Capital Skopje
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 389
Mobile Codes 70,71,72,75,76,78
ccTLD .mk
Currency Denar (1EUR = 61.5MKD)
Land Area 25,713 sq km
Population 2.1 million
Language Macedonian
Major Religions Orthodox Christianity, Islam

Illegal Immigrants Detained in Greece and Macedonia, as EU Struggles to Combat Human Trafficking while Integrating the Balkans

By Chris Deliso in Skopje

Fierce debates on illegal immigration vis-à-vis terrorism fears and unemployment woes have hardened political and social discourse in Western Europe. And, at the same time that a jittery Brussels issues threats to the Balkan states over perceived abuses in the visa liberalization programme, the region’s key role in the lucrative trade of human trafficking has been reaffirmed by recent arrests.

The programme’s extension on November 8 to include Bosnia and Albania, comes almost a year after Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro were given visa-free travel. Now, Albanian and Bosnian ministries responsible for issuing new, biometric passports have been swamped with applicants. Average citizens here compare life in their home countries to “being imprisoned,” reported AFP on November 14, and look forward to a brighter future in the EU- despite repeated statements from Brussels that the programme is intended for short-term travel, not work or study. Among Balkan nations, only Kosovo passport-holders remain left out in the cold.

Recent Arrests Point to Organized Transnational Networks

In Greece, police in the Peloponnese on 11 November discovered a truck carrying 143 Afghan migrants, who had paid 2,500-3,000 euros each to be transported by a Syrian-led gang to Italy by boat, according to another AFP report.

Meanwhile, interesting details about a smaller human trafficking ring have emerged in Macedonia. Six “Palestinians” and four Somali citizens were detained Thursday in the northeastern city of Kumanovo, reported Skopje daily Dnevnik. Citing an interior ministry announcement, the newspaper stated that the migrants were from 16-40 years old, and had entered illegally from Greece. When detained, they had reached the last staging post in the journey before they were to cross the southern border with Serbia.

The immigrants were found in the impoverished Roma neighborhood of Sredorek, near the bus station and the center of the town. Police found the men hidden in the residence of 51-year-old Metodija Kamberovski, reported the newspaper, having been tipped off after a relative of Kamberovski’s reported seeing strangers in the house.

It was then discovered that one day earlier the immigrants (presumed to be economic migrants) had illegally crossed the Greek-Macedonian border by train (though the precise scenario here remains unclear). They then went by train from Bitola to Skopje, and thereafter by bus to Kumanovo. There, an individual (identified by police by the initials “A.I.”) took them to the safe house.

The Dnevnik piece provides vivid testimony from the relative of the arrested man who was the one to turn him in. “I went into the house and saw that my cousin was drunk, and sitting in the room with some unknown Arabs,” recounted Ramadan Mucevski. “I was so scared. I began to wonder why my cousin was here and why they wanted to stay in his house. I told him that they are terrorists and murderers, and that they should not be in his house. Then I communicated [their presence] to the police.”

According to police, the arrested Kamberovski had an agreement with “A.I.” to shelter the migrants in his home, in return for 1250 euros. The next day, they were to have been smuggled into Serbia. Police are currently investigating further while holding Kamberovski in 30-day detention.

Anatomy of an Operation

Human trafficking in Macedonia from and to EU-member Greece is a well documented and frequently discussed issue, though it is not often that the actual workings of the operation are disclosed. Local intelligence received by over the past three years indicates some examples of how one variety of such operations works. In light of this, it is quite interesting to note that the latest group of migrants traveled to Kumanovo via public transportation- apparently, without arousing the attention of train or bus conductors along the way.

Another method of transport, which involves local participation, could be considered nothing more than glorified taxi work by individuals not otherwise involved in any suspicious activities. Usually, a “friend of a friend of a friend” mentions that the prospective driver, using his own car, will be paid 100 euros per passenger (up to four), plus gas. The driver would then be sent from Kumanovo to Tabanovce, on the Serbian border, having received instructions about exactly when and where to go in this mostly uninhabited, hilly border area. There he would be entrusted with illegal immigrants who had been smuggled across by handlers on the Serbian side. Inevitably most were simple economic migrants looking to work in the EU.

However, the driver would not be performing the operation alone. Two accompanying cars would go in front of him, at staggered distances of up to 10km each, as safeguards against any police activity on the main E-75 highway leading south to the Greek border. If any police presence was noted, they would be immediately informed by mobile phone to get off the highway and take the back roads. Finally, the immigrants would be left somewhere in the middle of nowhere on the frontier with Greece, to be picked up by the next individual who would shepherd them across that border. The same operation alternately worked in the reverse direction. In neither case would the recruited drivers have any idea about whom they were working for, in the bigger picture of trans-national crime syndicates.

Illegal Immigrants and Turkey-Greece Relations

The major point of origin for most illegal immigrants through the Balkans remains Turkey, however, and Greece absorbs the bulk of them. Athens reiterates its self-perceived position as Europe’s “eastern front” when complaining to the European Union about its struggle with immigration and Turkey. More pointedly, numerous statements have been made by Greek officials and former officials, suggesting that Turkey’s policy is to flood Greece with illegal immigrants as a sort of “asymmetrical weapon” against its western neighbor. In 2009, the Greek ministry for foreign affairs and the interior ministry demanded Brussels to make improved combating of illegal immigration a prerequisite for Turkey to join the EU.

However, Turkish officials have claimed that they are being targeted unfairly and that they end up bearing a disproportionate share of the cost in dealing with illegal immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. For example, Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman in October 2009 cited a respective costs summary that fueled Ankara’s displeasure. While “…70 euros are provided to Turkey per person to offset the cost of re-admission, hosting, processing and deporting to the country of origin,” stated the newspaper, “the EU gives 1,000 euros per person to the Greek side.”

Egemen Bağış, the state minister for issues related to EU accession, was also quoted as attesting that the EU was relatively unappreciative of Turkey’s efforts to stem the tide of illegal immigrants crossing its lengthy borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria. “Without us being involved in the resolution of the problem,” noted Bağış, “the EU can’t protect its borders from illegal immigration or the narcotics trade.”

In 2008, Turkey detained 65,000 illegal immigrants before they could leave the country, “marking a big spike from the previous year,” the newspaper added. “Ankara maintains that the problem is a heavy financial burden on the state budget.”

However, again larger geopolitics and foreign relations dictate that this remains an issue that can never be resolved. Turkey does not require visas for many fellow Muslim countries, such as Iran, Algeria and Morocco, to name a few. As contributor in Greece Ioannis Michaletos notes, this means that immigrants who would otherwise not be able to enter the EU “can pass through Iran and then easily traverse the whole of Turkey with no visa, and enter the Balkans en masse… no one has seriously pressured Turkey to have a visa or border control with Iran, which is considered by the US to be a state sponsor of terrorism.”

Michaletos, who has written about the illegal immigration industry in depth on the World Security Network website, discloses some of the routes that the mainly Muslim immigrants take to arrive in Turkey. “From North Africa, aspiring immigrants just book a flight to Istanbul, with no visa required… or, from Somalia, they travel to Khartoum airport in Sudan, gain a travel visa to Turkey, and from there move on to the Balkans.” Michaletos notes that the recent emergence of a notable Somali community in Athens has raised security concerns there. “Basically, Turkey under the Erdogan goverment has opened its borders to the Islamic world,” he concludes.

Indeed, with fears of terrorism at a renewed high in Europe, following the German government’s successive warnings of a potential “Mumbai-style” attack, it is clear that the Islamic dimension of the greater immigration is driving European fears- even if this is rarely explicitly stated, it is certainly a factor in larger private negotiations between the EU and Turkey.

Ill-Will, Poor Policy, and Predictable Results

European Commission reports over the past decade or so indicate a vexed legacy of patchy cooperation with Turkey on the issue of immigration cooperation. From the law-enforcement point of view, the situation was acknowledged earlier by the unveiling (on November 4) of an EU border policing operation along the Greek-Turkish border on the River Evros- something that many Greeks believe has come far too late, reported the Washington Post. Turkey refuses to take back anyone smuggled out of its borders, unless that individual is a citizen of a state with which it has a land border, thus excluding the majority of African and Southeast Asian migrants shuttled through the country.

The EU mission, known as Frontex, is a multi-national deployment consisting of 175 officers. Led by a Finnish brigadier general, Ilkka Pertti Juhani Laitinen, and seconded by Spanish border security expert Gil Arias Fernandez, the mission has achieved dramatic results so far. Being a temporary mission, it will expire unless extended; however, at time of writing the number of new job openings being advertised on the official Frontex website indicates that it will probably remain operational for some time to come.

While experts from places like Britain and Norway have criticized Greece for alleged poor standards in treatment of asylum-seekers, it is clear that the Greek authorities do not have the capabilities to deal with the massive rise in illegal immigrants coming from mostly Muslim countries in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Now, Greek officials and the EU are being attacked by human rights groups such as Amnesty International over the mission in and of itself.

Further, as the Washington Post article notes, the issue is felt more strongly further north, in the places that are the final destinations for immigrants- and where high-profile political statements have been made in recent months over immigration and the perceived failure of Islamic integration in Europe, by key leaders such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“The growing presence of immigrants, particularly Muslims who bring with them their own customs and religious practices, has become one of the main irritants in Western European societies,” the article states. “Immigration has become a prominent and sometimes sour part of the political debate even in countries with long liberal traditions, including Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and France.”

Now, the chronic ill-will on all sides has created a sort of domino effect, with successive countries along the route accusing their neighbors of “immigrant dumping”- though the biggest resentment of all is still reserved for the northern European countries, ironically often the first to criticize Balkan countries’ own treatment of illegal immigrants.

For some, the EU’s perceived hypocrisy on human rights issues has been additionally soured by the message that – all visa liberalization overtures aside – Balkan natives are clearly not wanted in the EU. The Economist avers that “for the stabilisation and integration of the western Balkans, it is hard to imagine anything more important” than visa liberalization for these countries; nevertheless, voices within the EU are calling for a change of course following a rapid (and very predictable) rise in asylum-seeker requests from Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro. Belgian Minister for Migration Melkior Vatle recently spoke out “to warn these countries about the consequences of the misuse of visa liberalisation,” reported Balkan Insight. These sort of desperate and dire pronouncements just serve to underscore how unprepared and confused the EU remains about its own policy-making in the region.

Macedonia particularly was criticized last winter when busloads of ethnic Albanian villagers begin turning up to seek asylum in Belgium following the abolition of visas. At the same time, this small country at the very center of the Balkans is also voicing criticism of both the EU and its southern neighbor, Greece. The government has long alleged that Greece, wishing to get rid of its own problem with migrants from Turkey, simply passes these individuals on, or at least allows them to cross the border without problem.

In 2010 alone, 94 foreign nationals have asked for political asylum in Macedonia, reported Skopje daily Utrinski Vesnik on 19 November. Most of them claimed to be Palestinians and Afghans, though natives of Somalia, Eritrea, Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Iran were also noted.

The newspaper quoted police spokesman Ivo Kotevski, who stated that “our government has repeatedly complained to Brussels because of the practice of Greece [and its] deliberate release [of immigrants] into Macedonia, and its refusal to take them back, despite the readmission agreement we have with the [European] Union- which is not unilateral. Such a practice is even more irritating as at the same time [the issue of] Macedonian asylum-seekers stirred up a huge fuss in the Union.”

In the final appraisal, it seems that EU policy regarding immigration – whether that be for legal, tourist travel from aspiring EU member states, or classic illegal migrants from further afield – has been conducted in a reactive and illogical manner, as quick-fixes driven by internal and domestic politics, compounded by a demonstrated inability to predict the results of both inaction (in the case of years of neglect in Greece), and action (in the case of predicting what would be the result of visa liberalization without adequate preparations). It increases the mistrust and apprehensions Balkan citizens have about their perception by the EU, at the same time that the bloc is trying to keep them on board towards solving their own internal and bilateral issues in order to join the club.

Assessment: Future Likelihoods

The European Union will continue to face difficulties in its immigration enforcement efforts, owing to its own internal dueling agendas and the widening gap between right- and left-wing parties in member states, despite the best efforts of joint enforcement bodies such as Europol. Any major future terrorist attacks within the EU’s borders will exacerbate these latent rifts further, and bring the whole immigration issue – and with it relations with the Balkans and Turkey – under intense scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the EU’s desire to integrate the Balkans into the bloc, apparently a train now running on its own inertia, will continue to force European leaders to make unpleasant demands on their Balkan counterparts regarding immigration-related issues. At the same time, the EU’s own law-and-order mission in Kosovo, Eulex, has fallen considerably short of the goals envisioned during its planning stages in 2006, adding to concerns over the EU’s ability to work in tandem on common security issues. And a recent comprehensive Gallup survey (.PDF) indicates that pessimism in the Balkans is increasing, rather than decreasing; ironically, in the country closest to EU accession, Croatia, popular support for joining the bloc has sunk to 28 percent (on the other end of the spectrum, 93 percent of Albanian citizens believe joining the EU will be beneficial to them).

Further, Turkey’s growing influence in the Balkans, Middle East and even Africa has solidified to the point that the EU has very little political leverage anymore on immigration issues in Ankara. It is debatable that, as some Greeks and others believe, Turkey would like to use illegal Muslim immigration as a means of spreading Islam in Europe. More realistically it can be said that, as a transit country with vast borders, Turkey would not be able to eradicate human trafficking to Europe even were it to devote more assets towards doing so.

However, as the EU and Greece have made some progress in Evros, it is likely that the “front” will shift northwards. As the Washington Post noted, the Turkey-Bulgaria border will become the main entry point into the EU should Greece become perceived as “difficult” by would-be migrants. Further, Bulgaria has a significant Turkish minority and weaker state institutions than does Greece, making it likely that the support networks needed for human trafficking will be relatively stronger there. And then the problem just ends up – once again – thrust onto the borders of Macedonia and Serbia, albeit from a different direction. The EU’s “progress” in Greece may simply result in moving the problem to other places where it is less capable of countering it.

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