In-depth | Refugees

Playing the EU border game

By - 23.02.2018

Closed borders means thousands of migrants remain in Balkan limbo.

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.”

Photo: Milutin Marković.

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.”

Photo: Milutin Marković.

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.

Police violence

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.

Photo: Milutin Marković.
Photo: Milutin Marković.
Photo: Milutin Marković.
Photo: Milutin Marković.
Photo: Milutin Marković.
Photo: Milutin Marković.
Photo: Milutin Marković.
Photo: Milutin Marković.
Photo: Milutin Marković.

From January through November 2017, an MSF team working in Serbia recorded 41 cases of inflicting intentional injuries on people who attempted to cross the Croatian border. According to the words of one MSF analyst, Andrea Kontenta, similar injuries were noticed among all patients, inflicted by nightsticks, kicking and fists.

Those who are pushed back from Croatia to Serbia, either walk back to the center they live in, or stay in the border area in order to try again. For several months, the number of migrants residing in Šid and its surroundings has been between 100 and 150. They sleep in forests, abandoned facilities, in various makeshift shelters.

One of them is Safi from Pakistan. Tired of constant attempts to cross and life in the “jungle” — the word used by many to refer to life around Šid — he dreams about his home. “I think about getting back home more often. I miss my wife and children,” he says. “The part of Pakistan I come from is very poor. Often, they don’t have anything to eat there. I wanted to go to Europe to provide them with better living conditions, but I’m afraid that won’t be possible.”

K2.0 met Harun from Afghanistan in Belgrade after yet another attempt to cross into Hungary. He says that the police halted his group and beat them up. They hit him in his genitals, which humanitarian volunteers say isn’t a rarity. He also thinks about returning home.

“I tried eight times to cross through Croatia, five times through Hungary. The last time the Hungarian police beat me up pretty badly,” Harun says. “I can’t do this anymore. Everything is becoming unbearable. Departures to ‘game,’ and the beatings, and life in camp, and the fact that I can’t fall asleep at night… I paid the smugglers 6,000 euros to bring me to Europe. Now I just want to go back home.”

However, at home, Afghanistan is still not safe, and returning back there could endanger Harun’s life.

Life in Serbia

Amir says that the smugglers demand that everybody loses their camp entry cards and other documents prior to ‘game’ departure. If they don’t manage to cross over, the Commissariat for Refugees, on the basis of photographs made in camps where they were originally registered, issues returnees with new camp entry cards.

“In one-stop centers there is no registration, but only records are kept, and during this process data is collected that is part of an individual or family form (name, surname, birth date, country of origin, etc.),” Svetlana Palić from the Commissariat explained in an email to K2.0, adding that the government wants as many migrants in Serbia as possible to be placed in the centers.

Many prefer to avoid the camps, where living conditions have been criticized, instead wanting more flexibility to quickly move on through Serbia.

Volunteers claim that several hundred people in Serbia sleep outside of the camps, mostly in Šid, Subotica, Kikinda and Belgrade. Food, clothes, showers and other types of assistance for those who sleep in the open are provided by volunteers, who continue to flow in from throughout Europe.

Photo: Milutin Marković.

According to Sonja Tošković, a jurist from the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, the practice — which was visible throughout 2017 — of the Department for Foreigners and its Office for Asylum is that each person is only allowed to express their intention to obtain asylum in Serbia once. This means that a person who has received confirmation of their asylum claim, but who subsequently doesn’t check into the envisaged one-stop center, or who is prevented from making an irregular crossing of the border, has no right to re-register.

This kind of treatment is contrary to the provisions of the Geneva Convention, which foresees that a person must have access to the asylum procedure no matter whether there has been a discontinuity in their stay in the country in which they have applied for asylum, as long as the Office for Asylum hasn’t made a final decision on their asylum claim.

UNHCR representatives told K2.0 that there shouldn’t be any differences in the treatment of those who have been caught irregularly crossing the border and returned to Serbia, and those who aren’t in the same position.

In the first 10 months of 2017, some 5,153 people expressed their wish to seek asylum in Serbia. In the same period, the Asylum Office granted three persons with refugee status and 10 with subsidiary protection, which includes a temporary residence permit for Serbia for the period of a few years, with the possibility of returning to the country of origin after the expiration of that period.

After visiting Serbia and Hungary in November 2017, the special representative of the general secretary of the Council of Europe for Migration and Refugees, Ambassador Tomaš Boček, reported to the Council of Europe that, in many cases, refugees are not given basic information about the asylum procedure in Serbia and generally aren’t able to contact the responsible body for asylum issues. He added that the problem with the so-called ‘Hungarian list’ that is being used to let a certain quota of people across the border each day is that it hasn’t been formalized and isn’t transparent, hence there is danger of corruption.

Amir, like most people who have been halted in Serbia, dreams of moving forward. “I don’t know what I should do now, but I’m not going back to Croatia, or Hungary. I will spend the winter in Serbia for sure, and we will see what to do later.”K

This story was produced as part of the Reporting Migration and Trafficking in the Western Balkans project by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, in cooperation with the Center of Investigative Journalist of Serbia (CINS).

Feature image:  Milutin Marković.

  • 11 Mar 2018 - 09:01 | Touker:

    The guy could have stayed in Hungary if he had agreed with staying in detention camp for half an year and he refused. Let me say that during cold war, when people fled from Czechoslovakia ruled by communists and crossed borders to Austria, they often spent more than one year in detention camps before they were allowed to settle in Western Europe or USA/Can.

  • 25 Feb 2018 - 14:38 | Kastriot:

    What I don't get with articles like this is how these economic immigrants (most of the time) are portrayed as victims. This person doesn't need to enter the EU, the aim of a asylum seekers and refugees is to save their lives from dangers they face in their homecountries because they are persecuted or the country is in a civil war. He already was safe once he was in Turkey, there is no need for him to get to the EU (and he was there already when being in Bulgaria and if he'd had a genuine reason to claim asylum the Bulgarians would've granted that to him. He was in Hungary too, but because of doubts that he is indeed a minor - which are legit doubts since studies in Sweden showed that 80% of minor refugees/asylum seekers are in fact adults, a similar study in Austria found that >40% of minor asylum seekers were adults - he went to Serbia again. He can't just bend the rules and laws to his liking, that's not how this works. Asylum seekers are not entitled to be granted asylum if they don't meet the criteria and they are also not entitled to reside in Western Europe. The truth with almost all of them is that they seek western EU destinations because of the financial benefits they'd get there and not because they'll save their lives, they don't need to be in the EU for that. And I'm really sympathetic with people who want to live a better life, I really am, but the search of a better life is not an asylum reason. If they want to get into the EU there's other ways. It may not be as fast but it's their best bet and the fairest ways to attain the right of residing there.