Mediterranean journeys in hope

Serbia waiting: between trapped migrants and EU enclosures

Stories and brief reflections from Belgrade.

Alessandra Sciurba
20 February 2017

Image by author. All rights reserved.

Stories from the Barracks

“We are gonna play the game”, several men living in the ‘Barracks’ in Belgrade tell me, meaning they are going try to cross the border this night. Most of them have already tried more than once, yet were pushed back by the police to this transit space. The Barracks is the name migrants have given to a crumbling collection of buildings in a neglected part of the city’s waterfront, which companies from the United Arab Emirates are transforming into a new touristic and commercial area.

This place became a sort of movie set in the first weeks of 2017, when TV crews from several countries came to film hundreds of people living in the snow. About 1000 migrants wait, many of them minors. I meet an eight-year-old child who lives there alone, he tells me, because his father is in a migrant detention centre in Croatia. People live here if they do not find a place in one of the 17 governmental reception centres, which combined can host up to 6,300 persons. They also stay in the Barracks because this is the place from which they can easily arrange passage to Hungary or Croatia. Every day about 20 people try, but only two or three manage to reach those countries.

I was deported with my little brother, 10 years old. I was bitten and (stripped) naked by the police before leaving me at the border.

Even when a migrant succeeds in reaching Zagreb (Croatia) it is normal from them to sent back to Serbia. A young boy from Pakistan explains to me that “it does not matter if you claim asylum, or if you are a child. I was deported with my little brother, 10 years old. I was bitten and (stripped) naked by the police before leaving me at the border”. The same usually happens at the Hungarian border, where up to 300 persons are thought to be hidden in the forest, risking frostbite while waiting to “play the game” of passage. There, Hungarian police often utilise dogs against migrants. One young boy shows me the marks of the teeth, before telling me that he had left Afghanistan because the Taliban wanted him to join them.

Concerning other bordering countries, Romania is protected by the river, while Bulgaria is so ferocious against migrants that every person I meet who travelled through there tells me they left the country as quickly as possible. This means they escape an EU country into Serbia, a non-EU country which they consider to be safer, before trying again to enter the EU: one of the paradoxes produced by contemporary migration policies.

Around the Barracks, several associations and groups are trying to sustain these migrants. Doctors without Borders has a presence in the so-called “Afghani park”, and in a place called Infopark someone tries to offer legal assistance, for example. Yet they must do their work on the sly, especially after an open letter by the government explicitly discouraged any kind of help to migrants outside of the official reception centres.

Voices from the camps

I can enter Krnjača reception centre because, as part of a delegation of the leftist party Sinistra Italiana, we are bringing humanitarian aid from Italy. I arrive there late in the evening. It’s already dark, yet dozens of children appear around me and start to play in the snow. They do not seem to be exhausted by the fact that most of them have spent most of their lives fleeing or living in such places.

Little white prefabricated houses follow one another as far as the eye can see: more than 1200 persons live here and the majority are children. They wait, exactly as migrants in the Barracks or those in the no man’s lands next to the borders wait.

We had to try another route towards EU. For our children.

Godsia is also waiting, with her husband and her four children. They are Hazaras from Afghanistan. The youngest baby was born in Macedonia. “She is a strong woman” Godsia’s husband tells me about his wife. “She passed the jungle between Greece and Macedonia two weeks before giving him birth”. So, they had come through Greece, as had many of the other families now sitting in the centre.

 “Why did we arrive from Greece until here? Because we were in Idomeni when police destroyed the camp. We were accompanied in other camps in the Northern Greece. There, it was worse than here. We could not go ahead. We had to try another route towards EU. For our children. We were sure we should remain in Serbia just for a while”.

They thought this because there is still a legal way to enter Hungary from Serbia, albeit one that at best only ever let a trickle of people through and now has almost completely ended. Some weeks ago 50 people per day were allowed to pass after being placed on a list by the Hungarian and Serbian authorities working in the centre. Yet, just 10 persons per day now obtain this authorisation.

A young boy shows me on his telephone the photo of the internal list concerning migrants in this centre: he is number 428. He does not know the position that he and his family have on the wider national list. Neither does the camp official, whose job is limited to emailing names into a centralised system.


Photo by author. All rights reserved.

Serbia as a trap. Who’s next?

Serbia’s history as a transit country is the main reason why Serbia has never implemented an asylum system, despite the strong presence of UNHCR in the country; just 39 persons obtained refugee status between 2015 and 2016.

I met the Serbian commissioner for refugees and migrants, Vladimir Cucić, just before I left. I asked him what he would request from Brussels if he could be certain to obtain something. “Just a policy to follow, some clear and unique policy”, he answered. “Until now, the system of the list has kept calm both migrants and Serbians. Now I can’t promise anything about what can happen”.

Approximately 10,000 migrants, mainly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, became trapped in this country of 7.5 million inhabitants after the Balkan Route was fully shut in early 2016. At the same time, Serbia is in the middle of a thorny transition phase not only with regard to EU membership but also with the consolidation of the rule of law and democracy more generally. The Yugoslavian civil war is not so distant in time. Yet, the European Union, as it has with other countries, is leaving Serbia alone with refugees apart from the donation of some facilities emblazoned with “Germany humanitarian assistance” and so on.

“As in the game where, when music stops, you must sit faster that other participants”, Commissioner Cucić tells me, “in this moment, we are the one left standing. Tomorrow it can be another one, if we also close the borders”. It seems that at the present juncture, the Serbian authorities are asking themselves first and foremost how the European Union wants Serbia to act. Are the standards to join EU based on the respect of human rights, or simply on the length and efficacy of border fences?

Everyone, in Serbia, seems now to be waiting for something.

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