Continuing the fight for migrant rights in North Macedonia

By Maria Creamer | May 3, 2021 | Europe & Eurasia | Freedom from Violence & Exploitation

Legis has shown incredible grit in its work with migrant youth and families in North Macedonia, which shares borders with five other countries. Although the coronavirus pandemic has added heartbreaking challenges, the organization’s leaders continue to maintain Legis’s activities and to take advantage of opportunities that arise.

Based in Skopje, North Macedonia, Legis was founded by six students interested in increasing local resources and furthering humanitarian efforts in their community. The organization has since shifted and evolved to address the needs of children, youth, and families escaping war-stricken countries.

A young man having a quiet moment. © Legis

“We wanted to help them now, when they were already in our country,” explained Jasmin Redjepi, General Secretary at Legis. “We were the first ones who started doing it in North Macedonia.”

In 2015, Legis started to train and deploy mobile teams that could provide immediate in-person relief such as medical aid, food and water, and psychosocial support. In addition to these mobile teams, the organization established camps along major migratory routes. As Legis grew, the organization prioritized unaccompanied children and youth due to their extreme vulnerability.

“We definitely focus on children and youth first,” said Mersiha Smailovikj, President at Legis. “Especially those who are unaccompanied minors because they are the ones who need it the most.”

Although the immediate relief and camps were invaluable, the organization quickly realized the need for significant change in the country’s legal structures and systems. “At that time, migrants needed legal visibility,” said Jasmin. “They were considered illegal migrants who had no rights. Any smuggler or any criminal could impact them – no one was responsible for this.”

The lack of legal visibility often resulted in exhausted and discouraged individuals and families becoming targets for smugglers. These circumstances led to unfortunate cases of families trapped in debt or separated, as well as cases of trafficking and even killings.

In response, Legis began to fight for the visibility and legal rights of all migrants and refugees and started to track migratory patterns into and out of North Macedonia. To build a stronger case, Legis documented where people were coming from, why they were coming, and what kind of support they needed once in North Macedonia.

Mersiha, President of Legis (pictured far left), advocating for the rights of migrants on national television. © Legis

In 2015, Legis’s efforts contributed to the approval of an asylum law that created short-term legal protection for individuals and families considering asylum in North Macedonia or simply needing resources during their journey.

The asylum law lowered a migrant’s risk of becoming a victim of smugglers or violent crime, since migrants were now recognized by the government and had broader access to safe checkpoints and resources. However, when the coronavirus pandemic began to sweep the world, migrants and refugees faced a new level of hardship.

“Ultimately, they are not protected,” said Jasmin. “There’s no access to healthcare, tests, masks, or hygiene kits. These are children on the move… these kids cannot quarantine for 14 days.”

In response to COVID-19, Legis developed a multilayered response that first required consent from its team and then involved equipping its team members with the necessary protection. Due to the nature of their work, working from home is not an option.

Within the camps and local communities, the first wave of relief provided hygiene kits, masks, and hot meals. As it became more apparent that the pandemic wasn’t going away, Legis installed multifunctional workout stations at several camps to create a safe space for physical and mental exercise. In addition to workout stations, Legis began to encourage movement through hikes and walks, during which the migrants were accompanied by trained therapists. These moments have been crucial for trying to connect with children, youth, and women.

Mersiha is being interviewed alongside a common migrant route. © Legis.

“These activities are important because the children can play and talk,” said Jasmin. “It is especially important for the women. We can then easily connect and see if any problems are arising… which we can then help them solve.”

Jasmin and Mersiha shared the story of a young Somali mother who had been traveling with her two sons until she was separated from her 10-year-old. The mother was devastated and stopped eating or communicating. It was during one of the outdoor activities that Legis was able to connect with her and create a plan to reunite this mother with her child.

“There are many cases like this… If the state was more cooperative, we would be better able to help — but coronavirus has shifted priorities and focus,” said Mersiha.

In 2020, Legis joined Global Fund for Children’s Reducing Violence Against Migrant Children in Southeast Europe initiative. The initiative supports a network of four community-based organizations that are increasing protections for migrant children and youth.

“Since joining, we feel more focused and supported, so we are better able to support migrant children and youth,” said Jasmin. “We have been able to increase our visibility and develop a broad network of similar organizations in the region — making our access to refugees and vice versa more open.”

Learn more about how GFC is supporting children and youth affected by the coronavirus – and how you can help.

Header photo: Jasmin, General Secretary at Legis, shares snacks with a young girl. © Legis 



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