The asylum seeker village – from Macedonia to Belgium: Part One

We begin a three-part account of the experiences of ethnic Albanians seeking asylum. Part One begins in Macedonia, which recently lifted visa restrictions towards Europe
Nikolaj Nielsen
17 February 2011

Around twenty kilometers east of Skopje, Macedonia, the mayor of the small village of Lipkovo steps out of a white skoda and walks down towards the edge of a lake. Like almost everyone in Lipkovo municipality, Mayor Sadula Duraku is an ethnic Albanian. A former officer in the National Liberation Army (NLA), Mayor Duraku is today trying to keep villagers from leaving en masse. But faced with a number of obstacles, including discrimination, lack of state investment, no jobs, and a closed border with Kosovo, the mayor is struggling.

In early 2010, the schools in the Lipkovo municipality reported that 42 school children had suddenly gone missing. Their parents had packed up, some had even sold off their possessions, and all had purchased one-way bus tickets to western Europe to seek asylum. Most of them ended up in Belgium – a scenario that left Belgian authorities baffled. According to Belgium’s Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons, 60 Macedonians asked for asylum in January 2010. This jumped to 401 in February and then dropped to 61 in March. Macedonia’s visa restrictions towards Europe had been lifted on 19 December, 2009.

While ease of entry into Europe may have been granted, it doesn’t explain why so many chose to ask for asylum and why so many opted for Belgium. The war in 2001 had ended with the Ohrid Agreement, a peace deal signed by Macedonians and ethnic Albanian representatives to end the armed conflict. As a result, the NLA disbanded and many, like Sadula Duraku, were given positions within the government. But for the majority of ethnic Albanians, the promises of development, of jobs, and social inclusion has yet to fully materialize - leaving many of those waiting for concrete results, bitter.

“There is no finality with the [Ohrid] agreement,” former Deputy Prime Minister of Macedonia in charge of EU integration, Ivo Boteskvi, told me, when I interviewed him in Skopje last September: “It shifts along with the generations, it adapts, moves and is fluid.” He adds that many believe that the broad conditions outlined in the agreement have not been fully implemented. This includes respect for ethnic identity. 

Looking for water 

“Look here,” says the mayor as he points to a pit by the lake’s edge. About a meter down is a recently poured concrete slab. A large, unattached pipe with bolts around its neck protrudes onto a platform partly encased in a wooden box. If it’s ever finished, this water filtration system will one day provide running water to the dozens of houses in the village. An elderly villager joins the mayor. Leaning on his cane, the villager peers into the pit. Both men discuss the construction. Both shake their heads, disappointed and frustrated.


We need another 500 metres says the mayor

“Our village hasn’t had any drinking water since they built the dam in the 60s,” says Mr Durkau. Water is instead trucked in and wells have to be dug. When the state finally released funds in 2009 to build a system of pipes from the lake to the village, work had no sooner started in July, than - after laying down 1.5km of piping - the funding was cut and the work stopped. “We need another 500 meters,” says the mayor, adding that he hopes it will somehow be completed by year’s end: “Still, it’s the first time since 1978 that we’ve received anything from the government.” A system of pipes from the same lake, however, manages to feed fresh water to Kumanovo, Macedonia’s third largest city some 20 km further east.

Behind Lipkovo lake is another, larger lake called Glazhnjes. Lake Lipkovo was dammed in 1958 and is located only 2km from the Lipkovo village. A second dam was built in 1972 on the Glaznjes. Three rivers run through the municipality. Alongside the lakes, villagers are able to irrigate their crops. Nearly everyone relies on agriculture and dairy farming to survive. But the price of milk bottomed out in 2009, leaving many families desperate.  Milk that costs 15 dinars to produce was only selling for 13. And nearby villages including that of Lipkovo still bear the scars from 2001 of a short-lived but brutal battle between the NLA and the Macedonians. One Macedonian TV journalist from ALSAT-M described the fighting in Sllupcane, a village 5km away from Lipkovo, like the popular video game, Counter Strike. 

What was once an asphalt road leading into Mr Duraku’s village is now mostly broken up and is turning into dirt. The former post office is a shell. Bullets have riddled the walls and a large hole on the roof looks like it might have been hit by a mortar. The fields surrounding the village look barren. Still, there does appear to be some development. There are power lines, some of the homes appear well kept, with new roofing, windows, and fresh coats of paint. They are also rather large with two or three floors.


Rubbish aligns the road for several kilometres

According to Mr Duraku, together with donations from international organizations and NGOs, families who go abroad fund renovation back in the village. And while the villagers are grateful for any help they can get, Mr Duraku says the state needs to open the border with Kosovo and fix the roads. People have families and relations in Kosovo. Before the war, they would trade. But when the border shut, they lost a trade route. What they need more than donations are hopes for a better future, better jobs, and a stable environment for the children.

He claims that the state discriminates against ethnic Albanians. Indeed, the country seems sharply segregated along ethnic lines. Even the flags flying in the villages are Albanian, not Macedonian. Out of a population of around 2 million, official sources estimate a quarter are ethnic Albanian. But some Albanians say the true figure is much higher. According to Mr Duraku, Lipkovo’s municipality has almost 30,000 inhabitants. Less than 200 are Macedonians.

“In 2001, most of the homes were destroyed,” he says. “All the infrastructure is funded by citizens. But it’s a patch job. And the half-finished Project is another example of discrimination.” Mr Duraku is referring to Macedonia’s controversial Skopje 2014 project. The state is allegedly spending around EUR 200 million to reinvent Skopje’s city centre. Bronze statues, designed and built by Italian artisans, are shipped in. In the city’s main square, scaffolding surrounds what will be a monument to Alexander the Great. It’ll stand as tall as the surrounding buildings. Churches are also being renovated. Most of the project focuses entirely on the Macedonian half of Skopje – the other, poorer half being ethnic Albanian and predominately Muslim. Meanwhile, in the outlying villages, people are without running water, let alone work.

Then there is the one story of wild success in Europe from the other side of Lipkovo lake. Here is a small resort with modern facilities, large bay windows, a restaurant, and a terrace with expensive outdoor furniture, recently built through the extraordinary luck of one villager from Lipkovo. “The young man had nothing until he went to Switzerland,” says the mayor, after he made an acquaintance with an elderly woman he met by chance in a super market. She ‘adopted’ him as her son and when she passed away, he inherited all her wealth.

In the village, however, most people struggle to make ends meet. The lucky ones receive remittances from their family abroad and somehow live off the equivalent of EUR 20 a month. Some of the families that sought asylum in Belgium have since returned. Some returned on their own initiative, while others were bussed back – their travel expenses paid by the Belgian state. “They are disappointed that they have had to return,” says Mr Duraku, ”because they have no prospects at all. People who left and have returned have lost the little social welfare rights they had,” he says. “Some even sold everything to go.”

Back in Likpovo, a villager says life is too hard. “My son is cold. It is catastrophic. No jobs, no job for my son.” He waves his hand in air in disgust. “If I had a chance, I too would seek asylum. But I’m too old now,” says another. “Better to sleep in a bus station in Brussels than here,” he says in anger.


Better to sleep in a bus station in Brussels than here

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