Sharing its borders with countries of the Schengen area, Serbia has always been an essential transit point for migrants. It is the door to Europe. Faced with the migratory flow which resumed with renewed vigor in 2022, the European Union tightened its borders in an attempt to contain the number of illegal crossings. These policies have a direct effect on migrant smuggling. The duty traveled to the border between Serbia and Hungary.
In Horgoš, a small Serbian town located a few kilometers from the border with Hungary, several abandoned houses seem to have been the refuge of migrants who take the Balkan route. On the walls, we see words written in Arabic, and even the words ” Welcome to Hell “. They come mainly from the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Bars of soap, old clothes and food wrappers litter the floors of these filthy homes. The duty went there on a spring afternoon to meet migrants trying to cross at night. That day, the squats were deserted. A police operation would have put the key in these residences which served as temporary refuges, according to residents met on the spot.
A few miles away, a dirt road leads to a huge house in the fields. At the entrance, men wash clothes and fill their bottles in a well. They don’t want strangers entering the huge shelter just behind them. They are afraid that the police will find them. The men, who come from Afghanistan and Pakistan, are on their guard, having been chased from their former hideout. “We are going to try again this evening to cross the border”, indicates one of them, Abdel, a fictitious name, because he prefers to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
Some migrants have tried dozens of times to set foot in Hungary, without success. “It takes 10 to 15 minutes to walk there,” says Abdel. After Hungary, the group wants to go to England or Germany.
“It’s the shortest and safest migratory route, if I may say so, to reach the European Union”, points out to the Duty Rados Djurovic, director general of the Center for the Protection of Asylum Seekers in Serbia.
A change of tone
In 2022, the Balkan migration route has again become one of the main migration routes to Europe, with 145,600 illegal crossings, according to Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. For several months, however, the team of the Center for the Protection of Asylum Seekers in Serbia has noticed a tightening of the borders of EU countries. By the end of 2022, the EU had presented an action plan organized around five axes, including strengthening border management along the Balkan migration route.
Last March, representatives of the European Commission and Frontex visited the border crossing between the localities of Horgoš and Roszke, in Hungary, to welcome the efforts made to counter illegal migration. There have reportedly been just under 31,000 crossings into countries bordering the Balkans so far this year. A situation that Rados Djurovic deplores. “These are short-term solutions,” he says. In the long term, migrants are not deterred by abuse or attempts to physically stop them at borders. They come from a country where, very often, the conditions are worse. »
Serbia as a buffer zone
The Balkan region, of which Serbia is a part, is at the heart of Europe and is surrounded by EU member countries. An application for asylum in the Schengen area opens the doors to 27 European countries without internal borders. This position makes Serbia a strategic transition zone for migrants, and some stay there for several days or even months. “It’s the last hot spot before entering the European Union, before crossing the borders leading to the Schengen area,” adds Mr. Djurovic.
But first they have to face the barbed wire or the border agents who hit them, says a young migrant, showing his wounds.
“The majority of injuries we see are dislocations [d’articulation], big bruises, fractures and cuts two centimeters deep on the lips,” says the field coordinator at Doctors Without Borders, Pooja Iyer. Since 2014, MSF has provided medical and psychological assistance to refugees and migrants transiting through Serbia or stranded there. “Since January 2021, we have had around 4,000 consultations and around 500 of them were following an attempt to cross borders,” adds Ms.me Iyer.
When migrants fail to cross them, they are sent back to Serbia and return to live in camps. “These accommodations are small and inadequate. They are not enough to provide basic living conditions such as hygiene and a bed,” laments Rados Djurovic. There are more formal centers that can offer up to 6,000 places, but they are often overcrowded and some are even closed, as is the case in Subotica, a large town 150 kilometers from the border with Hungary.
Pushbacks at the borders of Hungary, but also of Romania and Croatia, where migrants are also trying to enter, accentuate another problem: that of migrant smuggling. “Each time a person is turned back at the border, they fall into the hands of traffickers who offer them a place to live and tools to try to cross again,” explained Mr. Djurovic. Migrants are paying larger and larger sums in the hope of one day achieving their ends. “In our experience, no matter how many times you are turned away at the borders, you end up making it. It’s just a matter of knowing how much you will have to pay and what you are prepared to suffer,” adds the executive director of the Center for the Protection of Asylum Seekers in Serbia.
To put an end to this treatment, which it describes as inhuman, Doctors Without Borders asks that migrants be able to apply for asylum in the country they are trying to reach. “Some manage to get through, but they went back to Serbia. It’s a violation [du droit international]. The more it happens, the more it jeopardizes the physical and mental health of migrants,” concludes Pooja Iyer.
This report was financed thanks to the support of the Transat International Journalism Fund.The duty.