Rights & Freedoms

Afghan Exodus: Notes from a Belgrade squat


A group of men huddle around a fire

A group of Afghans tries to stay warm in the 'Belgrade squat' - a series of abandoned warehouses behind the main bus station. November 2016. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

The number of migrants, many of them Afghan, in Serbia has been steadily growing in the second half of 2016. More people continue to arrive, while departures have largely stagnated due to Hungary and Croatia tightening their border controls. As a result, Serbia is faced with a growing number of people on its soil who do not want to stay, but are unable to leave – despite trying very hard. Some enter the asylum system (or indicate that they might do so in the future) and are housed in government-run centres, while others are camping out in central Belgrade. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert and Jelena Bjelica visited the main unofficial locations where well over a thousand people are trying to keep warm, dry and healthy, while winter is coming and the chances of continuing their journey to western Europe seem slim.

The situation in Belgrade; a large squat in the middle of town

In early November 2016, AAN spent a week in central Belgrade, speaking to aid workers and to migrants in the main location in Belgrade where they are now camping out – three rows of deserted buildings, which used to be the customs warehouses, located behind the central bus station. Living conditions in the buildings are dire. The main building is a large concrete shell with a leaking roof. The windows high up in the walls are broken and let in cold draughts, but not enough fresh air to counteract the thick smoke from the many small fires lit for cooking and to try to keep warm. It is difficult to breathe. Other people have found rooms in smaller buildings in the vicinity or have set up tents in the porches of the warehouses. Some even sleep outside to escape the smoke and noise at night, but with winter coming, they will not be able to do so for very much longer. At peak times, there are well over a thousand people (according to the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees, with the Serbian acronym KIRS) living, sleeping and passing through this small patch of the city that is only a stone’s throw away from normal life. Indeed, the warehouse area doubles as a guarded parking lot, so during the day the area is often full of cars. There is also a small makeshift bar where some migrants who have money go for a daily lunch of scrambled eggs, and a ‘Chess Club’ which is frequented by the KIRS employees.

The squat was overwhelmingly populated by Afghans and Pakistanis, with a sprinkling of Iranians and Bangladeshis, and one lone Nigerian. There were no women in the squat. (1) Among the Afghans, AAN mainly encountered men from the east (Nangarhar, Jalalabad and Kunar) and Kabul city and its surroundings (Paghman, Parwan). On one day, there were also two new arrivals who were from Bamyan and who clearly stood out. In general, there seemed to be a regular trickle of new arrivals, mainly coming from Bulgaria (a handful per day), but the main crowd was made up of men and boys who had, by then, spent several weeks and sometimes months in Serbia. Many of them had started out staying in parks and garages, sometimes spending periods in one of the government-run centres, after which they had gravitated towards the squat. Inside the squat, most migrants had organised themselves into small groups, usually of around four to ten people, who seemed to pool their resources in terms of cooking and organising their living spaces. The larger warehouses had been divided into makeshift ‘rooms’ often demarcated by wooden beams and derelict furniture. The lucky ones had managed to secure actual rooms in abandoned houses next to the warehouses, or one of the area’s guardhouses. None of the buildings had heating or electricity.

The main building is a large concrete shell with a leaking roof. The windows let in cold draughts, but not enough fresh air to counteract the thick smoke from the many small fires lit for cooking and to try to keep warm. The larger warehouses had been divided into makeshift ‘rooms’ often demarcated by wooden beams and derelict furniture. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

The main building is a large concrete shell with a leaking roof. The windows let in cold draughts, but not enough fresh air to counteract the thick smoke from the many small fires lit for cooking and to try to keep warm. The larger warehouses had been divided into makeshift ‘rooms’ often demarcated by wooden beams and derelict furniture. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

On different days, the inhabitants of the warehouses complained to AAN about different things. One morning, several men mentioned how difficult it was to sleep, as some of the squat’s inhabitants played loud music, danced and got drunk at night. Other nights, people barely slept because of rumours that the police was on their way to conduct a raid. Commissariat staff said that they visited the building each morning at 6 am to do a headcount (which may have been the reason for the panic, as their blue coats can be mistaken for a uniform). As the weather turned, complaints focused around the cold and the heavy smoke. Serbia has cold winters and heavy inland snowfall, and in the first week of November the temperature at night started dipping below freezing.

Hot Food Idomeni, an NGO made up of volunteers that had originally started work in the Idomeni camp in Greece, distributes food at the squat at lunchtime, parking its van between two of the warehouses and handing out around 1,200 hot meals per day. Many migrants queued more than once in order to receive double or triple portions – a practice that was encouraged by the volunteers, who distributed until the food ran out (at the time of the visit Hot Food Idomeni was the only organisation in the city still distributing food to migrants that had to fend for themselves). Estimates of the squat’s population varied from 800 to 1,500 people. According to a Commissariat’s head-count on one of the days, there had been around 1,300 people in the warehouses in the early morning (of a cold and rainy night) and around 500 during the lunch distribution.

The inhabitants of the squat queue for the daily lunch that provided by the NGO Hot Food Idomeni. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

The NGO Hot Food Idomeni distributes food at the squat once per day at lunchtime, parking its van between two of the warehouses and handing out around 1,200 hot meals. Many migrants queued more than once in order to receive double or triple portions – a practice that was encouraged. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

Most of the squatters that AAN met appeared to be stuck. They had spent far longer in Serbia than they had ever meant to, but were having trouble continuing their journey. Most of them had tried many times to get into Hungary through the increasingly difficult border crossing, but had failed; others were now trying to see if they would have more luck entering Croatia. Several of them had been duped and then dumped by their smugglers, and most of them had run out of money.

The population of the squat is fluid, which is a reflection of how migrants try to navigate the various official and unofficial options available to them. Many of the men and boys in the squat had, at some point, spent time in one or more of the government-run facilities. Some of them were still registered there and dipped in and out of the squat. This trend of going back and forth between the different modes of accommodation (from asylum centre to squat or park) was already noticeable in summer, when many people who were housed in the Krnjača asylum centre travelled back and forth between the camp and the city, spending their days in the centre of Belgrade where they could socialise, contact local NGOs for aid or advice, and seek to reconnect with their smuggler’s network (or find a new one). Now, however, the back-and-forth is complicated by the fact that single men are increasingly being housed in government-run centres that are located at the country’s borders. However, many of the men in the squat still seem to dip in and out of the government-run camps.

The ‘Afghan Park’ is in central Belgrade, just a few blocks away from the squat, continued to be a hub of migrant activity. It is close to the main bus station where many Afghans are dropped when they first arrive in Belgrade and where many Afghans gather, to socialise, connect with aid organisations and await news from their smugglers. It is also the gathering location for many of the attempts to illegally cross into Hungary or Croatia. When AAN revisited the park in early November 2016, it was particularly busy at dusk. Also, the tables at the hamburger shop were covered in extension cords, making them into crowded mobile phone charging stations. For further details on the ‘Afghan Park’ see this earlier AAN report on the changing role of smugglers on the Balkan route.

The tables at the hamburger shop in the 'Afghan Park' were covered in extension cords, making them into crowded mobile phone charging stations.

The tables at the hamburger shop in the ‘Afghan Park’ were covered in extension cords, making them into crowded mobile phone charging stations. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

Local NGOs mentioned that they were seeing a greater proportion of underage migrants in Belgrade. Gordan Paunović from InfoPark, for instance, estimated that possibly up to one third of the male migrants currently in Belgrade could be between 14 and 18 years old (when they were still involved in food distributions in the park in September 2016, they said they would observe between 250 and 300 minors among a crowd of approximately 800). Although this number seems high, AAN did meet a considerable number of boys who seemed clearly younger than 18 in the squat and the park (and even a few children younger than ten years old). For example, AAN met three boys who said they were 12, 13 and 14 years old (and did indeed look young), milling around in the crowd in the ‘Afghan Park’. They told AAN they had arrived the day before, were travelling in a group of eight from the Paghman district in Kabul and had been on the road for four months. They were waiting to, as they called it, “hit the game” (in Persian, game zadan), slang for trying to illegally cross the border.

Serbian policies; how the squat came into being

Serbia sees itself as a transit country – which is also how migrants view the country. In late 2015 and early 2016, over a million people travelled through the western Balkans on their way to Europe; a ‘humanitarian corridor’ provided certain nationalities – including Afghans – transportation to the outer fringes of the European Union (the so-called ‘Balkan corridor’). The closure of the Balkan corridor in February 2016 and the adoption of the EU-Turkey deal, that allowed Greece to return to Turkey all new, irregular migrants arriving after 20 March 2016, was supposed to stem the flow of migrants, but there is still a steady trickle into the region, including into Serbia, mainly via Bulgaria.

When the Balkan corridor closed, Belgrade made it clear that it did not intend to host everyone who happened to be passing through, but with the ever-tightening border controls in Hungary and, to a lesser extent, Croatia, the outflow of migrants has been stagnating. The Serbian authorities, as a result, are faced with a growing number of people who are unable to leave. With winter coming, it has become increasingly difficult to turn a blind eye to what is, in essence, a potential humanitarian crisis brewing in the centre of the capital city.

A migrant cooks lunch on the remains of a former warhouse, at the edge of the squat. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

A migrant cooks lunch on the remains of a former warhouse, at the edge of the squat. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

However, the capacity of the Serbian authorities to deal with the growing numbers is limited. According to figures provided by the Serbian government and quoted by UNHCR, there are currently around 6,200 migrants in Serbia, mainly from Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Local NGOs, however, estimate that the total number of migrants in the country is probably closer to 9,000 (Reuters, see here, mentions a figure of 10,000) and growing. The Serbian government aims to house all migrants in government-run centres, but the current total capacity of its centres is around 4,800 beds. Many of the centres were originally set up to accommodate the large numbers of migrants passing through the Balkans corridor and are now hastily being refurbished to make them fit for a longer-term stay.

The existence of the squat in the abandoned warehouses has largely been caused by the ambivalence of the Serbian authorities, which has left migrants confused as to what is expected of them and how they will be treated.

During AAN’s earlier research visit to Belgrade, in June 2016, there was still an informal policy in place that allowed both registered and unregistered migrants to stay in the main asylum centre just outside Belgrade, Krnjača. Although not everybody made use of this opportunity – some were afraid they would be fingerprinted or otherwise registered and that this would endanger a future asylum case in Europe – many migrants did spend some time here. Others mainly spent the night in the ‘Afghan Park’ and the surrounding covered parking areas (For details see here).

When the demand exceeded the capacity of Krnjača’s asylum centre, migrants were transferred to other camps which are all far from Belgrade – cutting their all-important links with city’s centre where smugglers could be contacted. Krnjača became a place for vulnerable and registered migrants only. The decision to tighten the accommodation rules coincided with a clear change in tone by the authorities. In mid-July 2016, when Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić announced the establishment of combined police-military teams along the borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria, he specifically singled out Afghans and Pakistanis, saying that their chances for asylum in the European Union were “almost nil” and that “Serbia cannot be a parking lot for Afghanis [sic] and Pakistanis whom nobody wants to see, let alone admit into their country.” He made clear what the new lines of policy would be: “Whoever asks for asylum in Serbia will be received in a reception centre and whoever does not, will be removed from Serbian soil according to the law.”

Main entrance of the main warehouse in the squat. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

Main entrance of the main warehouse in the squat. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

The authorities also moved to disrupt the provision of assistance to migrants who were not housed in government-run centres. The city parks department ploughed up both parks where migrants had gathered throughout 2015 and 2016 in what appeared to be an attempt to make them inhospitable for both people and aid distribution (see AAN previous reporting here). People were forced to spread out. Initially, in summer, local NGOs put the estimated number of people sleeping outside between 450 and 600, but with the borders closed for those wanting to leave and new people still arriving, and the accessible government-run centres largely far from Belgrade, the number staying in the open air, garages and vacant buildings steadily rose.

In August 2016, people started sleeping in the porches of the deserted customs warehouses behind the city’s central bus station (for pictures posted on 13 August 2016, see here and here). According to the owner of a makeshift bar that is located in one of the warehouses, the migrants gradually broke into the empty warehouses around early September 2016 and by early October, people were sleeping inside them (see this photo from the InfoPark Facebook page posted on 9 October 2016, which shows people in the interior of the warehouse).

As part of an effort to push migrants to either enter the system or leave, the Serbian authorities have continued to try to limit or close down the distribution of assistance to migrants except for at the government-run centres. On 4 November 2016, a working group set up to “deal with the problems of migrants,” led by the Ministry of Labour, issued an open letter (available here) which stated that “assistance and support in the form of food, clothing, footwear, encouraging migrants to reside outside the designated permanent asylum centres and transit reception centres are no longer acceptable, this particularly on the territory of the Belgrade city.” The letter was clearly aimed at the organisations assisting the inhabitants of the squat and the migrants who gather in the ‘Afghan Park’. The larger international aid organisations largely complied with the order, while the smaller, more activist NGOs continued their engagement with and assistance to the people in the squat.

A space between two warehouses was used a rubbish dump and public toilet. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

The situation in the squat is untenable: there is no heating or electricity, no toilets or showers (only a few garden hoses with cold water). This space between two warehouses was used a rubbish dump and public toilet. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

On 10 November 2016, the Serbian authorities tried to clear out the squat, in a coordinated operation that managed to persuade some migrants to leave, but otherwise left the situation largely unchanged. Approximately 60 policemen (consisting of gendarmerie, the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit and the Intervention Brigade) surrounded the main warehouses at around three or four in the morning. Members of KIRS, UNHCR and several aid organisations were also at the scene. The police apparently did not try to round up the migrants by force, but when they were asked to board the waiting buses – that were presumably going to take them to the camps, but how could they be sure? – some of them started running. A few men climbed onto the roof of the main warehouse in an effort to escape and fell through the fragile structure, resulting in one breaking his leg, another one breaking his arm and several other, more minor injuries. In the end, UNHCR managed to persuade 109 migrants to board the buses to go to the camp in Preševo, near the Serbian–Macedonian border. Praxis, an organisation that provides legal aid to migrants, later received confirmation that all 109 men had arrived in the Preševo camp and were in the process of being registered. The police told the migrants that they would return, but they have so far not done so.

Declining options: Trying to ‘hit the game’

The aim of most Afghans in Serbia is to cross the Hungarian (or Croatian) border and enter into the EU, but this has become increasingly difficult. Not only has Hungary erected a fence along the full length of its border, but a new law that came into force in July 2016 means that the Hungarian police can now automatically ‘push back’ anyone who is caught within eight kilometres of the border – without registering their data or allowing them to submit an asylum claim. (Asylum applications now have to be logged in the transit zone, which only a very small number of asylum-seekers are allowed to enter, each day; for details see here). The Hungarian Helsinki Committee — a non-governmental watchdog organisation that protects the human rights of asylum-seekers considers the practice a clear breach of international law (see here ), while Amnesty International has described Hungary’s system as “blatantly designed to deter [asylum seekers] from entering the country.” Human rights organisations have moreover raised the alarm that the ‘push-backs’ are currently carried out by a mix of police and vigilante groups, and particularly the latter seem often to be very violent. (2) It is however hard to tell: the fact that no data is registered means that there are no official figures, and most reporting tends to be from migrants themselves who are often not able to tell the different uniforms and insignias apart.

Many of the boys and men in the squat had indeed tried to cross the Hungarian border, many of them multiple times. Their stories indicate that the border itself is still permeable, but that the increased patrols, backed up by laws that allow immediate expulsion, have made it much more difficult to successfully transit through Hungary. As one of the young Afghans living in the squat told AAN:

I was caught close to the fence. We had just crossed the border. Others were caught while they were up to their necks in water. They [the police/vigilantes] let them stand in the water. When they caught us, they pepper-sprayed and beat us. My friend here could not see out of one of his eyes for days.

Another young Afghan (17-years old), whom AAN met while he was being helped by an aid worker to arrange his transfer to one of the government-run camps, told AAN:

I have been in Serbia for a little over a week. I crossed the border into Hungary once. We crossed through a hole in the fence, but then we lost the rest of the group. We were in a small group of eight or nine and we couldn’t find the others anymore. One of our group had injured his eye on a branch. So we slept in the open air that night and the next morning, we turned ourselves into the police. We were expelled. The rest of the group was caught three days later, somewhere in Hungary. They told us, “You were lucky that you were caught earlier. We had to walk much further.”

Several Afghans mentioned the dogs that the border guards now use and how they feared them. As one of them said: “Hungary is fully closed now. It’s impossible to cross. They have dogs. We are all terrified.” One Afghan showed pictures on his phone that are making the rounds of a young man with serious dog bites.

Several Afghans mentioned the dogs that the Hungarian border guards now use and how they feared them. One Afghan showed pictures on his phone that are making the rounds of a young man with serious dog bites. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

Several Afghans mentioned the dogs that the Hungarian border guards now use and how they feared them. One Afghan showed pictures on his phone that are making the rounds of a young man with serious dog bites. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

A young Afghan from Kunar, who is living in the squat, related how he had recently ‘hit the game’ to try to cross into Hungary, but had not even come close to the border. He had however been bothered by the Serbian police:

I spent twelve days in an old house near the border. The [Serbian] police came. They took 10 euros per person each time. If you didn’t pay, they would deport you. We were there with 34 people. They came many times. UNHCR also came to the old house and we told them about the police. They [the police] came every day and every night, usually around midnight. Yesterday, I returned by train when I realised it wasn’t going to happen … I have been in Serbia for four months. I paid the smuggler 1600 euros to get from here to Austria.

There was a general sense that the smugglers had become much less reliable. This is likely related to the fact that, now the borders are closed, it has become significantly more difficult for smugglers to deliver on their promises. Many of them had also been paid to organise trips to western Europe that were negotiated when the Balkans corridor was still open (and the smugglers’ job practically ended in Macedonia).

The increased desperation of many migrants makes them more vulnerable to exploitation. Several people reported that the smugglers had demanded – and received – advances and then failed to deliver; in some cases, they had not even attempted to organise a border crossing. As one of the Afghans in the squat said: “The smugglers have all abandoned us. They are hiding from us. And all of them are asking for more money.”

A young Afghan from Logar province (17 years old), who had arrived in Belgrade four months ago, said he had tried to cross the border twelve times and was going to try for the thirteenth time the following day. He told AAN his parents had decided to send him, the eldest of three brothers, away because he was an easy target for insurgent groups’ recruitment. His parents had arranged the journey with a smuggler from Nangarhar, who promised to take him to France and had agreed that he would pay him back once he arrived – an arrangement that seems to hold great risks for exploitation. The boy left Afghanistan around six months ago and had been on the road for two months, one of which he spent in Bulgaria. He estimated that his debt to the smuggler is around 4,500 US dollars; he was lucky, he said, to cross the Serbian-Bulgarian border four months ago when it was still only 600 euros; the current, inflated price is up to 1,500 euros.

An interesting new phenomenon appears to be migrants posing as smugglers. Some migrants have spent so long in the country and have learned so much about the geography, the situation at the border crossings and the ways smugglers operate, that they are able to convince others they can provide these services. Several of the fake smugglers are apparently very young, which allows them to also operate in places where underage and other vulnerable migrants are given priority (such as the Asylum Info Centre or the Miskaliste social centre). Others have tried to infiltrate volunteer teams helping migrants in order to more easily reach their prospective clients (in one case, this was discovered when the victim complained to the organisation that he did not get the promised service).

The migrants are anyway a vulnerable community when it comes to reliable information. Many are desperate and running out of options. There is a plethora of rumours and sources of confusion – some seemingly intentional, possibly spread by smugglers to keep hopes up or to keep people dependent. The fact that the government’s policies are opaque and often contradictory does not help.

Declining options: Demanding that the border be opened (three marches)

Some of the rumours were fuelled by wishful thinking. In early November there was a persistent rumour in the squat that the border with Hungary would be opened soon for those stuck in Serbia (apparently there had been an article on an Urdu-language website, but it is also possible that smugglers were passing around misinformation).

During AAN’s visit, we were constantly asked if we had any news as to when the border would open (or whether it was really true that it would). Some migrants thought Hungary would be forced by the EU to allow migrants to pass through its territory, as conditions in Serbia declined and winter set in, while others expressed bewilderment as to why the EU would try to keep its borders closed. As one Afghan said, in a comment that was echoed by several others: “But Germany invited us to come. Merkel herself said, ‘We need 5000 people,’ and opened the borders. Why invite us, if you don’t want us to come?” Although not exactly accurate (German Chancellor Angela Merkel had said Germany would be able to cope with the huge influx of refugees that came to the country in 2015, which was seen as the start of her so called ‘welcome policy’), this may have been a narrative stressed by smugglers to persuade people to invest in a journey to Europe.

At peak times, there are well over a thousand people living, sleeping and passing through this small patch of the city that is only a stone’s throw away from normal life. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

At peak times, there are well over a thousand people living, sleeping and passing through this small patch of the city that is only a stone’s throw away from normal life. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

The rising desperation among particularly the Afghan and Pakistani migrants, and the belief that Europe will not stand by idly while they suffer, has resulted in several marches on the border in an attempt to force the neighbouring countries to let them through. The first protest march took place on 22 July 2016, just after the Serbian authorities had ploughed up the two parks and had stopped allowing undocumented men to stay in Krnjača camp. Around 300 Afghans and Pakistanis, with no place to go, gathered in the ‘Afghan Park’ and started a march towards the Hungarian border. After they arrived, they set up camp and continued a hunger strike that they had started in Belgrade (details can be found on the Facebook page of InfoPark, in the posts dated 22-26 July 2016). Hungary obviously did not open the border, but KIRS did (temporarily) start providing accommodation again for those who did not want to ask for asylum in Serbia, but who needed shelter.

On 4 October 2016, the migrants organised a second march to the Hungarian border (see here and here). This time it was organised from the squat and involved around 350 people, but due to bad weather, the march ended some 30 kilometres outside Belgrade. The involvement of activist NGOs such as No Borders, was emphasised – negatively – by the Serbian press, especially in the nationalist and populists newspapers, such as Vecernje Novosti (Evening News), for instance, in this article “Anarchists triggered move of migrants from Belgrade.”

A third march took place on Friday 11 November 2016, a day after police ‘raided’ the squat. In the days before, while AAN was present, there had already been talk of another march; the panic caused by the raid probably helped solidify the plan. A group of between 120 and 150 migrants, again mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, started the march – this time to the Croatian border (see here). Police followed the group along the highway connecting Belgrade and the border. This protest was again helped by the No Borders group, which among other things provided the migrants with banners (see here). Two days later, on Sunday 13 November 2016, the migrants reached the Serbian-Croatian border and were stopped at the Serbian border town of Šid. According to Reuters, the migrants said they would wait until the border with Croatia was opened and refused to be accommodated in the reception centre in Šid. The group later returned to Belgrade by train on Tuesday 15 November 2016, when it became clear the border would not open.

A third march to the border took place on Friday 11 November 2016. In the days before, while AAN was present, there had already been talk of another march; while a young boy cuts up tomatoes other inhabitants of the squat discuss whether to go ahead or not. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

A third march to the border took place on Friday 11 November 2016. In the days before, while AAN was present, there had already been talk of another march; while a young boy cuts tomatoes in the foreground, other inhabitants of the squat discuss whether to go ahead with the march or not. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

Declining options: on Hungary’s waiting list

Apart from crossing the border illegally with the help of smugglers and hoping that the borders will again temporarily open, as was the case in late 2015 and early 2016, there is another option to travel onwards: by being legally allowed into Hungary through one of Hungary’s transit zones.

The transit zones were established after the Balkan corridor closed in the spring of 2016, when migrants gathered at the Hungarian border in the hope of still being allowed in. Two transit zones, at the Horgoš and Kelebija border crossings, were established and designated as no-man’s land (“a legal fiction” according to a lawyer AAN met at the border in June 2016). By July 2016, over 1500 people were camping out in the open air, waiting for their turn as the Hungarian authorities started processing asylum requests, mainly of Afghans and Syrians. Hungary has steadily decreased the number of cases it processes per day. In September 2016, it went from 100 per day to 50, and then to 30. In late October 2016, the number was further decreased from 30 per day, seven days per week, to 20 per day, five days per week (ie a maximum of 100 per week, down from originally around 700 per week). Hungary claims this is not a quota, but simply a problem of capacity, but eyewitnesses say that most people working in the containers at the transit zone have run out of things to do by noon.

The number of people staying at the border, in appalling conditions, has gone down significantly. In September 2016, the authorities managed to persuade most of them to move to the Subotica centre, not far from the border, from where they now await their turn. There is a system of waiting lists that supposedly emerged as early as April 2016 and that is managed by ‘community leaders’ from among the migrants themselves. The lists are supposed to contain all Afghans who are staying in the various centres (and apparently many who are not) and are passed on to KIRS which then posts the names of those whose turn is imminent, so that they can make their way to the transit zones. (It is unclear whether other nationalities, for instance the Syrians, have a similar system.)

The various aid workers seemed to think the waiting list system worked, but there were some grumblings from the migrants. As one of the inhabitants of the squat noted:

I gave my name for the list three months ago when I was in the camp. In the camp the person who is in charge for this takes everybody’s name. Who that was? It was an Afghan called [name deleted]. Now he is in Horgoš [in the transit zone]. He is now the person in charge there. He decides whose turn it is and he carries out the interviews. Yes, he is a refugee himself. … He sometimes harasses people or gives a turn to whoever he wants.

Another Afghan living in the squat recounted how he realised this route would not work for him: “I went to the camp in Subotica once… After that, I went to [the transit zone in] Horgoš. I was there for three days, illegally. I was not on a list. So when I saw I wouldn’t get through, I came back again.”

The chances of entering Hungary through this process are slim. The process, first of all, gives priority to families with children and unaccompanied women, not single men (who include the majority of Afghans in Serbia). This means there are a lot of men competing for very few slots. Secondly, the system at the transit zones is not actually designed to allow people into Hungary; it merely provides an opportunity to lodge an asylum claim. These claims, according to Hungarian law, can be dismissed without considering the merits of the case, often within a day, according to Human Rights Watch, because Hungary has declared Serbia a safe third country – so far, the only EU country to do so (incidentally, Human Rights Watch disagrees).

In practice, according to an activist working in Hungary, most asylum seekers appeal the decision to refuse their case and as long as the appeal is pending, they are usually not sent back. (Also, Serbia also often resists taking the migrants back. Hungary insists the transit zone is no-man’s land, whereas in reality, according to Serbia, it is already Hungarian soil). After spending some time in the transit zone in limbo, some of the migrants are finally allowed into the country to await the outcome of their asylum case in one of the reception centres – after which most of them leave and continue their journey to western Europe.

Declining options: entering the system

Many of the men in the squat were debating whether they should follow the government’s instructions and be housed in one of the government-run centres. Migrants in Serbia can enter into the Serbian asylum system – and give their presence a legal or semi-legal status – by expressing their intention to ask for asylum, either at the border, at one of the country’s police stations or in one of the asylum/reception centres (see here).

They are then given an official letter assigning them to an asylum or reception centre and instructing them to register their actual asylum request there within 72 hours. Migrants themselves refer to these papers as “police papers.” Although anyone should be able to register their wish for asylum, many of the Afghan men AAN spoke to said this was very difficult. “I went to the police station many times,” said one man, “but they don’t give documents to single men – unless they’re Syrians.”

The registration, even if successful, does not necessarily prevent expulsion (most probably as the paper is not considered a valid reason to stay, after the 72 hours have expired). Several of the squat’s inhabitants had stories of friends who were forcibly expelled. “Ten days ago, four of my friends were deported to Macedonia from Preševo [camp],” one Afghan told AAN. “They had to pay 400 euros to come back to Serbia. I know one man who has been deported nine times so far.” Another young Afghan told AAN: “Some of us have police papers, but we will be deported anyway. They [the police] do raids and take people. They don’t come inside [the squat], but they take people from outside, at night. One guy had a police paper three times, but they ripped it up [every time] and said it had no meaning.” Or as another one commented: “At night the police sometimes come to raid us [in the squat]. They take five or six people and take them to the Macedonian border. They don’t come with many, maybe about six policemen, and they take the people away in a way that the others in the squat don’t notice.…But even if they deport us, we just come back. It just costs money every time. From Macedonia to here now costs around 300 euros.” (3)

Photo: Martine van Bijlert

Photo: Martine van Bijlert

An aid worker confirmed that the police did indeed regularly visit the squat and would round up groups of migrants, but according to him, they were taken to the police station to be registered, rather than forcibly expelled. But in the fog of rumours, changing policies and government threats that in the end everybody will be forced to leave, many of the men were scared that they would be ‘pushed back’ into Macedonia, if they agreed to go along with the authorities and be settled in one of the camps.

Most of Serbia’s government-run centres were originally designed to function as transit and reception centres. They were hastily set up when the Balkan corridor was open, providing aid and short-term shelter for migrants on their way to western Europe and were not meant to be used as long-term housing. One of the larger camps, Preševo, is the first and most recent one to have been upgraded to a fully-equipped facility, but the fact that it is located on the border with Macedonia in the south (which has been the main expulsion destination), makes it particularly unattractive for many migrants who see going there as a step in the wrong direction. This is exacerbated by the fact that the authorities have, in the recent past, used some of the buses that were supposed to transport migrants to the Preševo camp, to expel them, into Macedonia, instead.

Those who had spent time in the government-run centres generally complained about the conditions. As one of the Afghans told AAN, “I went to the camp in Subotica once, but the floor was dirty and the single men had to sleep on the floor. There were heaters, but they weren’t turned on.” Some of the men AAN spoke to actually tried to argue that their living conditions in the squat were better than they had been in the government-run centres (they may, however, also have been trying to make the best of a bad and inescapable situation, or to justify a choice they had made for different reasons). This was best summed up by an Iranian, who was living in a tent on the porch of one of the warehouses:

The situation here [in the squat] is better than in the official camps. We left our country because we don’t want to be detained and controlled. So we don’t want to be detained and controlled here either… I left Iran around six or seven months ago: I travelled from Iran to Turkey, then to Athens (by plane), then to Macedonia. I’ve been in Serbia now for three months. First I slept in garages and in the park. Then the police took me and brought me to Šid [reception centre], then to Principovac [reception centre], which isn’t even really a camp. If I have to sleep in a tent, I’d rather sleep in a tent here [in the squat]. Then they brought me to the closed camp in Preševo [near the Macedonian border]. We are all afraid of Preševo – it is too far away and feels like a prison. So I escaped and I came here. In my country I have no freedom, so I don’t want to be in a camp like that. Would you want that?

This was best summed up by an Iranian, who was living in a tent on the porch of one of the warehouses: "The situation here is better than in the camps. ... If I have to sleep in a tent, I’d rather sleep in a tent here [in the squat]." Photo: Martine van Bijlert

This was best summed up by an Iranian, who was living in a tent on the porch of one of the warehouses: “The situation here is better than in the camps. … If I have to sleep in a tent, I’d rather sleep in a tent here [in the squat].” Photo: Martine van Bijlert

Several of the younger boys described how their life in Serbia, and on the road in general, had been so much worse than it had ever been in Afghanistan. They did not, they said, want their parents to realise the hardships they were going through.

The chances of being granted asylum in Serbia are largely untested, as so far relatively few have tried this route. (4) But the chances that many will be accepted currently seem very low, as Serbia’s asylum authorities tend to automatically apply the ‘safe third country’ concept, dismissing all who have entered Serbia from Macedonia or Bulgaria, unless they can prove those countries are not safe for them (more details here). This means that for many of the Afghan men in Serbia, there is no real benefit in entering the asylum system, other than being provided with shelter, while there are clear perceived risks: the fear that registration in one country will preclude their chances of acceptance in the EU in the future and the persistent indications that those in the camps run the risk of being expelled. As a staff member of one of the international NGOs told AAN:

There is a gap between the point of view of the government and that of the migrants. The authorities mean well, even if they have a hidden agenda, and sometimes a lack of empathy. They want to take all the migrants and dispatch them to the camps. But migrants don’t want to be in closed camps – or even in open camps. Many are afraid to register, as they confuse it with an asylum request. There is a deep condition of mistrust… And the Commissariat doesn’t really know what to do. I think they feel naked in front of the problem.

What will happen now?

The Serbian government has drawn up a Response Plan for the period October 2016–March 2017, “in case of increased inflow of migrants to the republic of Serbia.” The plan is based on several assumptions: that the uncontrolled transit of refugees and migrants has been halted (which is correct), that the number of migrants illegally entering Serbia will drop considerably (which is debatable), the number of refugees and migrants entering and leaving Serbia on a daily basis will not exceed 30 (this does not seem to be the case: the numbers entering are much higher and those leaving lower) and that most refugees and migrants will not perceive Serbia as a country of asylum (which is correct, but many of them are now faced with the reality that they cannot leave). Based on these assumptions, the government’s prognosis is that a total of 12-13,000 people will pass through Serbia during the six-month period and that around 5000 people will be staying in its centres at any one time during winter, for a period of two-three months each – without specifying how these people will travel onwards, or to where they are supposed to leave.

Last year during winter, the situation was also bad, but there was more of a through flow of migrants; the Balkan corridor was still open and for the groups who were no longer admitted into Croatia (which from February 2016 onwards included Afghans – more details here and here), ­there was still a reasonable, though declining chance of successfully crossing the border into Hungary illegally. This winter, however, the outflow seems to have come to a virtual standstill.

The situation in the squat is untenable: there is no heating or electricity, no toilets or showers (only a few garden hoses with cold water). Most inhabitants suffer from body lice; some have scabies too. The Serbian authorities, supported by international NGOs, have decided to clear everyone from the squat (which is anyway scheduled to be demolished to make way for a high-end, infrastructure project, the Belgrade Waterfront – a few adjacent buildings where migrants were staying were already taken down in October 2016). The government’s short-term aim is to house all migrants in one of its asylum, transit or reception centres in order to control the situation; aware of the poor sanitation and the possibility of deaths, it does not want a humanitarian crisis in the centre of the capital city. Its ultimate aim, however, is to see the migrants leave, whether through onward journey to Europe, return or their countries of origin or deportation – which is why a considerable number of migrants are likely to try to continue to stay out of the system. They do not want to stay in Serbia, but more importantly they do not trust the authorities’ efforts and motives.

Graffiti with Eid congratulations on the outer wall of the main warehouse. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

Graffiti with Eid congratulations on the outer wall of the main warehouse. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

Most migrants AAN spoke to said they were determined to continue their journey and ultimately arrive in Europe (several of them bragged that it was “Europe or death”). Almost all of them had already spent large amounts of money, and many of them had been forced to spend even more as their journey onwards became increasingly difficult – and were as a result determined to make the investment ultimately pay off. At the same time, there was a growing realisation that even those who did reach Europe were by no means guaranteed to stay there (several Afghans had stories of friends who had been returned to Bulgaria from western Europe – and who had made their way back into Serbia, trying to again reach the EU).

The Afghans and other migrants in Serbia thus find themselves in limbo, unable to go on and, with winter coming on hard, soon not able to even stay in a squat which at least keeps them out of a system they do not trust.

 

(1) In fact, during this whole visit to Belgrade, AAN barely encountered any Afghan women, as most of them were staying in the government-run centres and the cold weather probably made it less attractive to venture into town. Once, we ran into a couple with a newborn baby in the ‘Afghan Park’ in the early evening. They had arrived in Serbia a few weeks earlier (before the baby was born) and were staying in the asylum centre in Krnjača. Even the women’s corner in the migrants’ social centre in Miksalište, where women can sit separately and use the toiletries and make-up, was empty on the day we visited.

(2) This clip from the German political TV magazine Panorama shows the use of vigilante groups at the Hungarian-Serbian border.

(3) Although most migrants used the word ‘deportation’, strictly speaking, in most cases what they were talking about were forced expulsions, given that the cases had not been considered or ordered by a court.

(4) In the first nine months of 2016, a total of 8,954 people expressed the intention to ask for asylum in Serbia (3,859 of them were Afghans), but most did not go through with the procedure. In the same period, only 789 people actually registered with the Serbian Asylum Office; only 540 asked for asylum and only 144 were interviewed. There were 29 successful applicants in the first nine months of 2016; six of them were Afghans (more details here). The Serbian authorities are, however, slowly coming round to the reality that some of the migrants may stay; local municipalities are starting to draw up action plans that incorporate the possibility of migrants seeking and getting asylum and staying on in the municipalities.

This report is based on field research conducted between 4 and 10 November 2016 to assess the migrants’ situation in Serbia before the onset of winter. AAN visited the squat daily at different times, where we conducted a large number of informal conversations and (participatory) observation, as well as a smaller number of unstructured interviews. AAN additionally visited the other relevant sites (the Afghan Park, Miksalište, the Asylum Information Centre) and met with staff and volunteers of the main NGOs working with migrants and with UNHCR and conducted several informal conversations with KIRS field staff. The language proficiency of the researchers (Serbian and Dari) and their familiarity with both the Afghan and Serbian context greatly contributed to a rapid and in-depth gathering of information, as did the fact that this was a follow-up research trip.

For the findings of the AAN’s earlier research trip that took place in June 2016, see this report on the opening and closing of the Balkan corridor; this report on the situation for Afghan migrants in Serbia; and the report on the rise of the smuggling networks.

Tagged with: ,
Thematic Category: Rights & Freedoms