‘Europe, still one country ahead’

When it comes to migration, all the eyes have been on the Mediterranean recently. The sheer scope of the human tragedies off the European coasts and the indifference of our continent are hard to grasp. But the sea isn’t the only gateway to Europe. Thousands of people are making their way up north by land, across the Western Balkan.

  • © Toon Lambrechts Image from Idomeni © Toon Lambrechts
  • © Vasilis Tsartsanis On route near Idomeni © Vasilis Tsartsanis
  • © Toon Lambrechts Image from Idomeni © Toon Lambrechts
  • © Toon Lambrechts makeshift sleeping place near Indomani © Toon Lambrechts
  • © Vasilis Tsartsanis Hitching a ride near Idomeni © Vasilis Tsartsanis

An abandoned factory site just outside Subotica, a small village all up in the north of Serbia. A handful of Afghans awaits the night to cross the border into Hungary. One of them has a question for me. This country, Serbia, is it a part of Europe or Asia? His question makes the others laugh. For sure it isn’t a part of Europe. Look around, it can’t be. Europe begins a few hundred meters away, across the border with Hungary. But not everyone agrees on this. Germany, or Austria, that is where Europe starts.

Their confused conversation characterises transit migration. Europe - an idea of a place to build a new life, rather than a geographical entity - lies always one country further away, always one border more to pass. And borders in abundance here in the Balkan.

Human river

The numbers speak for themselves. The Western Balkan Route, stating from Greece or Bulgaria, leading migrant through Macedonia and Serbia to Hungaria, has become a major gateway to Europe in no time. In 2010, 2370 people were caught at the Serbian-Hungarian border, a number that rose to a staggering 43.360 in 2014, with no indication that this year’s figures will be different.

A significant number of people finding their way through the Balkan have been living in Greece for many years.

That’s also the feeling of Frontex, the EU-agency responsible for the control of the external borders. ‘We have reasons to believe that the number of refugees that use the Western Balkan Route will further increase the years to come,’ claims Izabelle Cooper, spokesperson of Frontex.

‘The pressure is clearly building up. Last year, some 280.000 refugees crossed the European borders, compared to only 100.000 the year before. Syria is only one of the drama’s on our front door. Libya, Iraq, Eritrea,… The list is long, and there is little reason for optimism. But predicting the future is a tricky thing to do. A lot depends on the situation of the countries of origin, and the policies of the transit countries.’

© Vasilis Tsartsanis
On route near Idomeni
© Vasilis Tsartsanis

The Western Balkan Route is a so-called secondary migration route. Refugees have already crossed the external borders of the EU, most of the time in Greece and increasingly at the Turkish-Bulgarian border. But both countries have little to offer to migrants. Bulgaria remains the EU poorest member state, and the economic crisis in Greece is far from over, to say the least. Not exactly places that might appeal to some one looking for a better life.

Most refugees coming through the Balkan to Europe are Syrians or Afghans. Other nationalities are Pakistani, Bengali and Iranians, just like people from Somalia and Eritrea. Most of them, especially the Syrians, are transit migrants in the strict sense of the word. Their only aim is to move on to Western Europe as fast as possible. But on the other hand, a significant number of people finding their way through the Balkan have been living in Greece for many years, with or without legal documents. The ongoing crisis and the animosity regarding migrants rooted in the Greek society drives them up north.

The island Kosovo

© Toon Lambrechts
Image from Idomeni
© Toon Lambrechts

On the other hand, the Balkan countries themselves remain important countries of origin. The recent visa liberalisations, giving people for the Balkan the opportunity to travel to the EU visa-free for three months, took them out of the statistic on illegal border crossings. Only Kosovo is still subjected to visa requirements, the reason behind the fact that tens of thousands Kosovars left their country the hard way.

‘2014 was an exceptional year.’

Oddly enough, the Kosovars use the same route as the rest, but separated smuggling networks. A significant part of the sharp rise in detected irregular crossings can be attributed to the Kosovars, explains Izabelle Cooper of Frontex.

‘In this regard, 2014 was an exceptional year. The number of people leaving from Greece remained stable, but we saw a brief but huge peek in the number of Kosovars. In the time span of only a few months, some 20 000 Kosovars were registered at the Hungarian border.

This peek partly explains the doubling of the number of irregular crossings last year. At the moment, migration from Kosovo has almost stopped, though the number of transit migrant keeps rising.

Fine meshed network

Don’t think of the Balkan Route as a broad human river. This road towards Europe is more of an open network of routes, border crossings and opportunities from which refugees cut-and-past their own path. Sometimes certain routes are not available, due to weather conditions or increased border surveillance. Nevertheless, the budget a refugee has to burn plays its role.

Migration is fluid, highly adaptable. For example, until last year, many migrants travelled through Albania, Kosovo and Serbia up north, a route now completely obsolete. When a certain way get cut of, the effects are immediately felt elsewhere. An important factor in the growth of the Balkan Route since 2012 is the fact that the sea crossing between Greece and Italy has become almost completely shut off by enhanced control on cargo and passengers ships.

The presence of large groups of immigrants originating from Africa and Asia, although in transit, is new to the Balkan countries.

The Balkan Route is an overland track, giving refugees more freedom of movement than the maritime routes. More common a few years ago than now, some people would just walk all the way on their own, without the help of smugglers, something impossible on the sea.

Refugees tend to follow the main orientation points in the landscape, like the E75 highway leading from Thessaloniki to Budapest or rather the railroad on the same course. More often nowadays people use the services of smuggles who take them by foot across the border where their journey continues by car. Another methods is to hide in the cargo trains heading up north.

The presence of large groups of immigrants originating from Africa and Asia, although in transit, is new to the Balkan countries. Migration itself not of course. The wars of the nineties drove many from their homes, and bleak economic prospects in both Greece as in the Balkan urges young people to look for a better life elsewhere.

Each county copes differently with the new situation. As an member state, Bulgaria has to work within the legal framework on migration mapped out by the EU. Serbia seems to opt for a more liberal approach, while in Macedonia, migration has become a criminal endeavour.

© Toon Lambrechts
makeshift sleeping place near Indomani
© Toon Lambrechts

Migration 2.0

It is the 21st century, so enter the social media. Sometimes it felt strange, seeing a bunch of men sitting by a smouldering fire with noting more than a sheet of plastic to protect themselves against the rain, staring into their smart phones. But in practise, a smart phone proves itself a extremely useful tool when migrating when making the journey towards Europe.

People use facebook, viber and whatsapp to stay in contact with each other, those in front and those at home. On facebook, there are several groups of Syrians sharing tips and information on the route, the smugglers and their chances to get asylum.

Gps-applications are very wanted. The border police knows this, and the smugglers know that the border police knows this. Crossing means going offline, sometimes for days, in order not to be detected because of the signal.

The most worrying development is the growing presence of organised crime on the migration route.

At the same time, refugees fall back on an age-old form of communication, by leaving behind writings on spots along the road. At the train station of Idomeni, in the Macedonian detention centra, in the abandoned brick factory of Subotica, and probably on many other places, “migration graffiti” can be found. Sometimes just meaningless nonsense, sometimes only some names, sometimes useful information. The “price” of a Macedonian policeman, for example, or for how long time someone has been waiting on a certain location.

The Western Balkan Route is not the descent into hell that refugees face in the Mediterranean or in the Egean Sea. But it isn’t a pick nick either, although the Syrians with their particular sense of humour label it like that. A lot of stories speak about people left behind by smugglers in the snowy mountains between Macedonia and Serbia, or accidents caused by the carelessness of drivers and smugglers.

The hard conditions outdoor in the wind and the rain break people, just as much as the fear, the uncertainty and the brutality of the police in some countries. The most worrying development is the growing presence of organised crime on the migration route, lured by the money and the vulnerability of the refugees.

© Vasilis Tsartsanis
Hitching a ride near Idomeni
© Vasilis Tsartsanis

Protection, but no access

‘The EU should put more pressure on the countries involved to guarantee the basic human rights of refugees.’

For the moment, the leaders of the EU are pondering on the situation in the Mediterranean. But acutally, it has become time to rethink the entire migration policy from the ground up. The way Europe stubbornly clings on to the idea of closing the borders, has a huge cost in human lives and lines the pockets of criminals. That applies to the maritime migration routes, as well as to the Balkan Route, according to Tvrtko Barun, Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service South East Europe.

‘The EU should put more pressure on the countries involved to guarantee the basic human rights of refugees. And make no mistake, if the EU would like to see some changes, it would have to come up with sufficient funding. Transit migration is absolutely not a priority for the Balkan countries. Financing change gives also the authority to control if certain standards are met.’

The migration policy of today has a stench of hypocrisy over it. A large number of the refugees making their way through the Balkan, especially the Syrians, deserve protection as a refugee in Europe under the Geneva convention. Under the condition that they make it to Europe, of course.

And the only way to get in is illegally, because the door is locked. A problematic situation, recognises Izabelle Cooper from Frontex. ‘For the moment there is almost no possibility for people who have the right to protection to claim asylum outside the EU or the territory of a member state. This forces people into the arms of smugglers who own big money on their misery. The issue has been on the table of the Commission  times, but it requires a political solution.’

Also in this dossier:

Greece: The starting line
MO*reporter undercover in human trafficking in Macedonia
Bulgaria: Exquisite back door to the Balkan
‘I saw on TV how everyone was leaving Kosovo, so I went myself’
‘Do you know the way to Hungary?’
‘Welcome to Hungary (But not wholeheartedly)’
‘Human traffickers never keep their word’
Why some refugees do return to the hell of their homeland

There will be no easy answers, acknowledges Tvrtko Barun from JRS South East Europe. ‘We will have to rethink the principles behind the way we deal with migration, changing out attitude towards migration. Migration raises broader issues like solidarity between countries, even between continents. But very few voices speak this way. For the moment, the focus lies almost solely on keeping refugees out. Some countries have a more open approach, but the general tendency is clear: The door remains closed.’

The Balkan Route takes you from Greece to Hungary, through Macedonia and Serbia with a detour through Kosovo and Bulgaria. The story follows the way thousands have walked before, in the wind and the rain, in search for a better life.

It is the story of the brothers Ashraf and Kareem, who probably are still waiting in Belgrade for a chance to pass. It tells about Omar, on the doorstep of a new life in Austria, but also about Nazim, returning on his steps broken by disillusion. It is a story how hope searches a way through a maze of borders, fragile and invincible at once.

This report was produced with the support of Fonds Pascal Decroos.

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Over de auteur

  • Freelance journalist

    Toon Lambrechts is freelance journalist tegen beter weten in. Behalve in MO* Magazine en op MO.be is hij ook te lezen in onder andere Knack, EOS en Vice.