BELGRADE – The existence of more than 1,000 men and boys who were until recently stranded around Belgrade’s main railway station, was barely acknowledged in Serbia, much less in Europe.
Many of the mostly Afghan asylum seekers ended up in the non-E.U. country after being pushed back by Serbia’s neighbors, including Hungary, along the Western Balkan route. Refugees have been deliberately cordoned off and segregated from the surrounding societies along the route through the Balkans to northern Europe, according to humanitarian workers in Serbia.
During a visit to Belgrade’s train station in February, men and boys, layered in blankets to ward off the freezing cold, emerge from dilapidated buildings next to the historic station as commuters hurry to their buses and trams. As I watch refugees cross the roads alongside locals, it is clear they have become invisible to those around them. Among them are hundreds of children, some of whom appear to be as young as 9.
By May, however, even the refuge of Belgrade’s warehouses at the station would cease to be an option for the asylum seekers biding their time to cross the last border to Europe. Serbian authorities evacuated all the men and boys from the premises, claiming the warehouses were a health hazard and exposed inhabitants to the risk of trafficking and abuse.
The demolition was yet another example that Europe’s refugee “crisis” is caused not by the refugees themselves but by a crisis of conscience over how best to treat them. Many countries in Europe have responded with violence and restrictions of access to asylum, as noted by Oxfam in its latest report. Rather than reducing smuggling and keeping refugees safe, countries like Hungary have built barriers and transit camps while others such as Serbia and France have demolished informal settlements. The problem has not been solved but hidden.
Waiting in Squalor to Play ‘The Game’
During my February visit, men and boys trudge through the rubbish-filled slush. After a bitter winter, temperatures have started to rise, creating a thin layer of slick black ice. The mood has begun to thaw. Some people slip on the ice, resulting in comical falls that send otherwise straight-faced men into fits of giggles.
The living conditions in the warehouses are dismal yet many refuse to move to Serbia’s official shelters out of fear that authorities will stop them traveling to northern Europe or send them back to the countries from which they have traveled. In the warehouse, the odor of rotten eggs – possibly caused by sulfur in corroding pipes – soon gives way to the aroma of a curry that is starting to stew: the combination of cumin, curry leaves, mustard seeds and onions that crackle together to form the base of a masala. A hearty meal to provide respite from the surrounding squalor.
A group of men and boys sit around a large bonfire – some cooking, some providing a steady supply of slapstick humor, while others are hard at work, chopping wood they have found in the grounds. Spirits are soaring, due to rumors that the borders are opening up.
“We have to eat well today, as tomorrow we play ‘the game.’ Its takes strength and speed and God’s blessings,” says one of the group, Bilal, as he stirs a crimson-colored curry into a frenzy.
“The game” is a code word for crossing a country’s border undetected with the help of smugglers. The men were gambling on reaching northern countries like Germany and Sweden either through Croatia or Hungary. But now neighboring Hungary had ceased to be an option due to increasing pushbacks at the border and new laws confining asylum seekers to transit camps and expediting asylum procedures.
“Some days are better than others” in the Belgrade warehouse, says Ali, a 32-year-old man from Pakistan, and the self-appointed chief cook in the warehouse.
The rest of Ali’s family stayed behind in his wife’s maternal village in Quetta. Ali had not stepped into his kitchen, let alone cooked with a complex array of spices, when he lived in his village in Baluchistan. He now glows with pride at the results of his cooking. He boasts that if his wife discovered his “hidden talent in the kitchen,” she would give up cooking.
Underage, Alone and Now Missing
A 13-year-old Afghan boy called Afzal is helping Ali with the food. He seems timid, but his recent journey proves otherwise. Having spent four years in a refugee camp in Pakistan, he returned to Afghanistan in the summer of 2016 as part of mass expulsions of Afghans by Pakistan’s government. He then set off on the treacherous smuggler-led trail almost immediately after crossing into Afghanistan.
Having trekked from Jalalabad in Afghanistan to Baluchistan in Pakistan, Afzal managed to enter Iran, escape being fired on by border police, continue to Turkey and then onto Bulgaria, where he was beaten up, detained, robbed and expelled to Serbia. Afzal is also preparing to play “the game.”
Afzal wants to reach France as his smuggler had told him that he could get to the U.K. from the French port of Calais. But the smuggler had not told him about demolition of the “Jungle” settlements in Calais a few months earlier, leaving children dispersed through the country, many of them stranded and sleeping rough on the streets of Paris.
“I want to study in English as it is used more than other languages, so England is a good choice,” he explains in broken Urdu, a language he picked up in the refugee camps of Pakistan.
Following the May eviction in Belgrade, hundreds of children like Afzal remain unaccounted for. While the Serbian government claimed that they have been shifted to special reception centers, local social workers were unable to confirm to Refugees Deeply that the minors were in state facilities.
These children are among the more than 100,000 unaccompanied or separated minors that passed through the Western Balkan route since 2015. UNICEF estimates that as many as 300,000 children traveled on their own in search of asylum around the world in the past two years.
It is difficult to estimate accurately how many children have gone missing along the way. Lone children are often invisible to the humanitarian system, because most do not register with the U.N. or local authorities out of fear of being detained or deported.
Some are lured into even more risky means of traveling onward, and become more susceptible to trafficking, sexual violence and abuse. The U.N. Security Council recognized in a historic resolution in December that people fleeing armed conflict are among the most vulnerable to trafficking. These risks are exacerbated in countries such as Serbia, where there is little formal documentation of the asylum seekers passing through the country.
Growing Up a Refugee
During my visit in February, before the eviction dispersed Belgrade’s young refugees, it appears little can deter them from continuing their journey.
Among them is 14-year-old Malek who, after being chased and beaten up by border police, was walking back from the Croatian border to Belgrade in sub-zero temperatures when his feet started to suffer frostbite. He finds the sensation difficult to describe in words, acting out convulsions around the cooking pot and falling into Afzal’s arms.
The older asylum seekers he was traveling with knew the convulsions could result in a deep hypothermic state, so they kept shaking him every time he started to collapse and made their way to the nearest hospital on foot. There, the nurses tried to explain to him that when body tissue freezes, it constricts blood flow; numbness gives way to tingling and eventually a burning sensation sets in as the tissue starts to die.
The frostbite led to the amputation of two of his toes. Nevertheless, Malek is preparing for another round of “the game.”
Despite the hopeful rumors of border openings that circulate the warehouses during my visit, many of the men return over the following days and the mood sours. The border police had caught a group of them: Some were detained, while the others managed to escape and trek back to Belgrade.
In response to a comment on the difficulty of crossing the border, Yasir, a middle-aged man from Afghanistan retorts: “What do you expect? Being born into ‘refugeehood’ takes away all notions of firm roots.”
Yasir ended up on the circuitous route through the Balkans because his work associated with a U.S. international development agency made him a target in his conservative community – where the Taliban dictates the law of the land. When so-called Islamic State militants started encroaching on the territory, he fled.
“Let me explain to you, most of the young men here and for sure the boys, have grown up as refugees,” Yasir says. “They only know that – being a refugee in a foreign country, and no peace or stability in their homeland. Then they know a few words like UNHCR, human rights, etc.”
Having assisted refugees as an aid worker in his country, Yasir is now a refugee himself. He explains that many Afghans were now headed to Europe after repeated waves of displacement and had few options left to sustain themselves in neighboring countries.
Dejected after failing to cross the border, the men do not want to field the usual questions. Instead, we sit around talking about where we come from. When I tell them I am from Hyderabad in India, 21-year-old Mustafa replies: “Me, too! But the other one – in Pakistan.”
He was a taxi driver who had bought a second-hand car after selling part of his family’s land. One day, when having a tea break at a dhaba (local cafe), he overheard a man bragging about his nephew who had just arrived in Europe and was bringing his wife and children, where they would be living “in a three-bedroom condominium.”
Mustafa was immediately gripped by the idea. He decided he would convince the woman he loved to marry him by taking her to Europe. He approached the man, sold his taxi and poured his savings into his plan.
“The rest has become a distant blur,” he says, pulling out a photograph of the woman he wanted to marry. “She is waiting to join me eventually. I hope she will wait,” he says.
“Once I got here I was put in touch with smugglers who said within a month or two months maximum, I would reach Sweden.” It has been 13 months since he left home. He later realized the man in the café was a notorious smuggler who had conned many people out of their life savings. The farther he is from home, the more he feels trapped and unable to return.
In the February afternoon sun, shadows lengthen as the men stand by the bonfire. Amid the rush-hour buzz at the train station the group remain silent. The next day Afzal would be gone but others will return, disheartened and with even less money in their pockets.
These men and boys, who have since left the Belgrade train station due to the evictions, are now dispersed in shelters, across borders or hidden from officials and aid agencies. But “the game” continues.
This multipart series, “Europe’s Outsourced Refugees,” has been produced with support from Oxfam.