Amir, a 16-year-old Afghan, has been travelling toward the European Union for more than a year and a half. He arrived in Serbia, alone and unaccompanied, via the land route through Turkey and Bulgaria, but not before smugglers had kept him detained in Istanbul for weeks, blackmailing his father into paying an additional 1,000 euros.
“They were Afghan,” he recalls. “I was there for 20-25 days. I received food and water once a week, mainly spending my time in a room. They beat me from time to time, mostly on the soles of my feet. They didn’t beat me every day, but every few days.”
When his parents paid the ransom, Amir was released: “They put a blindfold over my eyes and placed me in a car, and then they drove, and drove… They left me in a street. I didn’t know where I was, what city I was in. Then I realized that it was the Istanbul district of Zeytinburnu. That’s where I met [some other] guys from Afghanistan and went on my way to Bulgaria.”
He spent some four months in the Bulgarian camp Bosmanci. But with Bulgaria rarely granting asylum to people from Afghanistan, and in fear of being deported, he continued toward Serbia. He managed to cross the border at the second or third attempt. “In Bulgaria, I drank some water in the woods that wasn’t good,” he says. “Since then, I often have aches in my kidneys. The doctor gives me some antibiotics, medicine for the pain, and then releases me, and when it hurts again, I let him know.”
Amir is now residing in Belgrade, and volunteers with an organization working with refugees to make the time pass more quickly in between constant attempts to cross into the EU.
He is one of the 3,800 people that currently live in five permanent and 13 temporary one-stop centers in Serbia, according to data from the Commissariat for Refugees. Last year, the number was more than 8,000. A small portion have managed to cross legally into Hungary but most head for the ‘green borders’ — across fields — of Croatia or Romania; some have recently even set off in the direction of Bosnia and Herzegovina, attempting to enter Croatia via a different route.
The crossing into Hungary is exceptionally difficult, both because of strong border control measures — including the infamous four-meter high border fence — and police violence. The situation with Croatia is similar. Volunteers on the ground report regularly on police violence at the borders and the horrific life conditions for the mostly young men who live in the border areas.
Amir says that he has actually managed to enter into the EU from Serbia once after managing to cross into Hungary. He crossed legally after he had been a victim of smugglers’ violence in Serbia, and several organizations had lobbied for him to be included in the so-called ‘list’ that enables the legal crossing of the border. Until recently, 20 persons could enter Hungary in this way each day, but now the rules have changed and only two people can enter at a time.
Once there, he stayed for more than a month in a closed camp called Roszke — many have compared it to a prison.
He applied for asylum in Hungary, but at the end of 2017 he returned to Serbia; he says that the Hungarian authorities didn’t trust him when he said he was a minor, and attempted to transfer him to a camp in which he could have spent up to six months, without the possibility of leaving. For Amir and many others who were on the path to finding a better life, this would have taken too long.
After the Hungary experience, he attempted to cross over the ‘green border’ into Croatia as many as eight times. However, every single time, as is the case with many others who try to do likewise — many of whom have been forcibly pushed back to Serbia — the police prevented him from doing so.
“I don’t sleep well. I think a lot. I think about my parents and about how I will cross over,” Amir says. “Serbia is fine, but I know I have to move forward because there is no future for me here. I can’t go back.”
Amir started his road from Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan after his father got sick, and the Taliban, who still have power in this part of the country, prevented him from working and earning in order to provide for his family. After one particular encounter with the Taliban, his parents decided to send Amir to Europe, where, they hoped, their child would be safe.
“My father paid the smugglers 3,000 euros to smuggle me into Europe. I have an uncle in Belgium. Now, he occasionally sends money — 100 euros a month, or for several months,” Amir says. “Some refugees here buy pizza, Coca Cola… I don’t. I try to save up money, so that I can get a game.”
Amir and other refugees refer to every attempt to cross the border as a ‘game.’ One ‘game,’ with a taxi driver from Belgrade to Šid or elsewhere near the Croatian border, costs between 50 and 70 euros, although prices are constantly changing.
Those who still have money go alongside the smugglers. Others move in groups, led only by GPS. Ever since 2015, those who have travelled from Belgrade have been finding connections for moving forward in the Faculty of Economics park. At a certain time, a few times a week, groups of four or five men move in an organized manner toward the Serbo-Croatian border.
Since 2015, when refugees began crossing through the Balkans to the EU in large numbers, Serbia has become an important stop along the ‘Balkans route.’ After the EU closed its borders in March 2016, thousands of people remained stuck on this route, and if they want to carry on along their path, they are forced to seek alternative ways of entering the EU.
Closed borders made those travelling vulnerable. Not only are they often victims of smugglers, but also victims of EU countries’ police that don’t hesitate to use force and illegal expulsion, neglecting international humanitarian law that prescribes that every person has the right to seek asylum in a state in which they find themselves, no matter the way they entered a particular country, or whether they possess personal documents.
In Serbia, refugees like Amir, who haven’t sought asylum, are recognized by the domestic legal system as illegal migrants with rights to housing and urgent health care. The Law on Foreigners allows for the deportation to the country of origin, but since deportation is expensive, Serbia isn’t deporting anybody.
Stevan Tatalović, a researcher in the field of migration and a volunteer with refugee assistance NGO Info Park, explained that, since fall 2017, Serbia has become a center from which migrants move outward in all directions: toward Romania, Bulgaria and Greece, or across Montenegro and Albania toward Italy. “Nobody would have thought that these routes are possible, but it happens,” he says.
Most often, they move on foot. Amir says that he has to walk for three hours from Šid to the Croatian border. If he manages to cross over, he will walk through Croatia and Slovenia for five to six days: “You have one T-shirt, one pair of pants, a bottle of water, 1-2 loaves of bread… There are around 15 of us in a group. Once we spent five days on the Croatian border waiting for smugglers, before the police caught us.”
In the reports of volunteer groups that work with migrants, but also those of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), many brutal violence cases against those who enter Croatia are described, for which they accuse members of the local police. Until now, the police has continuously denied that this is happening.