Macedonia's Porous Borders

Skopje is struggling to deal with an upsurge in illegal migrants and smugglers.

Macedonia's Porous Borders

Skopje is struggling to deal with an upsurge in illegal migrants and smugglers.

Macedonian police appear powerless to stop growing numbers of foreigners illegally crossing the country's frontiers.

Over the last three month, police have intercepted just over seven thousand smugglers, Kosovo arms traders and people seeking a better life in Greece. The number of those who've managed to avoid detection is thought to be ten times higher.

Macedonia has long had some of the most porous borders in the Balkans, but the so-called 'illegals' problem has escalated in recent years as a result of conflict and political and economic instability in the region.

Most of the migrants are trying to cross from Yugoslavia into Macedonia, on their way to Greece, where most find work on fruit farms. Only a small number remain in the country - mainly prostitutes, seasonal workers and petty smugglers from Albania and other Eastern European countries.

The migrants are for the most part Romanians, followed by Albanians, Bulgarians and Yugoslav citizens. There are also Kurds, Indians and others from Asiatic countries and the former Eastern block.

Increasingly, the illegal crossings are organised affairs, involving convoys of lorries carrying scores of migrants. Macedonian border guards and police recently discovered two groups of just over a hundred 'illegals' near Kumanovo. In another incident, the security officials stopped a lorry on the Kumanovo-Kriva Palanka motorway. The diver ran off leaving behind his cargo of 37 Romanians.

The Macedonian media has been very critical of the legislature for not being tough enough over the migrant issue. Punishment for 'illegals' caught by the security forces are considered too lenient. The last group of Romanian migrants to be intercepted were expelled and banned from entering the country for a year.

Assistant Minister for Internal Affairs, Stevo Pendarovski, said some 50 per cent of 'illegals' cross the border on a regular basis, using fake travel documents. The migrants represent a lucrative business for Macedonian black-marketeers. In addition to selling them counterfeit passports, they often ferry them across the border and provide them with safe houses.

The security forces say illegal crossings along the Kosovo and Albanian frontier pose the greatest threat to security. Smugglers of arms, drugs and other goods are increasingly clashing with Macedonian forces. Since the beginning of the year there have been some 700 incidents along this part of the border.

After one border incident in early June, in which two Macedonian border guards were wounded by snipers from the Kosovo side, President Boris Trajkovski, ordered an increase in the military's combat readiness along the frontier with the Yugoslav province. Macedonian army vehicles now regularly patrol the area.

The Skopje authorities are believed to very concerned that Kosovo militants are trying to export their rebellion to western Macedonia - a predominantly Albanian part of the country.

The security measures were welcomed by ethnic Macedonians, but leaders of the country's Albanian minority, who represent nearly 25 per cent of the population, felt the move was unnecessary.

Arben Xhaferi, head of the ruling coalition partner, the Democratic Party of Albanians, said the extra security constituted a state of emergency which would isolate Macedonia from its neighbours. He claimed Kosovo posed no threat to Skopje, insisting that smuggling was a problem along all of the country's borders.

After the wounding of the border guards in June, Trajkovski sent the NATO Secretary General, George Robertson, a strongly worded letter demanding that K-For troops in Kosovo step up efforts to secure the province's border with Macedonia.

Defence Minister, Nikola Kljusev, visited NATO headquarters in Brussels in mid-June to request military and technical assistance to tackle unlawful border crossings. He was told there was little chance of the request being met.

With no outside help, the Macedonian authorities will struggle to stem the flow of 'illegals' across its borders. Given Europe's concern over immigration, Skopje has to find some way of tackling the problem if it is to entertain any serious hopes of European integration.

Zeljko Bajic is a regular IWPR contributor

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