‘Do you know the way to Hungary?’

Unlike neighbouring Macedonia, Serbia seems to opt for a more humane approach to the flow of refugees crossing the country. Serbia has something like a working asylum system, partly built on the legacy of the reception of Serb refugees from Bosnia, Kosovo and Croatia. But the country remains only a stop-over on the way up north.

  • © Toon Lambrechts © Toon Lambrechts
  • © Toon Lambrechts © Toon Lambrechts
  • © Toon Lambrechts © Toon Lambrechts
  • © Toon Lambrechts © Toon Lambrechts
  • © Toon Lambrechts © Toon Lambrechts
  • © Toon Lambrechts © Toon Lambrechts
  • © Toon Lambrechts © Toon Lambrechts
  • © Toon Lambrechts © Toon Lambrechts
  • © Toon Lambrechts © Toon Lambrechts
  • © Toon Lambrechts © Toon Lambrechts

Cigarette after cigarette, the room fills up with smoke, only to make the atmosphere more gloomy. The brothers Ashraf and Kareem, the duo from Greece, are seized by despair.

For more than a week, they have been hanging around in Belgrade, ready to take the final step towards Europe. The Serbian-Hungarian border separates them from their final goal.

© Toon Lambrechts
© Toon Lambrechts

Only, this step is the most important one of the route. Because everyone knows what is at stake. Whoever gets arrested in Hungary should apply for asylum there and leave his fingerprints, unless you can endure months of detention, risk deportation and go for a second attempt. This is a consequence of the Dublin Convention, which requires refugees to request asylum in the first country of arrival. But no one wants to stay in Hungary, a country known for its harsh treatment of migrants.

Too many questions

No one wants to stay in Hungary, a country known for its harsh treatment of migrants.

Every day the plans of the brothers change. Try on their own without the help of a smuggler, or  make use of their service? And which smuggler to choose? What if they are arrested in Hungary? Give their fingerprints to the Hungarian police and thus reduce their chances to get asylum in Germany? Or refuse to provide their data and risking a few weeks in a Hungarian cell, a place with a very bad reputation?

The problem is the money. Both brothers have just over 1 500 euro left, received yesterday  from Syria via Western Union. That is only enough to pay a smuggler for one of them to pass.

All through the evening, the brothers call back and forth. To the parents in Damascus, for advice and to keep them informed. To friends in Germany who have already crossed, but risk to be being deported to Hungary because of the fact that their fingerprints are registered there. To the smuggler, to negotiate the price and the method of payment. To another smuggler, to see whether he would give a better price. They are not getting at it. But a few days later, they have disappeared into nothingness. Apparently they found a solution.

A swelling river

Unlike neighbouring Macedonia, the transit migration is rather visible in Serbia. Especially the area around the main railway station in Belgrade is packed with Syrians, Afghans and Africans. The overnight kebab shops are doing good business, a coffee shop opposite to the bus terminal has become a place where smugglers and their clients meet.

In 2010, 522 persons asked for asylum in Serbia. In 2014 that number grew to 16.500

Given the number, the visibility of transit migration in the streets of Belgrade should not really come as a surprised. Last year, 16.500 people asked for asylum in Serbia, the first two months of this year alone already nearly 5000 requests were filed. By comparison, in 2010 there were only 522 asylum seekers. Furthermore, these figures say nothing about those who traverse the country unnoticed.

‘It started back in 2008, almost unnoticed, with a handful of people who applied for asylum’, says Rados Djurovic, active in the Asylum Protection Centre, the main ngo in Serbia in defence of asylum seekers’ rights.

‘In 2009 we saw the first people who had departed from Greece. Currently, there are more and more people coming directly through Bulgaria.’

‘It is like a river that continues to swell, year after year. The police will not be able to stop it, although their presence at the Serbian-Hungarian border last month has been increased under pressure from Europe. Partly, these smuggling networks are a heritage from the time when international sanctions against Serbia were in force. But now we see more and more ordinary people getting involved in the smuggling business. The lure of the money is strong.’

Catching a breath

© Toon Lambrechts
© Toon Lambrechts

The rapidly increasing number of asylum applications is somehow misleading. Serbia remains a transit country, the last stop before Hungary. But the country is, until further notice, not a member of the European club, and therefore not subjected to the Dublin Convention.

As a consequence, seeking asylum in Serbia has no effect on the chances of being recognised as a refugee in the EU. The reason why people apply lies in the fact that it gives refugees a legal ground to be in Serbia. Moreover, anyone who applies for asylum, in principle at least, can knock on the door of one of the  refugee shelters. For many transit migrants a very welcome opportunity to catch a breath after all they have been going through.

‘I can’t sit down for years in a refugee camp in Turkey. I want to go on with my life.’

Bogovadja is one of those typical small Serbian villages. A few streets, some shops and cafes. But the colour in the street is less common. Syrians, Africans, Afghans …

The opening of the refugee centre has changed the village profoundly. The buildings lie at the outskirts of Bogovadja. A few taxis drive the asylum seekers back and forth. The centre itself consists of a series of structures decorated with murals of people in traditional Serbian costumes.

Bogovadja always been a refugee camp, but housed initially Serbian refugees from Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo during and after the Balkan wars. In front of the main building, eight people are waiting for a place inside.

One man, an Afghan, tells the now already familiar story. For years he has lived in Greece, but no more work and thus on the way to elsewhere. Robbed in Macedonia and stranded in Serbia. He wants to reach Italy, an unusual choice, but he has friends there. ‘But I am at the end, I need to recover a little bit.’

‘I only have my legs to go on.’

On the edge of the area, two kiosks have been transformed to a shack to sleep by the refugees.. Strange, because there is more than enough room  inside.

‘We don’t have the right documents to be here’, explains Zacharias, a young man from Syria. He studied chemistry in Damascus, but had to flee. ‘I can’t sit down for years in a refugee camp in Turkey. I want to go on with my life.’

So what is wrong with his papers? ‘I asked the police for documents, but they didn’t give me anything.’ Another Syrian does have papers, but not the right ones. He was assigned a place in the refugee shelter near Tutin, close to the border with Montenegro, much farther southward. ‘But I want to move forward, not hundreds of kilometres back on my journey.’

Zacharias wants advice. Which country in Europe would be the best destination? Germany perhaps? But there are already a lot of Syrians. His friend talks about Britain because it would be easier to find work. Certainly not Hungary, because if they would take their fingerprints there, their journey is over.

Zacharias is confused, he has heard too many stories. Money to pay a smuggler lacks anyway. ‘I only have my legs to go on.’

An asylum system in its infancy

‘The temptation to travel further into Europe is strong. The border is so close, it’s only a small step towards the EU.’

Bogovadja characterises the schysophrenic situation of Serbia’s asylum policy. The country’s asylum system, still in its infancy, could work. But experience lacks. More important, almost everyone leaves after a while, making it difficult to build up something in the long run.

‘Most young Serbs want to leave as well, but that is not a reason to deprive them from their rights as citizens. Our point of view is that this applies equally to those who show an intend to apply for asylum’, Rados Djurovic from the APC claims.

‘But of course, the number that effectively remains in Serbia is very small, less than a hundred people. The temptation to travel further into Europe is strong. The border is so close, it’s only a small step towards the EU, and often people have already invested a lot in their journey. But it should make no difference, they have a legitimate reason to be here, so we should help them.’

© Toon Lambrechts
© Toon Lambrechts

Legacy of the Balkan Wars

‘At the time, Serb refugees were treated well in Europe, so we have a moral obligation in this matter.’

Serbia has a reputation for being hospitable, and works on an operational reception system, a realisation of which Rados Djurovic is proud of.

‘It is a political battle that is never completely won, but we want to show that the established fact that you need to treat people badly in order to respect the law is false. It could be done just as well in a dignified and humane manner. It’s all new for Serbia, so we must seize the chance to do it right from the first time. At the time, Serb refugees were treated well in Europe, so we have a moral obligation in this matter.’

Yet this proves to be an ongoing battle. In several communities where refugee centres were opened, a storm of local protest broke out. In Obrenovac for example, a bus full of migrants was hold back for 14 hours by a barricade and a part of the planned reception centre was set on fire. ‘This protest has been largely fuelled by local politicians in the hope to gain votes’, says Rados.

‘The same people  spread all kinds of rumours about alleged crimes committed by refugees. But the only real crime rise in the statistics are Serbs robbing migrants. Their strategy has turned against them, fortunately. When the media found out that they had been lied to, the tone of reporting flipped.’

Building on expertise

There will never be truly large numbers of refugees residing in our country. With a little more effort we could offer them more support.’

Migration remains under the authority of the police, something Rados would like to see otherwise. ‘There is already a well-established refugee committee in Serbia, a legacy of years of experience with the reception and integration of Serb refugees from Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. We should  builds on this expertise, with the support of Europe. Never there will be truly large numbers of refugees residing in our country, but with a little more effort we could offer them more support, so some of them will stay.’

A  more pressing problem is the situation at the border with Macedonia and Bulgaria. Immigrants who are arrested close to both borders while crossing are driven back across the border, without giving them the possibility to ask for asylum. Such push-backs are illegal under international  law. Moreover, some of the refugees who have faced push-backs speak about excessive police violence.

‘It’s something that needs to change urgently. People who are imprisoned on the fact that they have crossed the border illegally, are tried quickly and sent back. The problem lies with the courts, whose acts are bases on shaky legal foundations. But we don’t have a lot of information about what is happening in the south’, Rados Djurovic explains.

MBA in the jungle

© Toon Lambrechts
© Toon Lambrechts

Tibor Varda parks the car beside an abandoned factory not far from Subotica. The city is the last stop on Serbian territory, Hungary is just a around the corner. The factory turns out to have been a kiln. Besides the ovens, the long wooden sheds which were used to dry the bricks are still standing.

‘Usually they come over just to have a look. But there are stories of police violence and refugees being robbed.’

Tibor, a priest and a local volunteer, shows the places inside the oven where people spend the night. A smell of campfire lingers on. With a ladder we climb to the first floor. ‘If the weather is better, people prefer to stay outside. It’s very dusty and musty here.’ Today the sun is shining, so inside there is no one to be found today.

Behind the factory, an abandoned wasteland stretches out until the railroad. The well-trodden paths through the grass betray where the migrants are hiding. Soon we encounter a group of Afghans. Two of them trying to get a fire going, the rest is still sleeping under a tent-like structure, built with sticks, sheets of plastic and blankets.

The guys by the fire say that there has been a police incursion last night. That something that often happens, says Tibor. ‘Usually they come over just to have a look. But there are stories of police violence and refugees being robbed.’

One of the Afghans introduces himself as Reza. In an almost immaculate English he explains that he has been living for years in Pakistan, where he obtained an MBA degree. But the deteriorating security situation in that country has driven him to Europe. Now he is waiting on the front step of the old continent, under a sheet of plastic.

Promised land

Further on, a second group awaits the night. They sit between the high grass along the railway. Thirty people or so, all of them Afghans. Last night they arrived in Subotica. They look a little bit lost.

© Toon Lambrechts
© Toon Lambrechts

One of them has a question. ‘Sir, could you maybe tell us where Hungary lies?’ Tibor points to the left. ‘Always follow the railway in that direction.’ Their plan is to cross on their own tonight, without the help of a smuggler.

Also in this dossier:

‘Europe, still one country ahead’
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’
‘Welcome to Hungary (But not wholeheartedly)’
‘Human traffickers never keep their word’
Why some refugees do return to the hell of their homeland

The passage from Subotica to Hungary is mainly used by those who lack the money to pay a smuggler. Whoever can afford it departs from Belgrade, crosses at a more hidden place at the border on foot, while a car awaits them on the other side. The others, with no money left in the pocket come here at the brick factory to try it on their own.

For four years now, Tibor Varga has been visiting the refugees in the old brickyard. At first it were mainly Afghans and to a lesser extent Kurds passing in Subotica. Last year he witnessed the arrival of Syrians and Africans, mainly from Somalia and Eritrea. In recent months, many refugees from Iraq are tickling in.

‘You can be sure that if a conflict breaks out somewhere in the vicinity of Europe, after some time people  from that region arrive in Subotica.’ Given the disastrous situations just outside the European borders, Tibor will have some work at his hands the years to come here in Subotica, where the promised land Europe, finally, is in sight.

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.