Refugee Lives At Risk Along The Balkan Route To Europe

On foot in the cold or crammed into run-down train cars, migrants face a long journey of long waits, endless security checks, and uncertain prospects. Up close along the Serbo-Macedonian Border.

Migrants near the Macedonia-Serbia border
Migrants near the Macedonia-Serbia border
Davide Lessi

GEVGELIJA â€" "When does the next train leave?" The trip begins like any other might, from some train station in a city you know. But it is not, in fact, a trip like any other.

The Balkan route is more aptly compared to a marathon, full of hidden dangers, inconveniences and police checks seemingly designed to keep Europe at bay just a little longer.

The border between Greece and Macedonia is only a few hundred meters away, and a faded sign indicates Gevgelija, a town in the deep south of Macedonia. Eshan looks down impatiently, pointing to his watch, with its black wristband and silver hands. Then he looks up and asks again, in English, "When does the next train leave?"

No one, it turns out, knows the answer: neither the volunteers, nor the international staff. And yet, like Eshan, who is 29 and fleeing from Afghanistan and the Taliban, everyone keeps asking everyone else.

There is Wafaa, a Syrian woman who found herself separated from her husband, but not from her three small children, one of whom is disabled. Tucked into his stroller, he is lost in his own world, and asks no questions. And there is Anas, who at 17 has only one hand because ISIS cut off the other one, he explains.

Overall, more than 1,000 people wait in this piece of land that has become a transit center for refugees. There are blankets stretched out under the sun, and large tents and chemical toilets. People are charging smartphones, eating, resting. All are waiting: the long journey must go on.

The tragic marathon

Zoran Drangovski, a Macedonian lawyer who helps provide legal support to asylum seekers, notes that his country of 2.1 million, expects some one million migrants to pass through in transit. "It's as though half of our country were emigrating," he says.

Drangovski spends his time guiding asylum seekers through the various bureaucratic procedures necessary. "Your whole life is hanging by a piece of paper," he says.

This is how it works. Once people arrive in Gevgelija, they have two options. Either they ask for asylum in Macedonia (virtually no one does), or they continue the journey toward Serbia. Only those who declare themselves to be Syrian, Afghan or Iraqi are authorized to continue their journeys, but they must hurry, as they only have 72 hours to leave the country.

All others â€" whether Pakistani, Palestinian, Tunisian, Algerian or Iranian â€" are supposed to be immediately sent back from whence they came via Greece. More often, however, they end up in illegal set-ups or in the hands of human traffickers. Those with the wrong papers have to go back to square one, where this all began: a place of hunger, persecution or war.

"It’s been a month since the Macedonian government decided to rely exclusively on special trains to transport refugees. Why don’t they let us work?" This, too, is a frequent refrain in Gevgelija. A few hundred meters from the migrants' tents a cluster of taxi drivers blocks the railroad tracks where the next train to Tabanovce, on the Serbian border, is expected.

A 50-something man is the perfect embodiment of the protest. His name is Pietro Pall. "We have 300 cars that have been parked since December because they can't take these people," he says, puffing on a cigarette. "The government took everything for itself."

From a cab driver’s perspective, the refugees represent a business opportunity: It costs 25 euros per person to cross 170 kilometers of Macedonia. "It’s the same price the Skopje government charges to go by train," Pietro notes as justification. Never mind that for the same train ride, a Macedonian would pay just five euros.

All smiles, in spite of it all

The protest goes on, and the special train stays put. The migrants wait, and ask again: "When will the train leave?" Then, a compromise is reached: 825 people will board the train (there isn’t any room for more), and another 282 will travel by taxi. The destination for all is Tabanovce, at the border between Serbia and Macedonia. This happens everyday. Since January, an average of 1,500-2,000 people have come through this area every 24 hours.

"Serbia? Serbia?" People lean toward the windows even as the train continues to creak along the tracks. The refugees are eager to know if they’ve crossed the border yet. But then the engine shuts off: It turns out that the Serbo-Macedonian border must be crossed on foot.

It's an unusually warm early February day in Tabanovce, worsening the odors of these 800-some people who have spent four hours crammed into 10 train cars: sweat, bags, canned food. Used clothing, backpacks and bags â€" assorted objects that might be useful during the journey â€" have been laid out on the platform. A line immediately forms under the metal structures where volunteers are distributing water, hot meals, fruit and juice for children.

The most tired among the travelers lie on the ground a few meters away from the train, trying to rest up and eat something. Large families, young and old, the disabled in wheelchairs. They all smile when you approach them, in spite of it all.

"They need to leave this center with a smile on their lips," says Yasmine, a member of the La Strada association, a local Oxfam partner focused on assisting mothers, unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable travelers. "We provide psychological assistance. We try to understand if they have experienced any violence during the course of their journey. And then we distribute little hygiene kits and tell them where to go next."

Random expulsions

In Tabanovce, the migrants only stop briefly: an hour, maybe two, tops. In one hand they hold the maps volunteers have just given them, in the other they hold the backpacks or plastic bags that contain what's left of their lives. They continue to ask translators for information on where to go next and how. There is a single route for all: The refugees will need to walk about two kilometers to reach Miratovac, the first Serbian village on the other side of the border.

The dirt road runs parallel to the train tracks and is about 3-4 meters wide, with metal fencing on either side. Rolling Macedonian hills slope gently all around. After 500 meters, the migrants reach the Serbian border, marked by a blue tent in the middle of a field. One of the military officers there holds a rifle: He and his companions will decide who goes through.

"It’s really true. They’re starting to stop men traveling alone. It's terrible," says Anna Sambo, manager of Oxfam’s humanitarian project in Serbia. Her voice is quiet. She's seeing for herself what others had recounted: A man, about 30 years old, is walking alone in the opposite direction. Tightly clutching his bag, he manages to relay to us through gestures that he was not allowed to cross the border.

Along the Balkan route, more and more young men are facing the same situation. It doesn’t matter that they are the "right" nationality (Afghan, Syrian or Iraqi.) All it takes is a single guard who says No, who disputes a man's country of origin, and that's it. A migrant has no choice but to go back where he came from.

No, this definitely isn’t just any trip. The wrong encounter can alter the course of your life.

Deadly crossings

A frigid wind is blowing across Presevo, home to the first migrant registration center in Serbia. Abdil, who is 22 and came here from Afghanistan, is shaking. He's in line to register and pass through the metal detector, and he doesn’t even have a jacket to protect himself from the cold. He continues to shake as he tells his story.

"The boat we were traveling on starting filling with water," he says. "In the sea, we saw two people drown. Then they came to save us.”

He speaks in the plural because there are two people traveling with him: Fiaz and Faizani, two children with fear in their eyes. Abdil is their guide.

"We left Kabul in early January," he recalls. "We took the boat from Greece seven days ago. That cost us 800 euros each. If we had had 2,000 each, they would have put us in a safer boat."

Along the migrant route, those who can afford to pay more travel under better conditions. This much is obvious even in Presevo. From here, to reach the border with Croatia, refugees have the choice between a 15-euro ramshackle special train that’s always packed and takes up to 13 hours; or a bus, which at 35 euros per person offers a bit more comfort and reduces travel time to 9 hours.

But that’s not the end: They still need to cross Croatia and Slovenia.

"When does the next train leave?" asks a father in line at the ticket counter. In his arms is his daughter, and she can’t be more than a year old. The father knows he will not receive an answer.

No, this isn’t just any trip.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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