From file: Two refugees warm up over a makeshift fire after a rainfall, while waiting to be allowed to cross the border into North Macedonia at the northern Greek border station of Idomeni | Photo: Picture-alliance/AP Photo/P.Giannakouris
From file: Two refugees warm up over a makeshift fire after a rainfall, while waiting to be allowed to cross the border into North Macedonia at the northern Greek border station of Idomeni | Photo: Picture-alliance/AP Photo/P.Giannakouris

A van transporting 41 migrants was discovered by police in North Macedonia on Friday. The migrants are reported to be from Cuba and India.

The 41 migrants, including five children, were discovered during a routine police check on a main road in North Macedonia on Friday, said a police statement, reported by the news agency Associated Press (AP).

The migrants are thought to be from Cuba and India and were being driven by a 20-year-old Serbian citizen with the initials F.R. The group is thought to have entered North Macedonia from Greece in the south.

According to AP, the migrants were taken to a shelter near the border with Greece in the town of Gevgelija. If found to have left Greece, the migrants will be sent back there, stated AP.

Balkan route changes

Discoveries of migrants traveling through North Macedonia have become less frequent after the authorities stepped up controls on the Greek-North Macedonian border. Last year, a barbed wire fence was erected on the border of North Macedonia and Serbia.

The regional English-language online site Balkan Insight reports more migrants are hoping to make their way through Albania, Kosovo and then Serbia in order to reach the EU, via Hungary, Romania or Croatia, or alternatively by sea from Albania to Italy.

The EU’s border agency Frontex is also operating on the border between Greece and North Macedonia. At the end of November, an Italian human rights organization ASGI (Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration) sent a four-person team to the border to monitor work going on there. However, they say they were expelled, a charge Frontex denies.

Italian team at border

Frontex told Balkan Insight that they suspected the Italian team had "crossed the border illegally." So Frontex officers "checked their identification documents and then handed them over to Greek officers for further checks." Frontex said that the Italian citizens on the team then "expressed their wish to go back to North Macedonia, where they were accommodated."

Frontex said its actions were "in line with procedures and were performed in a calm and respectful manner."

A statement from ASGI at the time said that their team "was taken into custody by a mixed patrol of Greek policemen, border police and Frontex agents during a technical-legal visit at the Greek-Macedonian border near Idomeni, in Greece, [and] was brought back to the border crossing point and forced to return on foot to Macedonian territory."

'Quickly surrounded'

The ASGI statement said that "within a few minues...they were quickly surrounded on all sides by about ten agents." Shortly after, an armoured Greek police van drove up and the Italian group were told to get in. In the ASGI account, the identification documents of the group were held by police "without any explanation being given." The group was then "verbally attacked" by various officers.

The Italian group said when they were taken to the police station, they saw six migrants get out of a similar van. The group, they said, had clearly also been intercepted at the border. ASGI says: "this episode demonstrates clearly what happens to foreign citizens intercepted along that section of the border. Therefore, ASGI cannot avoid expressing its deep concerns about the violation of rights and the systematic violence by the European authorities against foreign citizens, including those in vulnerable conditions."

An ASGI team member told Balkan Insight that the situation was "very tense" and the Italian citizens "did not feel ok to make phone calls, or do something that would be considered unacceptable in their view."

ASGI has asked for a clarification over the episode from the European Parliament, the European Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, the Ministry of the Interior, the Italian embassy in Athens, Frontex itself and the Minister for European Affairs.

Renewed activity in North Macedonia?

A month ago, on November 7, Macedonian police also discovered a truck not far from the Greek border which was found to be carrying 42 migrants. One reportedly from Bangladesh and the rest from Syria, reported Radio Free Europe. They were also reportedly sent back to Greece after being housed in the migrant center in Gevgelija too.

Four alleged smugglers were also arrested in North Macedonia towards the end of November. Two Pakistanis and two Afghan minors were accused of being part of a smuggling ring. The four are said to have set up a camp near the border with Serbia to house migrants hoping to travel on up the Balkan route, DW reported.

According to reports, the alleged smugglers "detained" migrants in the makeshift camp, taking away their cellphones and personal documents to make communication with the outside world "impossible." Prosecutors said the suspects physically and sexually abused the migrants in order to extort money from their families at home. If convicted, they could face up to eight years in prison.

Frontex told Balkan Insight that they had registered about 48,500 "cases of illegal border crossing...in the first ten months of this year in the Balkans." Syrians, Afghans and Moroccans account for the greatest number of migrants using this route to enter the EU.

 

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