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Kidnap, ransom and cruelty: refugees face hardships over land Open in fullscreen

Sibylle Bandler

Kidnap, ransom and cruelty: refugees face hardships over land

Hundreds of Syrians are finding new routes to the EU [Getty]

Date of publication: 15 June, 2015

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Comment: A growing number of refugees are tirning away from the dangerous Mediterranean route to get to the EU overland. But even this journey has its dangers, says Sibylle Bandler
With nearly 2,000 people having lost their lives in the Mediterranean so far this year, a growing number of refugees of civil war, political oppression and economic deprivation in the Middle East are attempting to reach the EU by land - many of them on foot or by bike.

The most popular overland route for migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, among others, runs via Turkey and Greece into Macedonia, through Serbia, and on to EU member state Hungary, according to the EU border agency Frontex.

Human rights organisations have warned that Macedonia is "the worst place in Europe for refugees", Yet some 300 people cross the border from Greece into Macedonia every day to avoid the dangers that come with attempting to reach the EU via the Mediterranean.

The terrain they are entering is treacherous. Those fleeing violence at home now face the risk of kidnap by gangs, being robbed of their passports, and paying ransoms.

Turning refugees into hostages

Two Syrian students told 20 Minuten, a Swiss news portal, of being kidnapped in Macedonia. The young men were attacked near the Serbian border in Vaksintse, taken to a nearby house, and locked up along with 300 others.

"The place was jam-packed. It was difficult to breathe. At night, people piled up on top of each other to sleep," Mohammed, one of the students, said.

A video recording made on his phone confirmed his account. "We barely got anything to eat. The windows were shut, it was dark, and we were guarded 24 hours a day."

The kidnappers demanded 1,000 euros from the hostages' families to set them free. Refugees from Syria are considered rich by comparison so the ransom is set higher than for other nationalities. But neither Mohammed nor his friend Ahmed knew who to ask for the money.

Ahmed had not heard from his family since he fled Syria after the bombings at Aleppo university in January. Mohammed's mother had lost all her belongings during the civil war.
     At night, people piled up on top of each other to sleep.
Mohammed, refugee

Five days later, the two students had a lucky escape. For unknown reasons the kidnappers evacuated the house and took the group of hostages to a hill. From there, Ahmed and Mohammed were able to flee through nearby mountains and eventually reached Serbia's capital Belgrade.

Other overland obstacles

But gangs of kidnappers and ruthless smugglers are not the only threat faced by migrants trying to escape violence at home. Often their treatment by local police is no better. "They took all our money and passports and beat us," one Syrian woman passing through Macedonia told the BBC.

The sheer logistics of travelling in the region is risky. Most migrants walk alongside major highways or train tracks. At the end of April, 14 people died when a train hit them.

In Macedonia, many locals have started to specialise in selling bicycles to migrants. According to local media, they are being sold at 100-300 euros a piece. In towns such as Gevgelila and Negotino it's hard to find a bicycle, residents told news portal Telegraf.mk.

Refugees often ride in long convoys, carrying large backpacks with food and water. While many looked extremely exhausted after cycling hundreds of miles, they told Telegraf reporters they preferred to travel by bike rather than get killed on the tracks or roads.

Often the migrants do not know the exact routes they need to take, but word spreads quickly among fellow countrymen, and so their long journey continues.

When riders become too tired they rest at the side of the road, using their backpacks as pillows. But few rest for very long, fearing their bicycle will get stolen and sold on to the next refugee.

Syrian refugees interviewed by Telegraf said despite having to undergo this hazardous journey, they were determined to continue. A man said: "People die in Syria daily and it's easy to get killed in a terrorist attack that can happen anywhere.

"We came by boat to Greece and crossed the border to here on foot. Other Syrians told us we could buy bicycles, even though they are extremely expensive. Our women follow us by using the railroads."

Those who do make the journey by foot or rail will find that not everyone is out to take advantage of their situation. Many locals are willing to help.

Near a railway station in Veles, a woman has turned her house into a storage centre to provide migrants with food, water and clean clothes donated by other locals. Similar provisions can be found at other rail stations.

Shameful EU response

With the migrant crisis intensifying, spreading to new locations and affecting millions of people in ways that are still hard to fathom, there remains a shameful void of moral and political leadership in the EU's response to what the UN has called "a tragedy of epic proportions".

While leaders are blaming budget pressure, a patchwork of migration policy, and a public backlash against immigrants across the 28-member EU, it is clearly political will that is lacking when it comes to addressing the scale and the root causes of the crisis.

In light of the scale of the problem, any action taken so far has been, in the words of Amnesty International, "pitifully inadequate and shameful".

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