Interviews and Speeches

Interview of MFA Nikola Poposki for "Le Point"

Macedonia: We have reached numbers of 3,000 migrants per day!

26.08.2015 година

Nikola Poposki, Macedonian Minister of Foreign Affairs, urges European countries to help in controlling and registering migrants in their crossing.

(from our correspondent: Brussels)

 

nikola poposki 2

Since Macedonia has decided to give up policing its border with Greece after the massive surge of migrants, mostly Syrians, this weekend, the European counterparts of the Macedonian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Poposki, asked him to re-establish border control in this transit country on the path to the European Union. This is not too impressive for this 38-year-old politician, who has perfected his French at the University of Rennes, and who talks of a situation which is difficult to manage and which, without EU’s help, may last for a long time. All of this takes place just two days before to the annual Western Balkans Summit in Vienna, where the admission of migrants will be at the core of the discussion.

Le Point : How do you explain this surge of individuals in a single weekend?

Nikola Poposki: Since the beginning of this year, we somehow got used to the number of almost 500 persons entering the country on a daily basis. Last week, in a 24-hour period, this number rose to 2500, and over the weekend it reached 4000 persons per day. Why? Because Greece has received a lot more refugees on the islands. They organised transportation which didn’t transfer them to Athens, but to Thessaloniki, a port city near the Macedonian border. Naturally, the influx occurred in a rather unorganized way. Especially since after arriving at the border, the migrants had faced pressure from Greek authorities to move up north, and have crossed the border illegally outside the crossing points where they can be properly registered.

Upon hearing this, it seems that all the blame falls upon Greece…

Greece doesn't worry too much about controlling the crossing of migrants from Greek to Macedonian territory. Had they tried to control the surge of refugees, the number of individuals arriving daily would have been smaller. This means that the situation would have remained under control and things would have continued at their previous pace. This isn’t about passing blame onto Greece, since they are also facing pressure coming from the Turkish coast. If you ask the opinion of the Macedonian local population on this topic, they would say that they have had enough and that it is better for migrants to leave the territory of Macedonia instead of trying to keep them here. But this would be quite irresponsible! They would move on to Germany, Hungary or perhaps Austria, without leaving behind a single trace of their movement. This is all the more true since a large number of European countries are afraid that there are foreign fighters among the refugees crossing this Balkan route.

And yet, this weekend you opened the border…

Nothing can be managed with such pressure. We are doing everything to maintain the registration system. Several months ago we adopted a law under which all migrants arriving on our territory must be registered. The goal is to control the entry of all individuals. In two months we have registered 40,000 individuals. It is estimated that a double of that or perhaps even more, cross without being registered. In other words, we are in a situation where, on one side, we face pressure from migrants who want to enter and who arrive in such numbers which are simply unmanageable for a country of our size; and on the other, we are criticised for not controlling them. We are doing everything we can to register 100% of the migrants, but in reality this is impossible and we are under no such illusions. Border control reveals that many of them don’t have documents. We have to trust their word. And of course, there will always be migrants who will cross illegally and who will carry on their journey without us even knowing about it.

So what are you, in effect, asking for from your European neighbours?

A small effort on Greece’s part. Furthermore Frontex [European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union] should deploy its operations along the Greek-Turkish border, and we need assistance in controlling illegal entry. Migrants need to be held off and brought to registration locations. This is the least we can do in order to keep a credible register, but also to allow migrants to apply for asylum and to follow the law: an individual has 72 hours to leave the territory of the country if he or she does not want to apply for asylum. Out of the 120,000 migrants that have entered Macedonia since the beginning of this year, so far, only 1,200 have opened the procedure. If we do not register migrants, everything else is futile.

What do you need in the field?

We need equipment such as thermal cameras, like those being used at the Serbian-Hungarian border. The control of individuals moving on foot in Macedonia is an extremely difficult thing to do, due to the geography of the region which abounds in mountain ranges and forests. In addition we need financial assistance. Huge amounts are being spent on border control. We are talking millions here. Just the travel expenses for distributing border police amount to over 100,000 Euros per day. There is also the payment of field personnel, those responsible for registration, water delivery, securing accommodation. All of this costs money. At the moment we are financing everything from our own budget.

And yet the European Union confirmed its financial aid of 90,000 Euros for Macedonia…

90,000 Euros is a small amount compared to our daily expenses for maintaining border control. That aid is good, and it is welcomed, since it allowed us to provide water for several hundred refugees entering our country, to upkeep several access infrastructures, but in the end, it is but a drop in the ocean.

What amount would you ask for?

We are not in a position to send our bill to Brussels and ask the EU to pay it on our behalf. We cover all political and financial expenses although the problem is directly connected and touches the borders of EU member states. Any type of assistance from the European Union would be welcome. But that should be much larger than what we have at the moment.

One of your neighbours, Bulgaria, has decided to send armoured vehicles to its border with your country. What do you think of this step?

We don’t see the reason behind that step. If they feel threatened we are prepared to help. But not a single migrant has crossed the border between Macedonia and Bulgaria. They are headed straight from Turkey to Bulgaria and have no need to circle around from Greece, through Macedonia and they cross over to Bulgaria. That really doesn't make any sense.

Do you believe this situation may influence your candidacy for EU membership, a status you have had for ten years now?

No, I don’t think so. Since 2009, the Commission has continually recommended the opening of accession negotiations. What we are facing is the Greek “No”. In practice, our relations with Greece are excellent (economy, tourism, commerce), but Greece uses its position as a member-state to block our accession process. However, in relations to the migrant crisis, we want the same treatment as any other member-state, because we share this problem with them. The migrant crisis has been ongoing for months now and everything points to the fact that it may last for a long time.