Discarded Syrian passport near Subotica, Serbia. Taina Renkonen/All rights reserved.Last month, the planned Hungarian fortification of their eastern border with Serbia claimed its first victim. A displaced person, desperate to evade the border police, drowned whilst attempting to cross into Hungary from Serbia by swimming across the Tisza, the long, snaking river that flows from Ukraine, through Serbia, and towards the Schengen areas of Central Europe.
Rather than attempt rescue, the Hungarian border police stood motionless on the banks of the river in the city of Szeged. This tragedy on the Tisza marks the first fatality to follow from the Hungarian government’s attempt to stem the flow of refugees reaching its borders from the Western Balkans. Hungary’s proposed wall has entered its first phase; miles of razor wire fencing bolstered by stalking patrols of ‘border hunters’.
Whilst it remains a less perilous route than the notorious Mediterranean marine crossing, the Serbian - Hungarian border crossing is the third most travelled route into the European Union after Greece and Italy. According to the EU Border Agency, Frontex, in 2012, 6,290 refugees and migrants took the Western Balkans route towards the Hungarian border. By 2014, that number had risen to 43,360. Many of that number remain in a state of limbo in Serbia; their long journey having come to an abrupt and indefinite halt. The failings of the European community to commit to a programme of transnational aid and protection for those migrants compelled to make the journey, in light of the clear responsibility that it has to protect those displaced by war and societal upheaval, are, therefore, explicitly exposed.
In the face of either government malaise or outright apathy, one Serbian NGO is playing an instrumental role in providing legal assistance to refugees in a state of increasing desperation. Based in Belgrade, Asylum Protection Center (APC/CZA) was established in 2007 and has been providing legal assistance to asylum claimants and individuals granted asylum in Serbia. As well as providing a supportive presence at all five asylum camps in Serbia, APC/CZA also enrolls the children of asylum claimants into schools, escort them to doctors and healthcare centres and provide language classes and psychosocial support.
APC/CZA relies on broad public support and sympathy; it has managed to raise awareness amongst the general public by launching several media campaigns promoting the rights of asylum seekers and appealing for further relief and aid.
For the Director of APC/CZA, Radoš Đurović, the situation in Serbia that has followed the hardline, anti-migrant stance of the Hungarian government has reached a critical point:
“Due to a major influx of refugees from Africa and Asia, especially from Syria, Serbia is facing a large-scale migratory pressure that has come to resemble a humanitarian crisis in recent months. The situation is that more than 55,000 people sought asylum from the beginning of the year, compared to 16500 in the whole of 2014. People are sleeping near bus and train stations and parks in the center of Belgrade, as well as in the woods and in front of old abandoned factories in Subotica, near the Hungarian border, on the streets and parks of Presevo, near the border with Macedonia and Kanjiza, near the Hungarian border. The scale of the current crisis is increasing month by month. Bearing in mind that approximately 800 to 1000 migrants are coming to Serbia daily, and that the state is currently unable to respond to their basic needs for food, water, and accommodation, not to mention the issuing of identity papers or ID cards for those who are seeking asylum, the position of asylum seekers in Serbia is fairly bad.
[However] we are very satisfied with the engagement of volunteers and people who have shown great will to help the asylum seekers and migrants. Bearing in mind, however, that more and more people are coming, it is imperative that state institutions take all necessary steps to protect these people and provide basic accommodation and humanitarian needs for them. Moreover, we are hosting domestic and international students and interns and organising student practice We are also training students and professionals in order to strengthen the capacity of young professionals and representatives of institutions active in asylum and migration support.”
In early June 2015 Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi accused the EU of turning its back on its “basic values and decency” by refusing to manage the spate of deaths caused by attempts to enter Europe from the Mediterranean. Renzi voiced the concerns of many by warning that the basic values of European identity were now best expressed in the form of the imminent wall between Hungary and Serbia. The EU’s response to Hungary’s anti-migration fence has been limited to a simple and prosaic press statement; "We have only recently taken down walls in Europe; we should not be putting them up."
No further sanctions have been applied to Hungary for building the fence nor for breaching EU Law, namely the Dublin Regulation, which requires asylum claims by migrants to be processed in the European Union country in which they first arrive. Not only is the EU betraying its basic values but it is also failing to implement its own laws whenever the issue of immigration, migratory flows and provision for the protection of refugees are raised.
In stark contrast to such evasive measures, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government has openly made a statement that refugees and immigrants will not be welcomed in Hungary, linking them with terrorists and declaring them a threat to Europe and to Hungary.
In Serbia, local and international NGO’s continue to persevere in the region, releasing statistical information on the experience of refugees in the Western Balkans and how the problem can be tackled by nation states adopting functional asylum laws and providing safe passage to migrants and refugees to bypass smugglers, kidnappers and police abuse.
These recommendation extend to the EU in amending its anti-immigration policies. In such a situation as this, it would be easy to assume that the UNHCR, as well as other EU bodies and NGOs, would be more active in playing a role in changing or assisting with the current situation. Radoš Đurović, however, admits that their operations are limited and states that:
“The Red Cross and local authorities in Presevo cooperate to provide a temporary reception center for asylum seekers. They are playing an important role in the reception phase when migrants first appear in their local communities, by providing food and water for the migrants. However, they have limited resources and due to the numbers of migrants not everyone can receive food or water. Authorities from Presevo, Kanjiza and Subotica have appealed to the Government and international organizations to allocate some resources.”
APC/CZA is playing a major role in heightening media visibility about the plight of refugees and fostering a fair and balanced foundation for media coverage. Projects such as these go a long way to negate any xenophobic and defamatory situations and help to disseminate a more positive image of those claiming asylum in Serbia. For Đurović, effective media advocacy is key in providing support for incoming migrants:
“The number of asylum seekers and migrants in Serbia and the visibility of migrants in the streets, parks and open areas of Presevo, Belgrade, Subotica, Kanjiza and other cities contributes to increased media attention at this moment. For now, at least, in most cases the media are reporting accurately on the problems that these people are facing during their journey and during their stay in Serbia. Sometimes in the yellow press [tabloids] there are instances of sensationalistic reporting, but this is rarely happening.”
The large numbers of refugees arriving in Serbia are either fleeing war torn countries, conflicts, oppressive political regime or persecution and originate primarily from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia or Eritrea. These people’s journeys are usually embarked upon with the help of smugglers and organisers who charge high prices for crossing borders and do not guarantee any safety or protection. In many cases smugglers exploit displaced persons further by suddenly asking for more money or leaving them stranded in unknown territories. Furthermore, refugees are not only abused on these journeys but on occasion will have have witnessed deaths and the suffering of their loved ones exasperated by the unrestricted and unpoliced activities of the smugglers.
Đurović explains that “Due to the Hungarian wall the price people-smugglers and traffickers will ask will rise. This is because people now are on the move, they can’t go back to their country of origin because of war, persecution or state repression, and they have sold everything and left their homes once for all. Also, asylum seekers will be forced to undergo a much more dangerous way of traveling, such as swimming across rivers or to travel and be hidden in overcrowded trucks and vehicles. All these walls and obstacles will not stop their movement and their attempts to reach the EU. They are running away from war and persecution and remaining where they are without any alternative fences and walls will only make them more vulnerable and endanger their lives further. This view has been reiterated by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).”
According to an APC report published in 2013 on the asylum situation in Serbia many asylum claimants believe that it will take them 6 months to be fully integrated into the society where they intend to claim asylum. This belief re-enforces the vulnerability of these refugees who remain largely unaware of the asylum laws and process in countries such as Serbia, Macedonia and Hungary where there are almost non-existent integration strategies for asylum claimants. Yet, it is clear that no wall or fence can stop this extraordinary perseverance to reach safety and that the problem will persist.