Whichever way the course of events develops, there is one thing that will remain in history and, hopefully, in our consciousness: The ordeal of hundreds of children crying at the border of our country, afraid of the stun grenades and tear gas, forever bearing the imagery of a Macedonian police uniform as one of the scariest figures of their childhood.
On the 20th of August, the government of Macedonia declared a state of emergency due to the great number of refugees crossing its southern and northern border. The state of emergency allowed for the deployment of the army on top of the regular and Special Forces of the police. In a matter of hours, 1,500 refugees were caught in the no-man’s land between Greece and Macedonia, the number rising to 4,000 in only two days.
While announcing the measure, the spokesperson of the Ministry of the Interior said that this is a reactionary policy to the great increase of refugees crossing the southern border in the 24 hours between the 19th and 20th of August. The goal of the army and police forces was to provide security to the local population from the increased influx of immigrants (which totaled 1,300) and to secure the immigrants who wished to apply for a permanent asylum in Macedonia.
Whoever paid any attention to their first year of physics in school would know that the total number of something is usually less important than the increase, or the change that occurs in in total number of said variable. Whoever has paid any attention to any news in the past 20 years would know that something’s off when you hear of people supposedly wishing to ask for asylum in Macedonia.
The Ministry of the Interior has provided no information on how much the number has increased in the 24 hours critical for declaring a state of emergency. Going through the history of press releases on their website, it seems that in the 10 days prior to the state of emergency, there had been a steady trend of about 1,000 refugees entering Macedonia daily. On the other hand, the number of demands for permanent asylum in Macedonia has been insignificant, a total of 47 in the last two months.
Thanks to the changes to the Asylum Law two months ago, the Macedonian government has relatively reliable data on the number of refugees crossing daily. The changes allow refugees to apply for “temporary asylum” – permission from the state to enter the country and either apply for permanent asylum or leave the country in three days. In turn, these changes have also had a positive effect on reducing the number of refugees employing the services of criminal smuggles for crossing the country.
Long story short, the circus had already been set up at our southern border. Thousands of refugees, among which are many children and women, stuck behind barbed wire, with no access to water or food supplies, let alone sanitary amenities. Sometime later, medical assistance was provided, but only with the special permission of the police forces. Every attempt to cross the barbed wire was met with stun grenades, tear gas, and the occasional beating.
In a matter of hours, all major media outlets in the region had their teams on the ground and the images and videos circled the globe. A failure of monumental proportions in humanitarian terms, but also in terms of the public image of the government and the country. Many were rightly outraged, with the exception of several well-known “human rights activists” who failed to see the problem in generalizing all Macedonians as monsters.
Not counting the nonsensical and often hysterical party members who supported the actions of the police at all costs, the government of Macedonia offered little in terms of damage control or even attempts to sway the narrative. Even more surprisingly, the spokesperson of the European Commission for neighborhood policy and enlargement negotiations has said that it is Macedonia’s: “prerogative is to control (…) and refuse entry to those who do not meet the criteria”, according to journalist Tanja Milevska.
Two days of possibly the worst PR a country can get in the 21st century, the police gave up. They literally gave up on chasing group after group of immigrants running across the fields into Macedonia. Soon enough, the entire group of more than 4,000 refugees was allowed to enter the country, some of them being registered for temporary asylum, and some not. When reaching the northern border of Macedonia, they were allowed into Serbia without any problems.
So, in retrospect, why did this even happen? Macedonia did not stop the refugees from entering and exiting Macedonia as they have done for months already. No one could’ve hoped that these refugees would turn around and go back to Greece, or that they’d be allowed to do so. To think that the Macedonian police and army would be able to keep thousands of desperate people at the border after years of underfunding is also unrealistic.
Instead, the country became the laughing stock of the world, and even crippled a system that was functioning for the past two months: the otherwise well-done documentation of the refugees crossing the country was compromised by illegal immigrants trying to make it to the northern border. Furthermore, if one compares the number of harmful incidents inflicted upon to refugees and by refugees on the territory of Macedonia, it’s clear that the police needs to protect the refugees.
One theory would be that the entire charade was a cover-up for a greater story. The Macedonian government has a history of using flashy stories to cover up the really big ones, especially in the summer period. However, most of these stories happened on the national stage. Could it be that they underestimated the possibility of the story blowing up in their faces internationally? Additionally, the EU seemed to be completely prepared to look the other way when a convenient humanitarian crisis developed. How is this acceptable behavior by elected representatives in the 21st century? Or are these refugees different simply because of their skin colour?
On the other hand, we must never fully dismiss the possibility that this is simply the result of the sheer stupidity on the part of the Macedonian government. It might sound impossible, but I firmly stand behind Einstein’s statement that we are yet to discover the limits both of the universe and of human stupidity.
Time will give us more answers, especially with the further implementation of the agreement ending the political crisis in Macedonia, including the selection of a special prosecutor happening these days. Whichever way the course of events develops, there is one thing that will remain in history and, hopefully, in our consciousness: The ordeal of hundreds of children crying at the border of our country, afraid of the stun grenades and tear gas, forever bearing the imagery of a Macedonian police uniform as one of the scariest figures of their childhood. The children of our even our worst enemy do not deserve such treatment. May we, as individuals, bow our heads in shame of the stain on our country and may we rediscover our solidarity once again.
As a Macedonian, I mourn for the country we once were.
Cover photo credit: your pics @bbc.com