In an empty ex-Yugoslav army barracks in Macedonia’s Vardar valley, an enormous 1960s telephone terminal sits unplugged in the hallway. Most rooms are empty. Few lights work.
This modest two-storey building in the frontier town of Gevgelija is the crisis management centre at what is set to become the EU’s front line against the largest surge of migrants in more than half a century.
Not everyone is optimistic about its prospects. Macedonia is a tiny state with an economy smaller than Mali’s.
“The idea this country is going to organise and sustain an operation of this scale, deal with the inevitable ugly consequences at the border and confront the people-smuggling bonanza this policy will produce is absurd,” says Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative, a think-tank.
“The notion that you can use the weakest states in this region to build a wall against a Schengen country is crazy,” he adds, referring to Greece’s membership of the EU’s passport-free travel zone.
But the idea of turning Macedonia, a non-member of the EU, into a firewall against refugees travelling north from Greece has gained support from Brussels and Berlin since it was initially promoted by central European countries such as Hungary.
Advocates of ringfencing Greece say only a lockdown of the EU’s external borders can prevent a total collapse of Schengen. Critics warn that sealing Greece’s northern border will cause a humanitarian disaster and destabilise the volatile Balkans region.
“Macedonia is a small country, burdened by a hard economic situation and serious interior political problems,” Oliver Spasovski, interior minister, told the Financial Times. A year-long political crisis has culminated in a caretaker administration taking office ahead of April elections, which the largest opposition party has threatened to boycott. “Our capacity to successfully manage the existing refugee momentum has reached its peak,” Mr Spasovski said.
Since August, Europe’s fourth-poorest country has been struggling with a daily inflow that has rarely fallen below 2,000. The government has now appealed to Europe for financial aid and manpower.
In the meantime, the police are stretched. Although salaries are being increased, working conditions for Macedonian police are poor, equipment is antiquated and overtime wages are rarely paid on time.
“We are doing everything we can, but we are a country of 2m people and 1m people passed through our country in 2015,” said Ivico Bocevski, an adviser to the country’s president.
Gevgelija was calm last week but, on occasion, police have resorted to stun grenades and tear gas to push back rejected asylum seekers from Iran, Pakistan and Morocco. Field staff with Médecins Sans Frontières say in the past two months they have treated 70 migrants for injuries sustained in so-called border pushbacks.
EU officials return to Skopje this week for further talks on financial aid and the possibility of deploying hundreds of European police at the Greek frontier. But some analysts warn a border lockdown would only divert migrants through Albania and revive old smuggling networks in a region long-plagued by the illicit transport of petrol, guns and people.
Macedonian forces prevented 1,219 irregular border crossings in January alone yet people smugglers openly ply their trade at nearby hotels in Greece. The charge to shuttle rejected migrants across the border at night is about €500 — more than a Macedonian police officer’s monthly wage.
On Thursday, officials shut the border for several hours for the second time in a week, citing temporary closures by Macedonia’s northern neighbours. Hundreds of people were left out in the cold overnight in Greece.
Anxious officials in Skopje are increasingly worried by such restrictions. One notes that border closures by countries such as Serbia and Croatia are becoming “more frequent and longer lasting,” adding: “I worry this will soon become permanent.”
If such fears become reality, Gevgelija will find itself on the frontline of a much bigger refugee challenge.
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