Afghanistan Analysts Network – English


Afghan Exodus: The re-emergence of smugglers along the Balkan route

Martine van Bijlert Jelena Bjelica 24 min

When the Balkan corridor closed in March 2016, Afghans trying to reach Europe found themselves stranded, once again at the mercy of smugglers’ networks. Many are still slowly making their way towards the outer fringes of the European Union at the Serbian-Hungarian border. Almost everyone transits through Belgrade, which has become an important hub for the Afghan-linked smuggling networks. In this dispatch, the last in a series of three, Martine van Bijlert and Jelena Bjelica discuss the nature of these networks and describe how the situation for many Afghans currently in transit has become increasingly desperate.

The closure of the Balkan corridor has left many Afghans stranded and, again, dependent on indifferent and often abusive smuggler networks. (Photo Source: Tolo News)The closure of the Balkan corridor has left many Afghans stranded and, again, dependent on indifferent and often abusive smuggler networks. (Photo Source: Tolo News)

Part I: The opening and closing of the Balkan corridor

Part 2: In transit through Serbia

Part 3: The re-emergence of smugglers along the Balkan route


The ‘Afghan Park’ in Belgrade

In June 2016, AAN researchers visited Belgrade in Serbia where they interviewed Afghans on their way to Europe, about their experiences as well as on the mechanics of the smugglers’ networks. The Afghan travellers were easy to find. Most spend their days in an area now referred to as the ‘Afghan Park.’ Here, they sit around on benches or on the grass, watching passers-by (while marvelling at the different breeds of dogs Belgradians walk). They stand in line for ad hoc distributions, they chat, sleep and wait for word from their smugglers.

The area is in downtown Belgrade, in the historical Savamala neighbourhood, close to the river Sava. This is where the main refugee aid organisations are active, including the Asylum Information Centre, Miksalište refugee centre and Info Park (see this second dispatch for details). The area’s epicentre lies between two small parks next to Belgrade’s central bus station. The park directly adjacent to the bus station is where many Afghan and Syrian migrants are dropped off after having crossed the Bulgarian-Serbian or Macedonian-Serbian border, often in minibuses organised by smugglers. (Some volunteers called this the ‘Syrian Park’, although Afghans, Pakistanis and people from other countries spend their days here too.) The main attraction in this park is the Info Park wooden shack, run by the philanthropic organisation Foundation B92, which provides free Wifi, a charging station for mobile phones and, increasingly, free meals and other aid.

The second park – the ‘Afghan Park’ – is situated across a busy road behind a covered parking garage in front of the University’s Faculty of Economics. The main attraction in this park seems to be a small hamburger kiosk in the corner, where smugglers hold court in the late afternoons and early evenings. The park is also the place from where onward travel to the Hungarian border is organised. According to one volunteer, Afghans arriving in Dimitrovgrad (the first city after the Bulgarian border) often ask where the ‘Afghan Park’ is. Or, in the words of one young man from Jalalabad:

I was told about the Afghan Park when I was still in Bulgaria. So when we arrived here, we just sat down and waited. A person came and asked “are you in the group of so-and-so?” We said, yes. Then he called someone and told him “they have arrived.”

Another nearby hub of activity is a telephone shop, or PCO, very much like the ones that used to operate in Pakistani and Afghan cities. The PCO appears to play an important role in the communication between migrants and the original smugglers in Afghanistan, with migrants phoning in to find out whether they are leaving or not. Two restaurants that played an important role in connecting migrants and smugglers have recently been closed (which could explain the high level of ‘open’ activity in the park).

According to a volunteer at Info Park, there has been a noted increase in the presence of smugglers in the parks since March 2016, which coincided with the closure of the Balkan corridor. (For details on the policies that led to the opening and closure of the corridor, see the first dispatch here; for an explanation of how this played out in Serbia see the second dispatch here.) “Afghans have their own networks here,” he said. “They run the smuggling for their compatriots from Belgrade to Hungary.”

Interviews by AAN showed that the networks’ reach was even wider, with most people having had every part of their journey arranged for them by smugglers residing in Afghanistan.

Routes, travels and hardships

Most of the Afghan migrants are young men who often set out alone and who are referred to as mojarad (a word usually used to describe a bachelor). By the time they arrive in Serbia, many of them have teamed up with others and are travelling in pairs or small groups. Some appeared to have been adopted by families, particularly families without young adult men of their own. This may have been for protection, but it is also possible the families meant to help the young men by allowing them to pose as relatives, so they can cross the Hungarian border, where currently only families – and very few – are let through.

Around half of the Afghans AAN spoke to (either in the park, in the adjoining streets or at the Miksalište centre) had left Afghanistan, or one of its neighbouring countries, when the Balkan route was still open, or just opening up. Most of them had taken the Aegean route, by boat from Turkey to one of the Greek islands, counting on the fact that they would be let into Macedonia and then transported by bus and train onwards into the EU. When the Balkan corridor closed in March 2016, they found themselves stranded. Most of them had been travelling for a long time when AAN spoke to them – generally between five to twelve months – and had only just managed to make their way into Serbia.

A young man from Herat who was travelling with his wife (they had lived in Iran for a long time and started their journey from Tehran) recounted:

We paid 2,000 Euros per person to come to Greece and then 2,000 Euros per person to get to Hungary. We have been travelling for eight months. … We arrived in Greece by boat; we were on the boat for seven hours. It was a boat for children to play in, not a proper one. We really gambled with our lives. Later, a boat with 60 people on it was lost. Four relatives of one of my friends died. … Three days before we arrived in Idomeni [on the Greek-Macedonian border] they closed the border to Afghans. For 20 days it was still open for Arabs, but not for us. We stayed in tents on the Greek border before we could travel on.

A couple who said they had travelled directly from Kunduz (but who had also clearly lived in Iran for several years) were similarly unlucky. (1) The young wife told AAN:

Two days after we arrived in Greece, the border with Macedonia was closed. We spent a long time in Greece, but we didn’t want to stay there. The camp was in the ‘jungle’ [ie forest or untended land]. It was in the vicinity of the capital city, but not that close. The children went to school, but there was no work for the adults. So my husband went to the city to find a smuggler. He found a Bangladeshi who spoke English. We walked for four days. We travelled from Salonika [Thessaloniki] to Macedonia, from Macedonia to Preševo [in Serbia, across the Macedonian border]. In Preševo we boarded a bus to Belgrade. We hope to go to Austria or France now.

The other people AAN spoke to had left more recently, after the closure of the Balkan corridor. Almost all of them had taken the “land route” through Bulgaria. This had been a secondary route when the Balkan corridor was still open, used by small groups of Afghans, Pakistanis and Iranians, whose journeys had been organised by compatriots residing in their countries of origin (see here). When the Balkan corridor closed, smuggling networks were already in place and able to accommodate the growing demand for travel through Bulgaria.

One Afghan family that had left from Tehran, where they had lived for the past eleven years, ended up taking both routes after they were separated at the Iranian-Turkish border. The mother, along with her daughter and son, managed to cross the border and travel onwards across the Aegean Sea. Meanwhile the father and another (adolescent) daughter were detained by the Iranian authorities. By the time they were deported back to Afghanistan, the rest of the family had already reached Germany via the Balkan corridor. Many months later, father and daughter had now finally reached Belgrade, via Iran, Turkey and Bulgaria, and were hoping to travel onwards to Germany and to join the others.

Although almost all journeys had been hard, people’s greatest complaints were regarding the behaviour of the Bulgarian police, who were said to beat migrants (2) and to go through their belongings, taking money and other valuables, even when well hidden. The aforementioned father told AAN “The police in Bulgaria were the worst. They took 250 Euros and a bracelet from my daughter. They didn’t find our phones because my daughter hid them [in her bra]. But when the police found my charger, they asked for my phone. So I gave them two very old phones.”

A young man from Herat who had been living in Tehran but had left around three months ago, had tried to get to Bulgaria several times: “Three times I was taken into Bulgaria and three times I was sent back. It’s a business – for the taxis, but also for the [Bulgarian] police. The police take our mobiles and our money. Now I don’t have a mobile anymore. They even took my notebook with all the phone numbers.” (3)

After three attempts at entering Bulgaria and another unsuccessful attempt via Greece, (4) he decided he had had enough:

I said I am not going anymore. But the smuggler persuaded me; he said “I will take you all the way to Germany.” So we went again, by truck, with about 30 people. We were dropped just before the [Bulgarian] border and walked until morning. Then we slept in the forest until night. When it was dark, we started moving again. After two or three hours we arrived at a crossroads. There was a policeman with binoculars and he saw us, he saw 30 people sitting in the forest. So the police came to get us. That night we were taken back to Turkey.

There we walked for five hours. We wanted to get a car back to Istanbul, but the ‘jello-ro’ [smuggler’s helper] said “no, we are trying it again.” We said that we had no food. He said a car would bring some. At around 23:00 a car came and brought some biscuits. We ate everything, because otherwise the [Bulgarian] police would take it. After that we walked for two hours. Then the smuggler called from Istanbul and said that it was now too late. So we walked back for two hours. We slept in the forest until the next night. Then we finally crossed the border.

A few interviewees mentioned that the behaviour of the Bulgarian police was much better in the presence of German or Austrian police officers (who had presumably been seconded to the Bulgarian border patrols). A partially disabled young man from Laghman told AAN, “It took us twelve days to get from Istanbul to Belgrade. We were deported from Bulgaria twice. The Bulgarian police stole our money – but they didn’t do it when the German and Austrian police officers were present.”

Arrangements with smugglers

From the interviews it emerged that most travellers had made all arrangements with a principal smuggler in Afghanistan, either directly while still in Afghanistan or through an intermediary while en route. One of the volunteers at Miksalište commented somewhat sarcastically, “There is an ‘unofficial Afghan Ambassador’ here [in Serbia]. He hangs around at the coffee shop in the park. He introduces people to smugglers.”

The money for the journey was usually paid to the principal smuggler, who then enlisted networks along the route for the actual travel arrangements. These networks included local coordinators who organised the different legs of the journey; local transporters and accommodation providers; local mobile guides (who either travelled with the migrants or met up with them at specific junctions) and local representatives who re-established contact with the migrants once they had arrived at their next destination. Most of these local networks were still made up of Afghans.

The role of the principal smuggler seemed to be quite hands-on. Many interviewees described how they were in regular contact, either directly or through his representatives, at crucial junctions of the journey – to confirm that they had safely arrived, to organise the release of money or to be handed over to the next local network.

From the interviews, different types of arrangements emerged. At the top end is what one of the Afghans described as a ‘guaranteed’ journey. In this arrangement the full price is negotiated and often paid beforehand. The principal smuggler then organises the whole route and guarantees that the traveller will arrive at his or her intended destination. The ‘guaranteed’ trip is the preferred mode for families and for those with more money to spend. It is financially the least risky arrangement, particularly if the payment is conditional and in instalments.

However, those who made arrangements while the Balkan ‘humanitarian corridor’ was still open, and who had counted on only needing to reach the Greek-Macedonian border, suddenly found that the original agreement would no longer get them to Europe as there were now many more illegal border crossings involved than originally envisaged. They found themselves renegotiating the terms of their agreement, paying additional money or looking for a new smuggler.

The young man from Jalalabad, for instance, explained to AAN how his family had found him a good smuggler in Nangarhar. They had paid 8,000 US dollars per person for him and his cousin (his cousin’s two young sons had been half price) for a ‘guaranteed’ trip. The smuggler had organised every leg of their journey, as they were moved from country to country. He said his family had paid the whole amount ahead of time, but that he had been confident the smuggler would not abandon or trick him: “Everyone in Nangarhar knows him, they all know his brother. My family would find him [if he tricked me].” Now he needed to pay more. He estimated that the remaining trip to France would cost him another 4,000 US dollars per person.

Others had opted to pay their trip in instalments. The daughter from the family who had been split at the Iranian-Turkish border, for instance, explained how they had paid after every border that had been crossed: 1,500 US dollars per person from Kabul to Istanbul; 1,400 US dollars from Istanbul to Bulgaria; and 1,100 US dollars from Bulgaria to Serbia. (5) They were now looking for a smuggler in Belgrade who would take them to the Hungarian border.

Another woman, whose family had left recently, said that even though they had made arrangements all the way to Austria, they had now asked the smuggler to only take them to the Hungarian border, where they would try to cross legally at the Horgoš or Kelebija border crossings (currently used as transit zones). “It is just too difficult to go through these illegal routes,” she said.

The most risky option is to ‘pay as you go’ which means that every leg of the journey has to be negotiated anew. This method is often used by young men with limited financial means and with no strong connections in Afghanistan. With nobody who can hold the smuggler to account, they are vulnerable to exploitation and deception.

Take, for instance, Rahman from Badakashan, who was introduced in the first dispatch and who left Afghanistan around a year ago. He travelled to Kabul from Darwaz district to find a smuggler who could help him leave the country. In Turkey he came into contact with a second smuggler in Kabul, who promised to get him to Europe but who didn’t come through. Since then, Rahman has been making his own way through Europe, making large parts of the journey on foot. With no powerful relatives in Kabul, he has no way to confront the smuggler. All he can do is keep trying to get a hold of him, but so far he has not answered his phone.

The young man from Herat (who had been living in Tehran) had a similar story. He paid a smuggler two million toman (around 660 US dollars) to take him to Turkey and 4,000 US dollars to take him from Turkey to Germany:

I found the first smuggler through friends who gave me his number. He arranged the border crossing to Turkey. Then I had to wait for a week until the money was arranged [for the next part of the journey] with the next smuggler. He was an Afghan from Kabul. The Iranian smuggler handed me over to this smuggler. … I finally left Turkey 20 days ago [after many attempts], but now the smuggler has abandoned me here in Serbia. I have no parents, only a brother and sister; nobody who can help me or send me money.

The uncertainty involved in finding a new smuggler (for those having to arrange their trip as they go along) or reconnecting with an existing one (for those who fear they have been abandoned) is illustrated in the following conversation between three young Afghan men overheard by AAN:

“I’m in real trouble, I cannot find my shabaka [network] anymore.”

“Same for me. I’m trying to get in touch with —. They say he is the most powerful one. But I can’t find him.”

“Just hang around in the park, they will find you.”

“I have heard there is also a Pakistani smuggler called ‘—’ They say all Pakistanis are with him.”

“The only one I know how to contact is ‘—’ He is a Kashmiri. But they say he cannot be trusted. He locks people up and beats them and steals everything from them.”

The smuggling networks

Most networks on the ground seemed to be run by Afghans, although there was also mention of Pakistani and Bangladeshi smugglers (particularly along the route from Greece), and Iranians and Iranian Kurds along the Iranian-Turkish border.

The ‘extended family’ who said they had come directly from Kunduz had dealt with Bangladeshi smugglers they had found in Greece: “Our smugglers were from Bangladesh, but there were also a few Afghans; they were Pashtu-speakers. Only one of them spoke Dari.” Another family mentioned that their three Afghan guides had spoken four languages between them: Dari, Urdu, Turkish and Bulgarian.

There seemed to be relatively little overlap, competition or cooperation with the local Serb and other criminal or smuggling networks. Only on a practical level – transport, accommodation, border crossings – was there mention of involvement from locals. As one of the volunteers commented:

Smuggling is organised by Afghans and others. The Serb networks cannot interfere because of the language barrier. The Serbs that are involved are hired. … However they [the smugglers] sometimes use Roma minors with mobile phones and GPS to cross the border. An adult goes to cut the wire first. This is a big offence, so they don’t enter themselves. The minors then take groups of migrants across. According to the law, minors cannot be prosecuted for people smuggling.

Occasionally, local people are enlisted to help with transport or accommodation. See for instance the story of a woman from Kabul, a former NGO worker in her forties, who was travelling with her children:

We travelled to Iran with legal visas and spent two days in Tehran. Then we left with the smugglers, first to Turkey, then to Bulgaria, then to Serbia. We were on the road for a month and crossed all borders without being caught. We travelled in a group of around 40 people: it was our family and the rest were Afghan and Pakistani boys. The smugglers were Afghan. They knew the way, although they did get lost once and we had to turn back. In Bulgaria, we stayed in a guesthouse for a few days. There were two rooms there, one for us and one for the boys. The owner of the house was a Bulgarian woman. When I washed my chador, only once, she told me off for using too much water. And then she completely closed off the water supply. She was very harsh, for no reason.

The mechanics of travel

Travelling was usually done in groups of between 20 to 40 people that were put together by the smugglers. Borders and obstacles, such as rivers, were either crossed in smaller groups or alone. In some cases, smugglers or their helpers accompanied the migrants, while in other cases migrants were sent across with only minimal instructions. Once they arrived, everyone was usually regrouped and transported onwards (or made to walk).

The man and his daughter who had been split from the rest of their family found a new smuggler after they were deported to Afghanistan. They travelled to Iran and tried to cross the border into Turkey again. This is how it went the second time:

There were three small rivers. The first one was less than a kilometre from the border. We had to cross it in a rubber boat; two people crossed first and then they pulled the rest across in the boat. The second river was half in Turkey, half in Iran. We crossed that too. At the third river there was no boat, the water came up to our stomachs.

They had pointed us in which direction to go. We were with 30 people. The young went very quickly. Then the smuggler called one of them and told him not to leave my daughter and I behind. So the boy came back for us. The smuggler had given him a phone and had told him the car would not come if we were not also there.

At some point it was just the three of us walking, the others were already on the other side of the road. They had given us the ‘address:’ they told us to follow a certain star, but we went the wrong way. We ended up close to a Turkish police post. Luckily the police had gone to have dinner, but we had to walk eight extra kilometres to reach the meeting point, because we lost our way. It was just the two of us and the other traveller who had the phone. We finally arrived in the forest and there we heard a “ssst.” The car then came to pick us up, all twenty of us. Within two minutes we were in Turkey. The other men had all changed, we were the only ones still in our wet clothes. But we were so happy we made it.

The young man from Tehran had a similar experience when he tried to cross the border between Iran and Turkey:

I had to go through water, it came up to my neck. I had to cross the river alone. [The smuggler] said there would be a car waiting at the other end. But when I arrived my SIM card didn’t work [so I couldn’t find the car]. I returned to the Iranian side. He fixed the SIM and I had to go through the water again. When I arrived on the other side, I called and waited. A few others also came through the water: six boys, also Afghans. We had to run to the road where the car arrived. I was tired because I had crossed the water twice so I couldn’t keep up with them, but they waited for me.

The interviewees used different words to describe the smugglers and guides who accompanied them, giving them names such as jello-ro (someone one who goes ahead), ham-rah (fellow traveller) and rah-rawan (a runner). The distinction between smugglers and migrants while travelling was not always easy to make. One of the young women who travelled as part of a family talked about “the boys who were given the phone,” which could refer to travellers who had been given a temporary, specific task, but also to the smugglers’ helpers. Several interviewees said they believed that members of the groups they had travelled with pretended to be migrants, when they were, in fact, smugglers.

One interviewee pointed out several young men who had just arrived at the park in Belgrade and were queuing to receive dry clothes and rucksacks; he believed they were smugglers. “There are so many smugglers,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t even meet them. Sometimes they stand 1 to 2 kilometres away, just waving and guiding the way. There are so many of them here [in the park] too. There are almost more smugglers than refugees.”

Hand-overs and internal modes of payment

Travel – whether ‘guaranteed’ or ‘pay-as-you-go’ – involves a large number of transitions and handovers, as travellers cross borders and countries. Sometimes the hand-over is seamless, while in other cases migrants need to re-establish contact with their main smuggler. The man from Tehran who had managed to reach Turkey with his daughter, related how the next part of their journey unfolded:

After we crossed the border into Turkey [after a second, successful attempt], we travelled two to three hours to Dogu Bayezit. There we stayed two nights. The smugglers did their money business and got us tickets for the bus to Istanbul. In Istanbul we stayed at a friend’s house. I didn’t leave the house for a week, until I realised that it was like here in Serbia and that it was no problem that we had no documents. Then I called [the smuggler in] Herat and he said go to this maidan [square] and a man will find you. So I went and someone came to me and said “are you the traveller from Kabul?” Then he took me with him. After that we tried to cross the border into Bulgaria.  

Internally, networks appear to have a staggered payment system in which different legs of the journey are authorised by the principal smuggler beforehand and then paid afterwards. This seems to happen even for local transport, as related by the young man who had travelled from Tehran:

When we got into Bulgaria we had to walk for three nights and four days. We were with 30 Afghans. There were families and also an old man and an old woman. Some boys had to carry the old woman. In Bulgaria the police got us. A car was supposed to pick us up and bring us to Sofia. [The smugglers] said it would take one hour, but in the end we had to sleep in the forest. There the Bulgarian police found us. They brought us back to the Turkish border at around midnight. We tried to make a fire, but it was raining. The police had taken all our food and money, and they beat us before they released us. It rained till morning.

In the morning we got a taxi and drove back to Istanbul; it took six or seven hours. We didn’t have money to pay for the taxi, but we phoned the smuggler and he okayed it. After that we spent two or three nights in Istanbul in our dirty, wet clothes. Then we tried again. Again we walked for two nights to the border. Again the police brought us back. Again a car brought us back to Istanbul. The taxi drivers know, it’s a business for them.

The internal payment system doesn’t always work. There were several stories of principal smugglers not coming through with payments, even though local smugglers had already arranged the trip. This was usually taken out on the migrant in question, as happened to the young man from Tehran, when he finally arrived in Bulgaria:

In Sofia we spent two days in a guesthouse. I was held like a hostage while they waited for the smuggler [from Afghanistan] to give the green light [ie signal that the money had been taken care of]. But he didn’t give the green light. So after two days I was taken to another guesthouse and then another. I was held like this for a week with almost no food. They only brought me a burger every 24 hours.

After a week the Bulgarian police raided the guesthouse where he was being held and gave him a choice: deportation or asylum. He filed a request for asylum and was moved to an open camp. As soon as he was allowed to travel, he returned to Sofia where he re-contacted the smuggler:

I called the smuggler to come and take me; he then called a Bulgarian who took me to a guesthouse where I stayed for two days. Then we went to the Serbian border, which was a five-hour drive away.

He managed to cross the border with half of his group, even though they had been detected by the Bulgarian police (the other half of the group was caught and deported). But his ordeal did not end there:

In Belgrade I was held hostage for another eight days while waiting for the smuggler to give the green light. The men beat me and kept asking me for the money. In the end I escaped. Now I stay in the camp [Krnjača] at night, where they give us tuna fish three times a day. Most of the others I travelled with have left Serbia by now. Their money was released. Mine still isn’t. I sometimes see the men in the street when I am in the city; they threaten me and say they will take me again, and keep me until the money is paid. They are Afghan, but they also seem to know the local language here. (…) If I don’t get the money, I’ll have to try to cross the border on my own. Here in Serbia I have been given shelter, but I am not sure I want to stay.

The man from Herat, who had been living in Tehran and who was travelling with his wife, had a similar story:

We spent five nights in a khabgah [a place to sleep] on the Macedonian border. It was a big tent. They gave us food, but otherwise we were just waiting for the ‘game.’ Every night we tried to cross the border. We couldn’t flee because we were in the mountains, so they could do what they wanted. It’s bad to say it, but they assaulted my wife there. … They also beat a few Somali travellers and they assaulted a Somali woman. The smugglers were Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.

Some of the travellers had been there for ten to twelve days; they were being held as hostages until their money was released. … A husband and wife and two sisters were held there; they had called for the money to be released and it was, but the smuggler had taken it and had fled. Other women arrived yesterday from the same khabgah; they said this family was still being kept there.

Once in Belgrade

In Belgrade, most migrants passed through the ‘Afghan Park.’ One morning we witnessed such an arrival. A family – the mother who used to work for an NGO, three daughters, between the ages of ten to eighteen, a grown son and an unrelated older woman – had just been dropped off. Their shoes and clothes were still wet from a night walking in the rain, while crossing the Bulgarian forests and the border with Serbia. Their group, they told us, had consisted of themselves and a large number of young Afghan and Pakistani men – many of whom had also just been dropped at the park and who greeted the family respectfully.

In the space of an hour, we saw the family slowly gather dry socks and shoes from various distribution points to replace their own wet ones. Later, they collected clothes, biscuits and backpacks. They complained about the harshness of the journey: “We walked for four days in the rain. We slept in the forest, under plastic that we had taken with us. We had to walk through thorns, now our feet and legs are injured.” Their final destination was Germany, while the adolescent daughter had a fiancé in France.

The family was deliberating whether they should go to the Krnjača asylum centre or not. It was clear that they were looking forward to a bed and a shower, but they were afraid to have their fingerprints taken and to potentially jeopardise their future asylum requests elsewhere. A young Afghan man assured them there was no problem:

I have already been in the camp [Krnjača] for ten days and no one took my fingerprints. If they had, I wouldn’t have gone. I didn’t give fingerprints anywhere. When I was caught in Bulgaria, the police asked me: “Money or prints?” That was an easy decision. I gave them 50 euros and they let me go.

The young man was right. At the time, in June 2016, Krnjača had opened its doors to undocumented migrants without demanding that they sign an intention to request asylum – apparently in an attempt to keep the parks from becoming permanent camping sites, as they had been the previous year. Shuttle buses ran between Krnjača and the town several times a day, free of charge. This changed in July 2016, however, when Krnjača closed its doors for those not requesting asylum (see here for details in the second dispatch of the series).

Onwards from Serbia

Volunteers in Belgrade estimated that refugees usually spent about a week in Belgrade: to rest, to reconnect with their smuggler’s network (or to try to find a new one), to raise money if they needed to, and wait. See also this article from May 2016:

According to the testimonies of the refugees and Info Park volunteers, the main reason for the daily stay in park is the exchange of information on continuing this journey, as well as the presence of the human traffickers, who offer them illegal entry into Hungary. Every day, in the afternoon and evening hours, approximately the same number of refugees leaves Belgrade, taking buses to Subotica [near the Hungarian border]. It is assessed that at any moment, there are at least 500-600 people in transit in Belgrade.

The onward journey from Serbia to the EU, still runs through Hungary, despite the country’s efforts to close its borders and to discourage and counter the influx of illegal migrants (alternative routes, for instance through Kosovo, have not yet opened up). At the moment there are two ways of entering Hungary: one is legal and regularised, the other is not.

For the legal route, Afghan and Syrian families can present themselves to Serbian guards at either the Horgoš or Kelebija border crossings and camp out on a strip of so-called ‘no-man’s land’ between the two countries, under the shadow of the barbed wire fence Hungary has raised along the whole border. Conditions at these makeshift camps are bad (although they have improved somewhat since migrants have been allowed to set up tents and aid organisations have set up some very basic sanitary services). The Hungarian authorities allow between 15 and 30 people to be interviewed each day, even though the total number waiting is in the hundreds. (For footage of Horgoš and Belgrade see this short video by the German TV news programm Tagesschau).

The various families AAN met planned to take this route, as did the engineer from Iran who was travelling with his daughter. When AAN spoke to him he had just heard from others who had done the same:

The night before last, one family went to the Hungarian border. They told us “you have to take two buses and then walk.” They sent a message just now that they had arrived and that they had had their interview. They think they can maybe leave in 12 days.

To enter illegally, one needs to navigate Hungary’s ever-increasing border control measures, which means relying on the help of smugglers. Although Hungary has erected a four-metre high fence along the full length of its border, migrants and refugees still manage to slip across. Smugglers and their helpers either physically cut through the fence, or take advantage of doors made to allow local people with fields on both sides of the border to pass; smugglers may have access to the keys or they may remove the locks and replace them with their own. Despite the fact that it has become increasingly difficult to cross the borders, prices are said to have gone down. This is a reflection of the fact that most travellers simply do not have much money left. As the young man from Herat who was travelling with his wife told AAN:

They say it costs 20 Euros to be taken to the [Hungarian] border and 500 Euros to cross [illegally], but we don’t even have enough money left to be taken there. I sold everything I had in Afghanistan. Now we are stuck here. How can I tell my parents that all the money has been wasted? They are old and their health is frail. They will worry so much.

Looking ahead

Since AAN visited Serbia in June 2016, the situation has worsened (see the second dispatch for details). Services in Belgrade have been cut, closed or are badly overstretched. The number of people waiting at the Horgoš and Kelebija transit zones is growing, even though still only very few will be allowed in. A new Hungarian law has moreover resulted in an increased number of deportations of migrants who did manage to cross the border illegally.

In reaction to these measures, a large group of Afghan and Pakistani men have marched to the Hungarian border, where they have begun a hunger strike in the hope of ultimately being admitted to Hungary. Serbian authorities, in the meantime, seem worried that the increasingly effective border controls in Hungary will mean their country will now become the final destination for the many Afghans as well as others who find themselves stranded there. (6)

State Secretary for Labour and Social Affairs, Nenad Ivanišević, visited the Horgoš border crossing on 27 July 2016, together with labour minister Aleksandar Vulin, and announced that Serbia would ask the EU for help, given that “the Balkan route is not closed.”


This series of three dispatches stems from research carried out 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) The couple belonged to a group that had presented itself as an extended family. Later, it turned out that they were not related. They said they had “become family” in Greece, because they were from the same area and needed to help each other. The group consisted of a young couple with a child (the wife was pregnant with their second child), an unrelated older couple with a teenage son and daughter and an unrelated adult single man (who may have been the helper of one of the smugglers).

(2) These allegations were confirmed by Pro Asyl, a leading German refugee organisation, in a report (in German) published in mid-April 2016. It speaks about “an alarming degree denigrating and inhuman treatment of refugees in Bulgaria – to the point of torture in jails for refugees” and the “refusal of medical help even in emergency cases”. The Bulgarian police is supported by so-called vigilante groups, many of them of extreme rightist persuasion, who patrol the border, ‘hunt’ and ‘arrest’ refugees and hand them over to the police (see for example this BBC report). The largest one claims to have 26,000 members alone, according to a German media report.

(3) Many migrants reported having lost their phones to the police. Although it is clear that this does often happen, some of the reports may have been exaggerated. Aid organisations have in the past distributed smart phones to people who had lost them, so some people may have hoped to receive one by claiming to now be totally without means of communication.

(4) In Greece the police intercepted his group shortly after they arrived:

We were sleeping when the police arrived. The car stopped and then they turned on their lights. They saw 30 people lying by the road. They took us to the police station and kept us there till morning. The Greek police was better than the police in Bulgaria, at least they let us sleep. … They took our mobiles and said they would give them back but they didn’t. They only gave the old ones back.

(5) Payment methods tend to vary, depending on how the smuggler operates and what travellers manage to negotiate. In earlier conversations in Kabul we found that families often deposited money with trusted middlemen, such as a saraf (a money changer) or a hawala dealer, who would then release the money in previously agreed instalments whenever a part of the journey was completed. None of the interviewees in Belgrade mentioned such a specific arrangement. It is unclear whether this means that they had not been made or that the travellers who were interviewed were unaware of the details.

(6) There have been requests to IOM by Afghans to be repatriated to Afghanistan, including by at least one minor. These requests are, however, pending, apparently due to the inability of Afghan embassies in neighbouring countries to decide which of them should issue the required documents.


Afghan migrants Balkan corridor migration Serbia smugglers


Martine van Bijlert

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