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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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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