Macedonia: Ongoing Saga

ongoing sagaSKOPJE | When you are not a member, the European Union (EU) seems like a very exclusive club. Especially when you originate from a non-EU country and you decide to study in the EU. For Macedonia, the nearest EU destination is Greece and, for over a decade, Macedonian students wishing to obtain a British or American diploma without embarking for the United Kingdom or the States have chosen to enroll in private higher education institutions in Greece that are affiliated with these two countries.

However, being close to home and obtaining a Western diploma is a bittersweet experience for many Macedonian students. On the one hand, they enjoy the privilege of living in a foreign country and experiencing a different student life than they would have at home. On the other hand, when it comes to obtaining a student residence permits in Greece, they face massive bureaucratic obstacles.

Elena is a graduate of CITY, an institution affiliated with the British University of Sheffield in Salonica, the second biggest city in Greece. She is one of the many students that selected this institution due to its proximity to Macedonia and because of its high quality instruction. “I lived and studied in Greece for three years. Within that time I applied for a student permit two times, gave up the third time and got a tourist visa instead,” explained Elena. The first two times she applied for a student residence permit as soon as she arrived in Greece, but twice in a row she received the permit only one day before it expired.

Students are required to submit documents such as bank statements proving they have at least 6000 euros or a signed statement that they will deposit 500 euro each month.  They are also required to show proof of medical check ups, student visas, and college enrollment forms, as well as submit an application form and a non-refundable fee of 150 euros. In addition, students were sometimes called back later to re-submit some basic documents such as papers after already having submitted them, without which they would not be allowed to conclude the application process for a residence permit.

“I expected that I would get my student permit within a month or two at the most.  But both years I applied, the authorities in Salonica issued the permit exactly on the day that it would expire,” Elena added.

The process of filing the necessary documents was grueling. Five years ago, protocol dictated that students had to line up at 07:00 in front of the Foreign Police headquarters and obtain a number, then had return to again at 12:00-14:00.  The police had only two business hours per day, and only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Elena compared the treatment to that of cattle, with people pushing and running over each other to get ahead in line.

Luckily, the morning number-taking procedure has been cancelled, and the office dealing with students has been separated from that which deals with all immigrants.  But students say it is still, more or less, the same tedious procedure.

“It is time-consuming and frustrating”, said Natasha, another Salonica graduate from New York College in Greece. She recalls meeting students from Russia, Ukraine, Albania, Egypt, Serbia and the United States, students from both state universities and private colleges in front of the Foreign Police in Salonica, all of them with the same problem.  She described the clerks dealing with students as slow and sometimes rude, with very poor English skills. In her opinion, the main problem is that the Foreign Police seems to be in a constant state of chaos. “Nobody knows when your application will be processed; there is no exact amount of time when you will get news about the application,” she explained.

Elena emphasized the exact same problem. In her second-year saga of the student residence permit, she was bouncing back and forth between the Foreign Police in her municipality and the headquarters. “I was there every week, waiting in front of the door just to be rejected with the excuse that the permit is not ready and they don’t know what the hold up is.” Several times she even went with a Greek friend, thinking that by diminishing the language barrier she may get a more in-depth explanation. “They just shrugged their shoulders and told me and my Greek friend that only God knows when the permit will be ready. We were both left speechless,” said Elena, still shaking her head in disbelief.

Another former student, Maya, testified that she was so fed up with the waiting process she raised her voice at the clerk and told her she was determined not to leave until they give her the residence permit. “I was very serious and started arguing in Greek. In one hour, my residence permit was ready. Students usually fear the clerks and leave. As it turns out, the other approach was more useful. But this whole process is beyond normal reason,” said Maya.

What is most troubling to students is the limited movement dictated by their status in Greece. They are not able to leave Greece except for the Christmas and Easter holidays, and one month during the summer. If they decide to leave the country for the weekend or some bank holiday, they need to obtain a new student visa from the Greek consulate in Skopje, which costs extra time and money, and requires collecting documents for the student visa all over again.

Students often turn to their colleges for help.The administrative staff of  CITY-University of Sheffield, say the student office fights a constant battle with the Foreign Police. One administrator mentioned that over 70 percent of CITY students are foreigners, most of them from the former countries of Yugoslavia. “We understand their frustration and concern, but there is really nothing that we can do,” he explained. “The team from our student office is in constant contact with the Foreign Police, inquiring on the development of the residence permit process for our students. But our calls and pleading seem not to have any power over the functioning of that institution.”

When faced with a conundrum, students find a way to solve it. Since few have the money to resort to bribes, they have instead found a loophole in the process which enables them to travel freely: instead of getting a student residence permit, they apply for a Type C tourist visa, that allows a stay of 90 days within 6 months. But, while this can make their lives and travel temporarily easier, it can additionally complicate things when crossing the border if they reside in the country for over two weeks. Students report that confronting the border police can be unpleasant, but most of the time, the latter have shown sympathy toward these students. However, the border police always warn students that they need to get their permits in order, regardless of the difficulties involved.

Natasha strongly believes that the limitation on travel is unacceptable. But she is aware that the problem is not unique: her friends that study or finished their studies in Italy and the Czech Republic, for example, have faced the same problems. “We students are, after all, not immigrants, we spend an abundance of money in those countries, and our main purpose in choosing these places is obtaining better Westernized education. At least for that reason authorities should not make us struggle for student residence permits,” she concluded.

While Natasha and Elena may have concluded their battle, new non-EU students are still lining up at the doors of the Foreign Police every day. Anxiously waiting for their turn to come, folders in hands, they watch the expressions of students coming out of the building. Seeing a happy, relieved student puts a brief smile on everyone else’s face. But just for a moment, since it is soon their turn to enter the office and face the music. One thing is for sure: they all wish they were born in a different country, where students and citizens alike have long forgotten the meaning of visas and residence permits.


Tags: ,


Share this Post