TV reported that Macedonia will have to withdraw 50 percent of its troops from the Greek border. As Balkanalysis.com has chronicled in detail, a crisis situation was declared in August, and Macedonia took institutional measures to protect the safety of its citizens. And with the closure of the Balkan Route earlier this spring, Macedonian security forces have been protecting the country – and Europe – from mass illegal migration.

Since March 8 alone, the army and police have sent back 11,700 illegal migrants to Greece, which cannot guard its own border despite generous EU financial, technical, and personnel assistance, and vastly larger capacities. Macedonia, on the other hand, has received almost no assistance from Brussels, and its offers to contribute the kind of intelligence that could prevent terrorist attacks further north have been rejected on bureaucratic grounds.

Macedonia border protection includes cooperation from police from other EU and Balkan states, based on bilateral agreements; they have an EU mandate to safeguard Europe’s external borders, since EU-member Greece has failed to do so itself. But now the army will be forced to “redefine” its mission, Alfa TV reports, due to low funds, equipment damage and injuries in a highly dangerous area. The EU’s failure to provide meaningful support has long been noted locally. This perception is not exactly increasing Macedonian morale to keep serving as guard dog of Europe.

Balkan Route Closed, but Pressures Remain

At its peak last year, the ARM (Army of the Republic of Macedonia) deployed over 800 soldiers on active border duty. Since March, when the Balkan Route was declared closed, that number fell to 400. Despite clear announcements by EC Presidential Donald Tusk that the route was closed, the ‘wild’ Eidomeni camp swelled to over 12,000 persons.

Encouraged by European anarchists, activists and possibly intelligence services, many of these migrants have refused to go to Greek state-provided shelters and chosen to remain in squalid conditions nearest to the border. On several occasions they have attacked Macedonian security forces in organized attempts to breach the border.

The activists are keeping up the pressure on social media and on the ground. For example, the Moving Europe group published a report on May 11, to dissuade migrants from going to the new Lagkadikia camp. The report quotes 20 Syrian refugees who were relocated there from Eidomeni. It accuses the Greek state and UNHCR of “lying” to the refugees, who claim conditions were better in Eidomeni. The general purpose of such reports is to discredit the official Greek and UN system, and further foment unrest among the migrants.

European leaders seem blissfully unaware that there is a major difference between a refugee in quick transit and an angry mob kept immobile for months in poor physical conditions, and constantly fed propaganda from radical leftists seeking to fulfill their own ideological dreams through other people’s misery.

Indeed, one day after the April 10 organized attack on the border by migrants and activists at Eidomeni, Greek minister for Citizen Protection Nikos Toskas made a revealing, if politically incorrect statement for media. “Referring to the hundreds of young men tearing down border fences, throwing rocks at police and screaming ‘Allahu Akhbar’, Mr. Toskas said: “what you see today, are the jihadists of tomorrow.”

Of course, different people stress different views. Marianna Karakoulaki, a Greek journalist who has reported from the Eidomeni camp often in recent months, tells Balkanalysis.com that “activist, leftist and anarchist groups are indeed present in Eidomeni but their sole purpose there is to provide help and solidarity to the people who have been stuck for months in the area. They of course still have their ideology and they still focus on other causes, which is part of their political activism. But this is the case for every social movement worldwide; there is not only one cause, but every cause can be influenced and interact with another.”

Drawing another distinction, Karakoulaki adds that “activists and volunteers do interact with refugees but they are in no way connected to smugglers. Those in Eidomeni in fact are not supporting smuggling and try to convince people to wait ‘til their asylum claim is processed. Activists and volunteers are integral to the well-being of refugees in the Eidomeni as the large numbers of volunteers means that the officials are not able to handle everyone effectively.”

While some aspects of this perspective are open to debate, the claim that traffickers and activists are not working together is an interesting one. But for the Macedonian security forces under constant attack from the other side of the border, the distinction hardly matters in an operative sense.

Statistics and Significance

Soon, only 200 soldiers will be left to support Macedonian and allied European police forces. Aside from the current psychological condition of the migrants and goals of the anarchists occupying the border, what are the ramifications of this new reality?

One statistic helps put this development in perspective. On May 9, Alfa TV reported that in one six-hour overnight period alone, police and army intercepted 861 illegal migrants trying to sneak into Macedonia. Some 60 of these migrants were discovered 20 km inside the territory. Thus, a 50 percent troop reduction, to only 200 soldiers, will make it much harder to stop radicalized, well-organized migrant groups.

This will lead to more injuries and damage to defending security forces and, eventually, to a resumption of illegal mass migration as the word spreads among migrant and activist networks that they can, in their own words, “smash the border.”

On May 10, Utrinski Vesnik reported that two local smugglers had been arrested and over 100 migrants freed in three police operations on Sunday and Monday. In the past two weeks, an average of 300 daily illegal border crossing attempts had been made, by mostly Afghans, Pakistanis, Moroccans and other Africans. Of these, over 100 successfully escaped north to Serbia. Traffickers now use increasingly sophisticated methods- and as the police and army resources remain insufficient to fully manage the threat.

Migrant Tactics Shift to Night Transit

Unlike with the high-profile, activist-led mass attacks on the border earlier this spring, migrants who pay up to 800 euros per person to leave Greece are trying to be more subtle. Military and police sources indicate that the ‘overnight route’ is becoming increasingly popular, as migrants assume the darkness improves chances of escaping detection. These efforts were document by Macedonian television crews who recently accompanied the army and police on night patrol.

Migrant Transit Locations in Greece and Secret Routes Used

Greece’s migrant camps have been established strategically along the border, near Lake Dojran, at Eidomeni and elsewhere. This both keeps migrants away from prime tourism destinations, and also intensifies the pressure on Greece’s northern neighbors.

In recent weeks, migrants have been starting from five points inside Greece: Eidomeni camp; the nearby Hotel Hera, from where smugglers organize migrant groups; decrepit buildings run by Thessaloniki-based anarchists, in the area of Evzoni and Polykastro, as well as the latter’s gas station, and the smaller camp in Cherso. This means that large concentrations of migrants currently occupy strategic points on the border with Macedonia. The siege line is almost identical to that of World War I.

To appreciate this scale, note the latest data, reported by To Vima on May 11: it reveals that of the 54,542 identified migrants and refugees in the country, some 29,139 are being kept in Northern Greece, with 14,330 more in the Attica (Athens area) region. Almost 7,000 are being kept in hot spots in the Eastern Aegean islands.

Migrants now are paying smugglers up to 800 euros to enter Macedonia at four illegal entry points: the village of Selemli; the village of Moin (the site of the infamous ‘March for Hope,’ in which three migrants drowned in a river); the Tri Bora outpost (karaula), and the more difficult mountain road to Rozhden.

Costs and Damages

Citing military sources, Alfa TV reported that the military has paid 2.5 mn euros from its own budget over the past nine months- not counting the cost of the extensive border fence, nor the interior ministry’s own costs. It quotes General Mircea Gjorgoski, who attests that “in the past crossing attempts that resulted in violence, 15 ARM personnel were injured, one of them seriously.” Further, “seven combat vehicles and other machinery and equipment” were damaged.

According to General Gjorgoski, the 50-percent troop drawdown is necessary “in order to maintain a high level of combat readiness and performance” in light of these problems and the “extremely difficult logistics” of the undeveloped, wooded and mountainous terrain near the border.

Contextual Ramifications

All Macedonian security forces are currently overstretched due to the migrant threat and the need to deal with carefully-placed nationwide political protests. That is a story for another time, but is very much related to the general security situation and stability of the country. In the case of another major security threat or political upheaval, Macedonia may be forced to abandon border protection altogether- leading to a mass movement of radicalized refugees and their ‘no borders’ anarchist minders heading north. Similar radical movements exist in all other European countries, and can thus supply logistical and anti-police protest support along the breadth of the continent.

More Bad News: French Intelligence Reveals Anticipated Migrant Surge

Balkanalysis.com can report that French and other European intelligence services have intercepted recent communications between migrant trafficking outfits in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey. Whether or not the EU-Turkey deal holds, traffickers plan several new routes. One is a new ‘short hop’ route for summer from Turkish Thrace (ports on the mainland coast and Gallipoli area) directly past the Evros Delta to Alexandroupoli and the small beach areas beyond it.

This direct mainland access would solve the main problem of migrants who get stuck on the islands. From Greek Thrace, migrants could choose to either head straight north to Bulgaria, or further west and then up through the Pomakohoria villages north of Xanthi into Bulgaria. Or, continuing further, they could enter Bulgaria on numerous small mountain paths or at the main crossings leading to Goce Delchev, or Petritch near Macedonia. And they could of course continue westward through Greece to cross into Macedonia at Eidomeni, or continue even further to the Ionian coast for transit to Albania or boat traffic to Italy.

Although the Greek coast guard and Frontex have long been present in the Evros area – where Greece has fenced off its land border with Turkey for five years – it remains to be seen whether they would be effective against traffickers who may employ various sophisticated methods. And the return to Turkey of any intercepted migrants will depend on the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal.

The EU-Turkey Deal and Migration

A number of present and future scenarios indicate high risks of instability. The first factor is the fate of the Turkey-EU migrant-swap deal. Currently there are serious differences between the two sides. President Erdoğan has refused to change an anti-terrorism law to please the EU, and his dismissal of Prime Minister Davutoğlu, who was reportedly more amenable to Brussels’ demands, is seen as a blow to the process. On May 13, Hurriyet reported that while efforts to cement the deal have “intensified,” the five outstanding reforms sought by the EU are causing difficulties.

The lack of consensus with the European Parliament and the Enlargement Commission led by Johannes Hahn is adding to the confusion. “At this point, the topic is locked at the European Parliament” the newspaper quoted Turkish EU Minister and Chief Negotiator Volkan Bozkır as saying. “The solution of this [state] lies at the European Commission.”

Marianna Karakoulaki states for Balkanalysis.com that the EU-Turkey deal “was set to fail from the very beginning. First of all its clauses are not possible. Turkey’s visa requirements will not easily be accepted by EU members.”

Noting the departure of Davutoğlu as another factor, the Greek journalist adds that “from the very beginning it was obvious that Turkey’s sole goal was to achieve its visa requirements and extra funding from the EU, however, even though it managed to achieve the deal it wanted, Turkey’s government doesn’t seem willing to follow its own responsibilities.”

While these obligations include legislative reforms demanded by the EU, Karakoulaki also points out “the very little steps it has taken to tackle smuggling networks. Turkey uses the refugee crisis as leverage for negotiations with the EU; it can break the deal at any given moment because we all know that in this case it’s the EU that needs Turkey and not the other way around. Last but not least, no matter what the deal is, you cannot stop people who are running from conflict – one way or another they will manage to reach safety.”

Further Signs of a Widening Migrant War: Egypt and Libya

As of April 20 – when there was still relative optimism for a compromise – UNHCR revealed that “so far this year 179,552 refugees and migrants have reached Europe by sea across the Mediterranean and Aegean. At least 761 have died or gone missing attempting the journey.”

This statement was made while recounting the deaths of around 500 migrants who had departed Tobruk, Libya and drowned on an overcrowded ship. The continuing incursions of ISIS into Libya are helping prevent stability there, and offering a great chance for migrant traffickers to continue their trade. The decrease of migrants from Turkey to Greece due to the EU-Turkey deal means that Italy is now the largest recipient of maritime migrants in Europe.

Now, a new British parliamentary report expresses skepticism about the EU’s attempts to restrict illegal Mediterranean crossings (Operation Sophia). According to ABC News on May 13, Committee chairman Christopher Tugendhat said that “a naval mission cannot disrupt the business model of people smuggling, and in this sense it is failing… without support from a stable Libyan government, the operation is unable to gather the intelligence it needs or tackle the smugglers onshore.”

Meanwhile, Turkey’s attempts to get political and financial concessions from the EU are, as we had predicted, giving other nations similar ideas. Since Italy has stepped up criticisms of Egyptian democracy and secret services, Egypt has started allowing use of five ports to hit 23 Italian destinations with long-haul migrant ships. This has been reported mostly in the context of tragic accidents in which ships fail to arrive leading to deaths, as on April 18.

On May 13, UNHCR stated that Italy had rescued around 1,000 migrants in fishing boats near Sicily. They had come from Egypt. With its vast population and access to other African nations, Egypt could become an even larger migrant exporter than Turkey.

And ever more migrants are about to come ‘on stream,’ as it were. While EU officials (and some American) tend to believe that solving the Syrian war will solve the migrant crisis, the opinion is incorrect. Kenya, for example, announced on May 11 that it will close Dadaab refugee camp. Set up in 1991, it is the world’s largest refugee camp, with hundreds of thousands of mostly Somali refugees. Kenya claims, however, that it has become a safe haven for Al Shabaab terrorists. When the camp is broken up and people repatriated, we can expect a large number to attempt to reach Europe via other routes, including Somali, Egyptian and Middle Eastern ports.

Finally, it should be noted that motives such as politics, economics and hybrid war may increase the potential for countries like Turkey, Egypt and Libya to use new migrant waves to destabilize the European Union’s soft southern underbelly. Targets would include Greece, Malta, Cyprus and Italy.

There are several quite realistic scenarios we are currently modeling for how the Schengen Zone could be destroyed in this way, with even a new military conflict possible in Cyprus due to diversionary tactics involving migrant assistance. Essentially, if the Turkey-EU deal falls through, all options are again on the table.

Back to Macedonia: Vigilance Required

All things considered, with 200 (and possibly fewer) soldiers left on Europe’s last external border, Macedonia, it may prove premature to say that the Balkan Route is closed- especially with 29,000 migrants currently massed strategically across the border. Should negotiations with Turkey break down or other factors lead to a resumption of mass migration, Macedonia is still the direct route to Central Europe, and as such will always be targeted.

There is another fundamental problem with Greece and migration. Any official numbers, such as those quoted above are essentially bean-counting. Greece has over the years amassed an immigrant population of around one million people. Evidence already suggests that some such ‘permanent migrants’ have taken the opportunity of the migrant crisis to pretend to be fresh-off-the-boat arrivals, looking for a better life further north. Greece, obviously, would like to empty its territory of immigrants, not add more to an already overburdened social welfare system. Thus it does not even matter if further migrant ships arrive. Greece will be able to fill the corridor for years simply with the masses it has accrued over time.

It is not clear that the EU and foreign observers really understand any of these dynamics. But the behavior of the EU and allied institutions in the months ahead will to a large extent determine what kind of Europe will exist by this time next year.

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