Gevgelija, Macedonia is a small town just north of the border with Greece. Until recently this small rural community of 20,000 was of little note on the world political scene. The massive migration of refugees has changed the importance of this town. It will live forever in the annals of history and the memory of hundreds of thousands of refugees who pass through on their migration northward.
Migrants cross the sea from Turkey to Greece. They pass through Greece, first by ferry and then by any means possible to get to the border with Macedonia. Gevgelija is the first stop on the rail line that crosses from north to south in Macedonia. In Gevgelija, for 25€ they can board a train and quickly move to the Serbian border and toward their goal of a better life in Western Europe.
The change for Gevgelija started with a trickle of migrants in the spring. The vanguard of the migration crossed the border check point and walked less than a kilometer to the train station. At first the numbers were small and the migrants were processed quickly at the train station and moved on.
Within a month the train station was inundated with thousands of people traveling northward. The train station could no longer function and the regularly schedule trains overflowed with people. Some had proper documentation but others may not. In a few months the trickle became a flood stressing the resources of the town and the nerves of its people.
The Macedonia government and The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) recognized the need to respond. They recognized that Gevgelija was an important milepost where migrants could find food, water, proper documentation and, if needed, medical care. They could also be organized in manageable groups for the next stage of their journey.
In response to the crushing demands of a tidal wave of migrants, the UNHCR created a Migrant Transit Center in a farm field just a few hundred meters north of the Greek border. After leaving Greece, migrants walk a short dirt path to the camp. Before entering they are organized into groups of fifty. Each small group is then admitted to the Center and given Macedonian travel credentials that allow them to stay in Macedonian for a maximum of 72 hours. They also get a bag of food, water, blankets, and access to health care if they need it.
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) play an important role in helping the migrants as they enter Macedonia. Both the Red Cross and Project HOPE cooperate in providing medical service that ranges from care of scrapes and bruises to the emergency needs of a baby in respiratory distress. Other NGOs give out water and provide valuable translation services.
It is impossible to stereotype the migrants. Almost ten thousand pass through the Transit Center each day. They don’t stay long….maybe four hours for most. They are men, women and children. They range in age from newly born to octogenarians. Many are college students. An impressive number are well-educated professionals seeking to bring their talents to a new home in Germany or Sweden or maybe Great Britain. Most have risked their lives to cross the sea, escaping the camps in Turkey where they have stagnated for a year or more. Some are called “economic” immigrants who are moving with the rest with the hope of a better life in Europe. Predominately they are from war-torn Syria, but an ever increasing number come from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Gevgelija will never be the same. The city’s economy has been taxed by the crushing needs for policing, trash removal, emergency medical care and an untold litany of other services that seem trivial until the need is multiplied by hundreds of thousands. There is no end in sight. Officials won’t even speculate on how long the migration will continue or how many more people will pass through the Migrant Transit Center.
Gevgelija will never be just a sleepy little border town again. For some locals this seems tragic. For half a million migrants it will be a significant milestone on their journey northward. They will remember the kindness and support that they were given by the Macedonian people and organizations like Project HOPE.
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