Months after the body of Aylan Kurdi was found washed up on a Turkish beach in September 2015, the attention of key international players has turned towards the Levantine region of the Middle East, and peace talks are beginning to take place within Europe to determine the fate of Syria. Despite attempts at both peace building and easing the current humanitarian crisis within the Middle East and Europe, there remains a lack of migrant voices within the arena of public debate. No matter how many bodies are violently thrown onto Europe's collective consciousness, the stories of those embarking on these journeys are almost never heard. It is imperative that we try to help give those fleeing war both a voice and a platform.
I travelled to Macedonia on the 15th of November 2015 to listen to the stories of those rendered voiceless, and with the hopes of alleviating some of the hardships of both the refugees and NGOs in the country. My hopes were idealistic and I quickly reevaluated my stance when faced with the grossly asymmetrical power relations within which the refugees found themselves. As someone of South Asian decent I was repeatedly and systematically mistaken for a refugee, placing me and my travel companions in an uncomfortable middle ground, identifying with the constructed ‘other’ whilst simultaneously being viewed with suspicion by our European ‘own’.
16 November 2015: My first day in the Tabanovce camp and I have been told about a man who has just disembarked from the train with his travelling companions. He seems unwell, and his companions urge him to get medical assistance from the Red Cross. The temperature in Macedonia, as of lately, drops rapidly at night but he would still like to continue on to Serbia. Unfortunately, a medical exam reveals the he has incurred damage to his foot during the journey, resulting in broken bones, something he did not notice…
Refugees boarding the trains at Gevgelija heading towards Tabanovce and the Serbian border.
Upon our arrival all nationalities were free to travel though the Western Balkans on their way to Europe. Travel documentation was not necessary as the main aim of governments along this route was to move people through Macedonia, and other countries, as quickly as possible. On the 17th of November a Syrian man asks me if documents were necessary for travel. He was serving as the spokesman of a group approximately 100 people, and needed to know if they would all get safe passage. The police officer he spoke to said that travelling without documents was fine, a statement confirmed by another officer when I asked again on his behalf. The group embarked on the train journey from Gevgelija to Tabanovce, not yet affected by the change in policy regarding who is deemed a legitimate refugee.
18 November: People are being held in the neutral zone between Greece and Macedonia; Gevgelija is almost deserted, and we cross into the neutral zone to speak to the people being held there. We come across an Iranian singer, entertaining people by a make-shift campfire to keep spirits high, whilst a group of almost 100 others are sleeping outside in the cold. It is freezing and I ask a man from the Baluch province of Iran as to why people are not sleeping in the tent near the border crossing. He says: ‘the authorities don’t like it, they say we block their way’. After the songs have died down a woman asks me if she can go to the toilet, there is no shelter in the buffer zone, no access to running to water, and no toilets. The border security guard says that despite the lack of provisions, she cannot enter the camp. ‘I’m on my period’ she says. She, and the others held in the neutral zone, will be forced to go to the toilet in the open within the neutral zone. Despite the camp being desolate at this point, they are not allowed to enter, and I am also powerless to help in this situation.
A man looks into the neutral zone from the Gevgelija camp the day after the government decides it will only allow entry to some nationalities
18 November: An Iraqi family - who are wrongly deemed Iranian - is stopped at the border and are being beaten by an officer. A woman with her young child in her arms is being shoved by the officer who is repeatedly taking out his baton. A man is at the guards feet pleading to not be denied entry to the country, an act that will force them, to retrace the thousands of miles they have crossed to make it to Macedonia. The elderly woman with the group has been shoved to the ground; the small children around them are also being kicked by authorities. People from other NGOs are standing next to me. ‘Your government wants this [tighter security controls]. This [violence] happens all the time. They’re from Iran, don’t worry’. Despite the ‘assurances’ I am uneasy. When the family speaks, I notice they are speaking in Arabic which prompts me to speak to the woman through the wire fence. ‘Oh sister, they are only allowing Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans in.’ Somehow in the frenzy I am allowed to cross the fence with a colleague to try and calm the situation. ‘Sister, you don’t have documents.’ The man next to her takes out a wad of papers from his back pocket. ‘We are from Iraq.’ The authorities were making an error in judgement. At this point the UN translator has appeared and the situation is calmer. I am told to leave by a member of the UN’s team because I am not a legal translator. ‘We have three translators in this camp’ I’m told; but where were they when this family was being beaten? I walked away.
19 November: We are told by a contact in Gevgelija that an Iranian man is in need of medication to prevent his blood from coagulating due to a health condition. Despite this threatening life condition, he is unable to leave the camp and a woman from Legis (a Macedonian NGO) has been attempting to gain permission from the authorities to get him to the country’s capital, so that he can be given treatment. After hours of negotiation, the hospital trip is not permitted and at the camp, the man is given a small number of pills. This man, like many other refugees, has been trapped in the neutral zone, contemplating suicide as a means to escape his prolonged entrapment within the buffer zone. His fate is not known to me.
19 November: A contact on the ground informs us of a woman in Gevgelija who had given birth one month prior to our visit but had sadly died alongside her newborn baby. We are told that the medical practitioners in charge of the woman’s prenatal care were drinking on the job, and that the woman died due to infection. We are also informed that in these circumstances, like the violence we witnessed previously, NGOs are required to write reports; but reports do not save lives: actions do.
20 November: I meet a Kurdish Iraqi woman in Tabanovce. She looks unwell and I have been told that she collapsed upon arrival and has had to spend a day in hospital; her husband has gone into shock and has been asleep for the last two days. She has two children who are playing in the newly constructed SOS Children’s Village as she rests under the care of staff and the other women.
21 November: It is 2 am and a girl from Aleppo, Syria is having difficultly sleeping in the SOS Children’s Village. She is approximately my age (24), although I think it is intrusive to ask. She is attempting to sleep next to a snoring aunt, so we begin talking about life. After finishing her studies in English Literature she travelled to Turkey, and we bond over how the obsession with Shakespeare seems irrelevant in the present day. She tells me that Serbia seems nicer than the other places she has stayed in, but we are still in Macedonia. I have come across many refugees at this point who do not know where they are; part of me assumed it may be due to a linguistic divide, but she makes it hit home. Her grasp of the English language is perfect, what is flawed is the system within which she has travelled.
Along the migration route there are very few signs to inform refugees of which country they are in, and the ways in which their legal status may change in relation to the lands in which they find themselves. Like the shifting need for documentation, or the selection of what nationalities are allowed refuge, most people are only told when they find themselves at a border.
I was also stopped at the border, despite wearing my ID card, which identified me as an NGO worker on a lanyard around my neck and being stationed at a food distribution point next to the border, there was a point when the border security guard did not allow me entry into the camp from the neutral zone. I was allowed in only after another NGO worker advocated on my behalf, but those brief moments of being trapped terrified me.
After witnessing the hostility of security guards towards refugees I felt vulnerable. My passport had been taken from me when I arrived in the camp, and my Londoners accent completely disregarded. Another young woman in our group had been allowed to enter the camp despite not having the necessary paperwork, but she was English. I could not help but feel angered, legally she and I had the some status, and I possessed the necessary paperwork, but the man at the border did not care.
I had also been told that beatings are commonplace, and in that moment the resilience that I would have had at home was taken from me, being emotional would have meant that I too would have been beaten. When the guard realised that I was also British, his body language and tone towards me altered dramatically. I felt ashamed. After being treated with such kindness by the Iranian migrants I met, given sweets they had brought with them from home, I had experienced the sheer powerlessness of being ‘othered’, safeguarded only by my nationality and given the respect that a human being is deserving of, simply because of the location of my birth. The next time I asked to go into the neutral zone, the guard very calmly says: ‘yes, you can go’.
The people stuck there, largely Iranian at this point, come from a place very near to my ancestral homeland. In another situation, I too could have been stuck on that side of the border, beaten, ignored, forgotten - and there would have been no NGO worker willing to fight my case.