Abandoned warehouses behind the main train station in the center of Belgrade, have become shelter for more than 1,000 people who are stuck in Serbia’s capital on their way from the Middle East to Western Europe. Waiting to cross the border with Hungary, refugees and other migrants, mainly coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan, spend the cold winter with temperatures below zero in derelict former customs buildings with no doors, windows, electricity or water.

According to United Nations estimates, there are around 6,500 migrants currently staying in Serbia. However, local NGOs say that there are many more — at least 10,000. The vast majority are attempting to cross the Hungarian border in order to reach Western Europe. However, only a few dozen manage to succeed in this each day.

In the 19 official reception centers across the county, there is room for 6,000 people who are using the Balkan route to head to European Union member states. However many migrants choose to remain in ruined warehouses, in appalling living conditions, deterred from seeking accommodation in the state-runs shelters by a condition that to stay there they must seek asylum in Serbia; most do not want to do this as they are afraid that it will mean their requests for asylum in the countries they want to stay in being denied.

The cold warehouses at the train station are also chosen by some for another reason — fear of illegal deportation. Even though Serbia’s officials deny this, there are increasing rumors among the refugees and other migrants of deportations to Bulgaria and Macedonia. These doubts have been inflated by an unresolved case from December, when a seven-member family from Afghanistan was pulled out of a bus that was driving them to a reception center and left in a forest, close to the border with Bulgaria. The family was rescued, whereas the Ombudsperson is investigating what happened.

Rumors of illegal deportations were confirmed a month ago by the UNHCR Office in Belgrade, whose data shows that during last November alone, around 1,000 migrants were deported illegally from Serbia.

Refugees and other migrants that still decide to knock on the door of some of the official camps, may find rejection due to the lack of accommodation capacity. Some who have found themselves in the warehouses say they they have been there for three months already, since they were denied access to the official reception center in the Belgrade suburb of Krnjaca, and were directed instead to Presevo.

Those staying at the dilapidated former customs premises are more or less left to fend for themselves. Domestic humanitarian organizations are banned from assisting refugees and migrants outside of official reception centers, following an open letter issued by the Government of Serbia’s Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Affairs in November. The British humanitarian NGO, Hot Food Indomeni, which delivers a meal each day, and Doctors Without Borders, are the only official sources of support.

According to United Nations estimates, there are around 6,500 migrants currently staying in Serbia. However, local NGOs say that there are many more — at least 10,000.
Those staying at the dilapidated former customs premises are more or less left to fend for themselves.

Photos: Ibro Hasanovic.
Text: Milena Popovic.