Macedonia’s refugee dilemma

As Greece continues to struggle with the influx of refugees, some EU countries hope that its northern neighbor Macedonia can deter them. Amid a deep political crisis, the Balkan country is a questionable choice.

Macedonia has been the main transit point for almost 700,000 migrants heading from Greece to Western and Northern Europe on the so-called Balkan route since the beginning of 2015. Macedonian authorities are finalizing the construction of a new barbed-wire fence at the border with Greece.

It is not clear when exactly Macedonia might close its border to refugees, but once the fence is up, and when the signal from the EU comes, it could happen anytime, Macedonian officials told DW on condition of anonymity.

Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico said he expected the Visegrad countries – Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland – to approve the plan for strengthened border protection in Macedonia at their meeting in Prague on February 15.

“Then it won’t matter whether Greece will or will not be a part of Schengen, [the EU’s passport-free travel zone] because we will be able to stop the migrants,” Fico said.

For Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative (ESI), the notion of using “the weakest states in the region” to build a wall against a Schengen member state is “crazy.”

Two conflicting European concepts

He talks about “a race in Europe between two very different concepts” in the refugee crisis. The concept of the Visegrad countries – which Knaus calls “the brainchild of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban” – proposes blocking refugees by constructing a new wall across the Southern Balkans along the green borders between Greece and all of its northern neighbors – Macedonia, Albania and Bulgaria.

The other concept, backed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, aims at resettling hundreds of thousands of refugees from Turkey to a group of EU member states and ending the “Balkan route” by controlling the Aegean through a close cooperation between Greece and Turkey.

However, the idea of turning Macedonia, which is not a member state of the EU, into a wall against refugees has also gained support from Brussels. In late January, Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission, wrote to Slovenia’s Prime Minister, Miro Cerar, assuring him that the Commission supported his plan for all EU countries to “provide assistance [to Macedonia] to support controls on the border with Greece through the secondment of police/law enforcement officers and the provision of equipment.”

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(Photo: Migrants and refugees at the Greek – Macedonian border, 2015. Francesco Malavolta)