Can Europe Make It?

Lost (in) time on the Balkan Route: ambiguous migration policies in Serbia

"As more superficial exchanges focused on information provision developed into deeper conversations, something chilling began to emerge..."

Leonie Ansems de Vries Lucia della Torre
27 August 2019, 7.06am
On the border with Croatia, North Africans, Pakistanis and Afghans try to cross the border between Bosnia and Croatia. September, 2018.
Danilo Balducci/PA. All rights reserved.

What is the impact on displaced people of being both en route and immobile over a long period of time? In May 2019, Lucia travelled to Serbia to offer legal advice on asylum and the Dublin regulations to migrants in the camp of Bogovadjia. She sent this message to Leonie just after returning from her trip:

“The camp of Bogovadjia is roughly two hours and a half away from Belgrade. The camp was a previous summer colony for children, so migrants are now using the buildings that are still in place. I haven’t seen many camps but the colleagues that were with me told me conditions are not bad, compared to what you can find elsewhere…the common areas that we could visit were rather clean, there are projects in place to entertain children, people are fed three times per day.

Yet, it was as if time and air were sucked away: people lose count of days, sometimes of weeks. They have little or no legal assistance, they travelled with very vague (often wrong) ideas of what they will have to deal with, they cannot count on any medical or psychological support. They just hang there, with nothing to do but smoke. Some are in the camp since 2017, even 2016: they don’t know if they applied for asylum in Serbia, they don’t know what the status of their application is if they did, they wait for more money to carry on with ‘the game’, or they plan to go back to Greece, and to try crossing by sea. Time slips by, and they lose touch with reality.”

This (disturbing) message resonated with the insights Leonie gained from her research in spaces of transit across Europe, especially with regard to the interlocking of urgency and waiting: of a sense on behalf of policy makers that emergency measures must be taken to reverse the ‘crisis’ and displaced people’s urge to move and find safety, whilst at the same time waiting in uncertainty for long periods of time. This resulted in the notion of ‘politics of exhaustion’, a concept which Leonie previously wrote about with Marta Welander, on openDemocracy.

Here, we address three related aspects of the politics of exhaustion as it currently plays out in Bogovadjia, with implications for the Balkan route more generally. Firstly, exhaustion is a lived experience and relates to the ways in which people become lost (in time) in the camp. Secondly, exhaustion is (an effect of) deliberate migration management policies, which we discuss in the context of changing asylum legislation in Serbia. Thirdly, despite the serious impact of violent migration management practices, displaced people continue to be human beings with active subjectivities who seek to build a better life. We see this here in their involvement in what they call playing ‘the game’.

Lost (in) time

Bogovadjia is one of 5 official asylum centres set up by the Serbian Government. It is located in woods surrounding the city of Valjievo and has a capacity of more than 200 beds, yet only around 100 people are currently residing in the camp. It is thus far from overcrowded. The camp hosts a mix of residents, with families staying together and separate spaces for single women, yet bathrooms are unisex. The vast majority of residents come from the Middle East (mostly Afghanistan and Iran, with some Iraqis); some are from Georgia, Macedonia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Whilst there are a lot of families, including young children – a baby boy was born the week before Lucia’s visit – most are young, single men in their late 20s and early 30s. This reflects the data on arrivals in Serbia more generally: in 2018, the three main countries of origin of asylum seekers were Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, followed by Iraq and Syria. [1]

Working with another lawyer, Lucia offered advice to residents of the camp, who were mostly interested in learning about the Dublin system, which countries in Europe were most welcoming and which countries were more difficult to reach. In this regard, it was a familiar scenario that is replicated in many informal and institutionalised migrant spaces across Europe. The residents shared stories about friends or distant relatives who had successfully settled in one place or another; they had all heard rumours and confusing or contradictory messages, which they sought to confirm or disprove.

Gaining ‘true’ information and dispelling myths is highly valued not only in itself but, more importantly, as a means of enabling mobility. It is thought that understanding asylum and migration procedures and systems will help them navigate their way to a safe space or at least start moving again when they are stuck. There was a sense of urgency in the residents’ eagerness to move; it seemed that their next move was all they had on their mind. In addition to gaining information, they were preoccupied with receiving money from home to help fund their journey and contacts with, and fees to be paid to, smugglers to facilitate the journey. Listening to them, it seemed that every move was imminent, urgent and rushed.

However, and this is the other – yet closely related – side of this familiar story: this urgency had become lost (in) time as it stretched over months and years. As more superficial exchanges focused on information provision developed into deeper conversations, something chilling began to emerge: the people ready to leave, all packed up and about to set off, had resided in the camp for a long time. Some had been there for two to three years, whilst some others had lost track of time. Their carefully crafted plans to move were often what we could call ‘mind-loops’: plans they kept developing and playing in their heads, without being able to act on them, out of fear, lack of resources and/or sheer mental exhaustion. These mind-loops were part of lives that revolved around waiting. They were simultaneously eager to go, and felt they needed to wait a little longer until a better plan or a better possibility to move would emerge. Perhaps these continued efforts to make plans in their minds is a way of coping with the daily reality of waiting, uncertainty, fear and hopelessness.

One of them, an Iranian in his late twenties who had been politically active in Iran and who had been in the camp for 8 months, was too afraid of the push-backs along the Bosnian and Croatian borders to embark on a move northwards, and thought that he would stand a better chance to gain asylum in Greece. He came to see the team three times to discuss the idea of moving backwards – he had been in Greece previously – rather than onwards like everyone else. He said: ‘I don’t know whether this plan I have makes sense any more. I have been playing it on my head for too long, I think I am going slightly mad.’ This envisaged ‘backward’ move might seem peculiar but is a manifestation of the fractured character of migratory trajectories across Europe, as noted previously.

Another male, in his early twenties from Afghanistan, told us once that he planned to go to Italy, then to Germany. Yet, when talking to him a second time, it appeared that he had applied for asylum in Serbia but had forgotten about it as he had been waiting for a decision for such a long time. He had resided in the camp the longest – nearly three years – and really had no idea where to go next. The story of an Afghani woman resonates with this sense of being ‘stranded’ and having nowhere to go. The woman had arrived in Serbia with her baby boy, her husband and the rest of his family (notably his second wife), who would treat her like a slave. They all left for Greece, leaving her behind with her baby son. With a young child to look after, the journey onwards seems too dangerous, but returning to Afghanistan not an option. She had not found anyone in Serbia who could properly advise her and was waiting for her husband to either return to Serbia or to tell her to join him somewhere else. Meanwhile time passes: her son Benjamin has just turned one and Bogovadjia has been his only home.

The changing legal context

In 2018, 7,651 people expressed the intention of applying for asylum in Serbia.[2] However, in the same period, only around 300 people actually lodged an asylum claim. This gap between intention to apply and actual application is explained by the former Law on Asylum and Temporary Protection (LATP), which allowed displaced people who arrived in Serbia the right to express an intention to seek asylum without immediately having to submit an application. Through this declaration of intent, people were registered, provided with an identity document and referred to an asylum seeker centre or other facilities designated for the reception and accommodation of asylum seekers. The existence of this declaration of intent thus meant that displaced people arriving in Serbia could regularise their status and gain access to accommodation without having to officially claim asylum.

For many, Serbia is a country of transit rather than an intended destination, which the LATP seemed to recognise. Yet, without any pressure to formally submit an asylum claim, the spatial in-between of being in transit easily turns into temporal suspension. The LATP, in combination with factors such as the remote location of most centres, language difficulties and the lack of access to sound and continuous legal advice, allows displaced persons to endlessly postpone the decision whether or not to lodge an asylum claim. People would ‘settle’ and forget when they had arrived, or how long they intended to stay. The numbers of ‘would be’ asylum thus remained much higher than the number of official asylum seekers. This allowed the Serbian government to rely on such numbers to claim more support from EU agencies while at the same time putting pressure on the asylum system and making it impossible for the relevant bodies to deal without delay with the cases of those who would really remain in Serbia and take up residence there.[3]

Yet, this situation may change after the revision of the LAPT in March 2018. Article 36 of the new legislation introduces strict asylum application deadlines: official applications must be made within 8 days of the registration of the declaration of intent. If the Asylum Office fails to enable the submission of the application within this time, the applicant may do so themselves within another 15 days. It is unclear from the text of the law whether or how these stipulations will be enforced – loss of status/entitlements; transfer to a ‘departure’ centre? Given the lack of provisions for enforcing the law, it is unlikely that this will happen in the near future, however, if enforced, it is likely that the tight deadlines will push more migrants to ‘drop out’ of the asylum scheme and try to move on in order to prevent becoming more precarious.

To understand what might happen to those who fail to meet the deadline, we must also consider the new Foreigners Law (also passed in 2018), which provides for the possibility that the government adopts an ordinance regulating the ‘tolerated’ presence in Serbia of irregular foreigners who cannot be returned to their country of origin due to the non-refoulement principle or who cannot leave the country due to circumstances beyond their control. The problem is that what is meant by ‘tolerated’ presence has not been defined and the government enjoys very broad discretionary powers to interpret this legislation. It suggests that the presence of displaced people who are not in the asylum procedure may no longer be ‘tolerated’ or only ‘tolerated’ under strict – and potentially arbitrary – terms and conditions set by the government.[4]

Playing the ‘game’

The Balkans, with their mountains and fragmented borders, have been used as the mainland road to reach western Europe since the peak of the ‘crisis’ in 2015. The infamous ‘EU-Turkey’ deal has not stopped the movements. According to UNHCR, 1,117 migrants arrived on the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina in February 2019, a significant rise compared to 2018, when only 479 people arrived. In Serbia, 2,512 people arrived in May 2019, 1,826 the month before. Recent reports have confirmed that push-backs along the borders (between Serbia and Bosnia, Serbia and Romania, Bosnia and Croatia) continue with alarming frequency. The border between Serbia and Hungary remains officially closed.

People continue to both move and get stuck along the Balkan route and elsewhere; journeys remain precarious and fractured due to the ways in which border regimes operate and people continue their efforts to move. We have been struck by how often this is described by migrants as ‘the game’. They use it to narrate their attempts and strategies to reach their ‘destination’ – whether this is a specific country or area, or more generally a place of safety. Despite the uncertainty and suspension they feel, and the frequency with which situations and plans might change – or perhaps because of it – they narrate this ‘game’ in a way that suggest that the end goal is solid and clear. The ‘game’ is dangerous, fraught with doubts and mistakes that can be deadly. Many have died, getting lost on mountains, trying to cross rivers, or sleeping rough on the wrong night. Other ‘mistakes’ are less frightening, but still treacherous: being caught by the wrong border patrol, being pushed back and ill-treated in the process, or, worse even, being fingerprinted in the wrong country, can be disastrous for the continuation of the journey.

This also illustrates another aspect of the politics of exhaustion: migration management policies can be as perilous as the natural environment, yet the latter only becomes so dangerous due to the former. It is due to migration management that people are forced to cross mountains and rivers by foot or survive outside in wintry conditions.

Conceiving of it as a ‘game’ might therefore seem inappropriate, however, as suggested above, perhaps this is a way of maintaining or regaining a sense of active subjectivity, or even adding a sense of adventure, rather than simply subjection to the violence of the border regime. A game is played, not just endured, and offers a prospect of winning or at least of finishing it rather than getting lost (in time). The situation in Bogovadjia, and in Serbia more generally, illustrates the stakes of the ‘game’ and suggests that it will continue to be a violent, precarious, slow and urgent endeavour of simultaneously being subjected to the politics of exhaustion and developing active strategies to counter it.

[1] Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, Right to asylum in the Republic of Serbia 2018, March 2019, p. 13

[2] Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, Right to asylum in the Republic of Serbia 2018, March 2019, p. 11

[3] Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, Right to asylum in the Republic of Serbia 2018, March 2019, p. 23

[4] Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, Right to asylum in the Republic of Serbia 2018, March 2019, p. 24

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData