The unprecedented flow of people through the Western Balkans in late 2015 and early 2016, and the opening of a humanitarian corridor, provided a brief and unique opportunity for people from war-torn countries to reach the European Union. When the corridor closed in March 2016 many people, including many Afghans, found themselves stranded and, again, at the mercy of smuggling networks. In this second dispatch of a three-part series, Jelena Bjelica and Martine van Bijlert discuss how the migration flows have impacted Serbia, a key transit country on the way to Europe, and how the situation for Afghans, and others, is becoming ever more precarious.Afghan and Pakistani migrants make their way to the Serbian-Hungarian border on foot in July 2016, in protest against the worsening conditions in Belgrade and in the hope of being let through. (Photo Source: Info Park)
Part I: The opening and closing of the Balkan corridor
Part 2: In transit through Serbia
Part 3: The re-emergence of the smugglers along the Balkan route
Serbia’s asylum policy
Until 2008, the Serbian government did not have a clear policy on asylum. In that year it passed an Asylum Act, however its implementation remained ad hoc. The Asylum Office that was envisaged under the new Act was only established at the end of 2014 (until then asylum procedures were conducted by the Asylum Unit within the Aliens Department of the MOI Border Police Directorate).
According to the Asylum Act, a foreigner can express ‘the intention to seek asylum’ in Serbia. The asylum seeker is ‘recorded’ (rather than registered) and given a copy of the certificate of expressed intent. The asylum seeker then needs to report to an asylum official or asylum centre within 72 hours to register the actual request. The expression of intent is not yet considered an asylum request and does not initiate an asylum procedure.
Between 1 April 2008, when the act came into force, and 31 December 2014, a total of 28,285 people signed a form expressing their intention to seek asylum in Serbia (77 in 2008, 275 in 2009, 522 in 2010, 3,132 in 2011, 2,723 in 2012, 5,066 in 2013 and 16,490 in 2014). In all those years, only six people were granted refugee status and twelve were granted subsidiary protection.
Out of the 16,500 people who expressed an intention to seek asylum in Serbia in 2014, 3,071 were Afghan and 9,701 Syrian. Only 1,350 of them actually registered with the Asylum Unit; 388 actually applied for asylum; and only 18 were interviewed. The Asylum Unit upheld six asylum applications, dismissed 12 (but presumably provided subsidiary protection; see above) and discontinued proceedings for 307 applications (for a detailed overview see this Belgrade Centre for Human Rights 2014 report).
The low number of cases processed is a reflection of the fact that Serbia was not a country of destination. Most migrants only transited through in order to continue their journey to the EU. In practice, the policy of the Serbian government was apparently to register people, give them the necessary documents with which they could file their asylum request, and hope they would move on.
Thus, when the refugee crisis broke in 2015, the Commissariat of Refugees, the government agency tasked with housing asylum seekers, was only staffed with 70 employees. According to media reports, there were no translators, social workers or lawyers.
Dealing with rising numbers in 2015
During 2015, numbers rose swiftly. According to figures AAN received from UNHCR Serbia, some 13,000 people expressed their intention to request asylum in the first four months of 2015 (against 16,500 for the whole of 2014). In May 2015 this was over 9,000, in June 2015 over 15,000, in July 2015 almost 30,000; until in October 2015, over 180,000 people were recorded by the Serbian police in a single month. At the end of the year a total of 577,995 people had recorded their intent for asylum with the Serbian authorities. Of these, 160,831 were Afghans.
Very few of them, however, actually initiated the process for asylum. According to Frontex figures, out of the almost 600,000 who recorded their intention to request asylum, 11,000 or so registered at a reception centre but only 583 actually filed an official application (551 of these applications were later rejected, mainly because the migrants in question had left before the procedure was finalised).
The Serbian government continued to opt for a ‘soft’ refugee policy, mainly by turning a blind eye to the flow of people transiting through the country. Serbian politicians reminded the public of refugees’ plight in the former Yugoslavia during the wars in the 1990s and asked for patience and acceptance. (1) At the same time, the authorities were fairly clear that they considered Serbia a transit country and did not intend it to become a “reception centre for refugees” (see for instance this statement by Aleksandar Vulin, the minister of Labour and Social Affairs, in July 2015). Even if the authorities registered people’s intention to request asylum, they counted on the fact that most of them would move on before their 72 hours of legal stay in Serbia expired. (2)
In early July 2015, as the number of people on their way to Europe – via Turkey, Greece and the Western Balkans – grew, the Serbian authorities established a so-called ‘one-stop reception camp’ in Preševo on the border with Macedonia. At first, migrants could check into the camp on a voluntary basis, but later, as the desire to control the flow grew, it was made compulsory. Migrants were guided from the border crossing to the camp, where they were fingerprinted and photographed and made to sign an ‘intention to seek asylum’. Most of them, after that, simply bought a bus or train ticket and continued their journey to the border with Hungary, which they crossed illegally (see pictures here of migrants walking across the green border between Serbia and Hungary in June 2015).
With the border practically open and authorities allowing – even facilitating – travel, the involvement of smugglers greatly decreased. Taxi drivers, however, faired very well, particularly those who overcharged for their services. According to a local journalist, many charged up to 400 Euros per head, in a full minivan, to drive people from Preševo to the Hungarian border (a regular bus ticket from Preševo to Subotica, the main town near the border, is about 25 to 35 Euros). When the flow of people was redirected from the Hungarian to the Croatian border, taxis continued to overcharge people on that route, too. People commented on the number of taxi drivers who had made enough money in that brief period to be able to buy new apartments in Belgrade.
In a bid to curb the growing number of migrants crossing the border illegally, in June 2015 the Hungarian authorities announced a plan to build a four-metre high fence along its 177-kilometre border with Serbia (a media report here). Although the fence was not completed until mid-September 2015, far fewer migrants were able to cross (see for instance this picture, taken on 10 September 2015). Hungary officially sealed its Horgoš border crossing on 15 September, amid clashes and demonstrations (see here).
Most people immediately began moving westwards towards Croatia and very soon, the Serbian government started transporting people from Preševo (at the Macedonian border) and Dimitrovgrad (at the Bulgarian border) by bus to the Berkasevo/Babska border crossing with Croatia. The Serbian government essentially herded people from one border crossing to another.
Civil society groups provide support
In the Serbian capital Belgrade, volunteers and civil society activists set up two main initiatives to help migrants and refugees passing through their city: Refugee Aid Miksalište and Info Park. The Miksalište initiative was founded in August 2015 by a group of expatriates based in Belgrade, mainly from Australia and the UK. Originally set up as a social centre, Miksalište functioned as a refugee centre during the day, where refugees could receive aid and socialise, while doubling as a bar at night. The Info Park, a wooden shack based in the park next to the central bus station, opened in September 2015. Run by volunteers, Info Park was an information point for migrants who had just arrived in Belgrade, where they could receive advice, use Wifi and recharge their phone batteries. When the situation near the park deteriorated, the initiative widened its scope and started providing direct aid.
“We opened on 16 September 2015, which was exactly when the Hungarian border closed,” Info Park founder Gordon Paunović told AAN. “At the time all the flow was through Hungary, so we thought we had opened too late. That maybe we would be active for a few weeks only.” Indeed, when the humanitarian corridor through Croatia opened, for a while both numbers and workload were limited. “Buses from the Macedonian border went directly to the Croatian border; Belgrade was bypassed. We only received those who had taken the Bulgaria route or the people who came from Macedonia by train.”
This changed when, in late 2015, authorities from the most affected countries decided to only allow the transit of Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi nationals. Controls were tightened and migrants who were not Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan were stopped at the Croatian border. According to a coordinator at the Miksalište refugee aid centre: “Iraqi, Syrian and Afghan refugees, at the time, were good to go. The rest had to be returned to Belgrade.” In February 2016, a deal between the heads of police from five countries further restricted the list, after which Afghans were also refused entry at the Croatian border (for details, see the first dispatch here).
These measures meant that many people were cast adrift, with most them gravitating towards Belgrade. As they were not considered asylum seekers by Serbia, they were not admitted into Krnjača asylum centre, one of eight government-run centres. (It is also possible that many did not want to go there, for fear that being entered into the electronic registration system might interfere with a future asylum claim elsewhere.) The situation soon became untenable, with large numbers of people camping in two parks next to the bus station (for pictures and the Info Park appeal, see here).
“They were sleeping in the park in freezing weather,” Gordon said. “So we started distributing tea and noodles, even though this was not what we were set up for. We could not provide accommodation, but there was a hostel that could. We tried to help in whatever way we could. One night the situation got so bad that a large group stormed the office of the Asylum Info Centre [an initiative of the Belgrade Human Rights Centre to provide legal advice] so they could take shelter inside.”
The situation changed again in March 2016 when, as a result of the EU-Turkey deal, the Western Balkan route was officially closed (both the EU and Turkey agreed that people could no longer cross the Aegean sea or continue their journey towards Europe, and all new irregular migrants would be returned to Turkey as of 20 March 2016. In the weeks preceding this date, the Balkan countries closed their borders; for details, see the first dispatch here).
Initially the flow of migrants into Belgrade slackened. “We thought our work was finished. We thought there would be no more refugees coming through Turkey and Greece into Serbia,” Gordon said. “And for a few days there was almost no traffic. But then we realised the Bulgarian border was leaking. The whole smuggling network, that had been dormant for months, was still intact. It had been a bureaucratic decision to try to close it down, but the main mechanisms hadn’t been tackled. We realised this was not the end at all. The flow continued.”
An ambiguous government stance: providing shelter but hampering assistance
As migrants started to reappear on the streets of Belgrade, the authorities adopted a new policy. It was not officially announced but from mid-April 2016, Krnjača, the reception centre in the remote suburbs of Belgrade, started accepting people without the prerequisite signed intention to request asylum. Krnjača had been established as a temporary asylum centre in 2015. At the time, there were five centres for asylum-seekers across the country, which could accommodate up to 780 people. Between January and March 2016, Krnjača and the four other centres were refurbished with EU funds and two new centres were established, providing additional capacity for 700 people.
At around the time that the regime at Krnjača was eased, ICRC was expelled from the park and their container was removed. The next day Miksalište’s building was demolished. “In less than 72 hours, Info Park was the only remaining fixed structure in the park that was helping refugees.” (3) The Serbian authorities, according to Gordon, seemed to have decided to clear Belgrade of migrants, and in particular the area around the two parks. “They did not want to have a camping site like last year.”
The night-time demolition of Miksalište and several other buildings on 27 April 2016 (see here) was part of an effort to make space for the Belgrade Waterfront, an extravagant Abu Dhabi-financed construction project initiated by the Serbian government and the Belgrade Mayor. (4) On 1 June 2016, a month after the demolition of its original venue, Miksalište (2.0) reopened in a new location close to the central bus station. AAN visited the centre several times, as well as the Info Park shack in the park.
Between April and June 2016, Info Park distributed around 800 meals per day. Before its demolition and after it reopened, Miksalište distributed a similar number of meals. It also provided refugees with clothes, shoes, food, medical check-ups and other services as necessary. According to UNHCR, there were over 1,000 refugees/migrants on average in Belgrade throughout June 2016, with another 500 being assisted in the city centre and as many sheltered in Krnjača.
The situation worsens again
At the time of AAN’s visit in mid-June 2016, the situation seemed manageable. The decision to allow migrants and refugees to stay in Krnjača without registering meant there were no longer people sleeping in the parks or in the city’s alleys. The places where aid was distributed or advice given – Info Park, Miksalište, Asylum Information Centre – were crowded and possibly overstretched, but they were not overwhelmed. This changed over the following weeks, for several reasons.
On 1 July 2016, Miksalište closed again, reportedly due to “a lack of capacity to deal with the large number of people in need.” (5) A week later, on 8 July 2016, after being given the European Citizenship Award 2016, Miksalište announced it had decided to re-open its doors but only for women, families with children and unaccompanied minors. The men would be sent to an – unspecified – alternative location.
Info Park, which had immediately taken over most of the distribution responsibilities, responded with a terse statement on its Facebook page on 6 July 2016:
“During this weekend we had a clear showcase what this lack of responsibility and solidarity means: the park was overcrowded with refugees in an increasing state of anxiety due to a concern for [their] own survival. Every distribution of meals or non-food items was on the edge of a battle, with humanitarian workers put into a very dangerous position to balance between preserving their own safety and providing aid.”
A new Hungarian law, effective as of 5 July 2016, subsequently legitimised pushback into Serbia and resulted in a total closure of the border (for a critique of the law, by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, see here). UNHCR noted that in the first week of July several hundreds migrants left Belgrade and other locations to reach the north of Serbia and enter into Hungary and Croatia. In the transit zones on the Serbian-Hungarian border near Horgoš and Kelebaija, 300 to 500 people had already been stranded in June 2016, hoping to be allowed into Hungary (the country had an unofficial policy to allow around 15 people a day into its territory, almost exclusively families). (6) In the first week of July the number of people in transit zones rose to 920.
Hungary started to return people, apparently at night and through ‘improvised’ border crossings (see here). On 8 July 2016, Info Park reported that several returnees had been in a bad state and that their volunteers had only barely managed to avert a protest. Numbers continued to grow, with migrants being sent back from the Hungarian border, new migrants arriving from Macedonia and Bulgaria, and a significant number of people still stuck and with no money left to travel onwards (see the upcoming third dispatch in this series for more details).
According to the Commissariat, numbers reached around 1,200 per day in mid-July 2016, well beyond the capacity of Krnjača’s refugee centre. Info Park also reported it was distributing around 1,200 meals per day under conditions that were increasingly difficult to manage, and talked about the “collapsing humanitarian situation in the park.”
On 16 July 2016, Krnjača centre was emptied. Only those who had registered their intent to request asylum were moved to other camps; everyone else was simply turned out. A growing number of people, including minors and families with small children, now had to spend the night outside, in parks and public garages. During the night of 18 July 2016, Info Park counted 600 people sleeping in and around the parks and the next day they distributed 1,800 meals. On 20 July 2016, the City Greenery department started ploughing one of the two small parks where the migrants gathered and the following week it moved to the next one, in what appeared to be an attempt to rid the parks of people and aid distribution.
These measures coincided with a clear change in tone by the Serbian authorities. On 16 July 2016, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić announced the establishment of combined police-military teams tasked with ensuring border security along the borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria. (7) He further singled out Afghans and Pakistanis, saying that a majority of the 2,700 migrants currently in Serbia came from Afghanistan and Pakistan, which according to him meant that their chances for asylum in the European Union were “almost nil.” He added that “Serbia cannot be a parking lot for Afghanis [sic] and Pakistanis whom nobody wants to see, let alone admit into their country.” He was clear on the new lines of the policy: “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.”
On 22 July 2016 around 300 Afghans and Pakistanis, with no place to go, started a march towards the Hungarian border, hoping to force the authorities to let them through. A hunger strike that had started in Belgrade was resumed in Horgoš. According to UNHCR there are currently around 1,400 people camping near the border with little chance of being admitted (for photos of the march and hunger strike, as well as the conditions in Belgrade, see the Facebook page of Info Park).
Hungary’s Prime Minister, Victor Orban, in the meantime, too, had chosen a belligerent stance. During a joint press conference with Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, he called migration “a poison” and stated that his country does not need a single migrant:
Hungary does not need a single migrant for the economy to work, or for the population to sustain itself, or for the country to have a future.
This is why there is no need for a common European migration policy: whoever needs migrants can take them, but don’t force them on us, we don’t need them … every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk. For us migration is not a solution but a problem… not medicine but a poison, we don’t need it and we won’t swallow it.
With all borders now closed, an increasing number of migrants have found themselves stranded in countries where they did not want to end up. Many of them are still trying to make their way towards the EU, in spite of their depleted resources and the reluctance to be dependent again on the services of indifferent and often abusive smuggling networks.
In the third dispatch, AAN takes a closer look at how the smuggling networks are organised and what this means for the Afghans who depend on them.
This series of three dispatches stems from research done in Belgrade in June 2016 by AAN’s Jelena Bjelica, Martine van Bijlert and Fabrizio Foschini. During the course of their research, they conducted interviews with migrants, aid workers, volunteers and informed observers, visited the main gathering places for Afghan migrants in Belgrade and tried to gain access to the Horgoš and Kelebija transit zones.
(1) “When people speak about refugees from Syria and Afghanistan they speak (about them) as a great problem. We welcomed them in Serbia. We know how our people suffered 20 years ago. I am proud that Serbia is their best refuge and the safest place, on their way to the EU,” the Serbian prime minister for instance said, in August 2015, after he visited the park near the main bus station in Belgrade where many migrants gather. According to the article he told migrants: “We will do everything for you, so you are safe like in your own house, and you’re always welcome in our country.”
(2) On 30 December 2015, according to Frontex, Serbia changed its legislation and started providing documents to migrants from conflict areas (Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq) which allowed them 72 hours’ transit across the country, even if they did not express an intention to apply for asylum.
(3) In the months that followed, Info Park also came under considerable bureaucratic and political pressure to close. There were political complaints, as well as demands for an increasing list of permits (including from the City Greenery department, a cultural heritage permit, a municipal permit, and a sanitary permit). So far, Info Park has managed to fulfil all demands and remains in the park.
(4) An analysis of the power structures within the Serbian government and their relations can be found here. With regard to the demolition process, local media reported that “several people posted testimonies on social media claiming that around 30 masked men armed with sticks, intercepted, searched, tied up and detained them in the area of Savamala during the demolition process.” The Public Prosecutor ordered an investigation into the case in May 2016; so far the city authorities have denied any involvement. The event triggered a series of protests in Belgrade.
(5) The closure happened despite the fact that Miksalište is supported by a large number of agencies and donors. The new centre opened with the help of the Norwegian Refugee Council, CARE Serbia, the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Office (ECHO), NGO Praxis Serbia, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Save the Children, Novosadski humanitarni Centar and Lifegate Novi Sad.
(6) AAN’s researchers visited the border area but were not allowed near the transit zones. AAN, as instructed, then sent an official request to the Serbian Ministry of Interior requesting permission to conduct interviews with Afghans stranded at the border in transit zones. The request was finally refused after several weeks, apparently without having been properly considered. (The ministry wrote: Regarding your request sent to this Ministry, for a permission to visit the transit zones Horgoš and Kelebija, we are informing you that at these locations migrants are assisted by the Red Cross Serbia, IoM, MSF, MDM, UNHCR, HCIT, thus the presence of other organisations is unnecessary.)
(7) Despite the closed borders and the EU and Turkey deal, UNHCR and partners registered an estimated 300 irregular arrivals per day to Serbia near the entry points with Macedonia and Bulgaria, in early July 2016.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020