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Bumpy Ride: Desperate Migrants Take To Bikes In Balkans

Migrants near the central Macedonian city of Veles.
Migrants near the central Macedonian city of Veles.

People fleeing conflict zones across the Mediterranean and desperately hoping to build new lives in Europe are said to be taking to two wheels for the Macedonian leg of their journey.

Local media in Macedonia report that migrants -- including many Syrians -- have been spotted on bicycles this week, pedaling night and day along the highway from Demir Kapija through the industrial hub of Veles and north toward Serbia.

In many cases, they are riding with toddlers or infants strapped to their chests.

If such migrants manage to avoid the authorities as they travel by foot or by train from Greece, they arrive in the former Ottoman town of Demir Kapija, where they buy bicycles for the next leg of their journey.

One Twitter user shared photos of what he called "a river of migrants on bikes in front of Veles," a city in central Macedonia.

Macedonia's Interior Ministry says the number of illegal migrants has quadrupled in the past four months. Thousands of migrants are now entering the country every week, officials say.

Bikes appear to have gained popularity among such migrants since armed policemen began patrolling railway stations.

There have been a number of migrant deaths in Macedonia in the past year -- including in April, when a train killed 14 migrants from Somalia and Afghanistan traveling along the tracks -- but none of those tragedies involved bicycles.

The journey for migrants is fraught with danger.

Some reports say gangs have robbed migrants or held them hostage in an effort to extract ransom from their families.

Two Syrian women interviewed by the Macedonian unit of RFE/RL's Balkan Service complained that local police had forced them to pay bribes. Once they arrived to Gevgelija, the women said local residents sold them a used bike for 150 euros which led to an accident in the town of Negotino that left them injured and helpless.

Profiteering ... But Also Support

Local media suggest that the town Demir Kapija has profited at the expense of the migrants. Residents are said to hawk bikes for up to 500 euros ($560), a loaf of bread can cost outsiders at least 100 dinars ($1.83), or around three times the price for locals, and a liter of Coca-Cola can cost 200 dinars ($3.60) or more.

But even with all the profiteering, many local activists and residents have also appealed to the public to protect and provide for the migrants.

A Facebook group called "Let's help asylum seekers in…" was created by activists from local and international aid agencies as well as local reporters. It has attracted more than 3,000 members and shares appeals for aid packages and photos about the situation of the migrants crossing the country.

Activist Mersiha Smailovic has shared photos and stories of the migrants she has met and appealed for people to donate items like shoes for those who have to make the journey by foot.

Another activist, Jasmin Redzepi, has shared photos and stories of migrant journeys and the gratitude that some have expressed toward those activists and local residents who await them with food and clothing.

Elsewhere, near the railway station in the city of Veles, a woman named Lence is gaining renown for organizing food deliveries from other parts of Macedonia, with the help of Facebook. She bakes bread herself and waits for the dozens of migrants who arrive every night along the tracks.

Some activists say the problem could be alleviated by draft changes to the current legislation on asylum to make it legal for migrants to cross through Macedonia. The proposal would grant migrants a free, three-day pass for transit through Macedonia, and allow them to use hospitals and public transport. Proponents argue that such changes will reduce the influence of predatory gangs and encourage migrants to use safer methods of travel, including trains.

Macedonia has been criticized over its treatment of migrants. Their conditions were highlighted by reports on conditions at a Transit Center for Foreigners in the Gazi Baba municipality, which houses asylum seekers and other migrants. A recent video shared on social media shows people behind bars there calling out in English: "We want freedom."