Refugees in Belgrade - DN Fokus

Fokus. Dead-end in Belgrade

”We die every day”

Serbia has become a dead-end for the refugees seeking a new life in Europe. DN's photographer Paul Hansen went to the outskirts of Belgrade and found a humanitarian no-man's-land.

Dela med dina vänner

The first thing one notices is the smell. A pungent smell of burned plastic and garbage fills one’s nostrils at a distance. Here, behind the central station in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, 1 200 refugees are stuck in what can most easily be described as a humanitarian no-man’s-land. In March 2016 the so-called Balkan route was effectively closed off using fences, barbed wire and patrolling policemen. Since then Serbia has seen a significant increase in the number of refugees and migrants. Waqar Ahmad is 20 years old and has been a refugee for months. Every third day he tries to wash himself as well as he can at the only place where there is water in the camp. A thin, black, plastic hose in a dirty, littered field. Every day is a struggle – against the cold, against the hunger and against the quickly spreading lice.

During night time the temperatures drop to minus 10-15 degrees Celsius and the cold mornings are harsh. A group of young Afghan men wake up to yet another day of waiting and uncertainty. The people living in the camp are all men. The authorities have evacuated the women and children. Doctors without borders have put up five makeshift tents for the sick and extra vulnerable. The rest of the 1200 men have to fend for themselves. Andrea Contenta, from the organisation Doctors without borders, calls the whole thing a humanitarian catastrophe.
It’s not just the cold weather that kills. They are put in dangerous, even lethal, situations. Their fundamental rights are not being satisfied and at times they are left completely vulnerable. They are not given the right to seek asylum, they don’t get protection from the cold nor do they have access to water and sanitation. The fact that they have been stuck here for months makes them lose hope. Just this winter ten people have died here.

Azrat Ali and Farid Ullah are thirteen and twelve years old. Every morning they meet at the communal source of heating. Despite their low age they have been on the run for months. They throw three grey blankets in the fire – going up in flames. That’s the only way to manage the lice and the scabies that is spreading. Several of them irritably scratch the itchy marks on their arms and legs.
But not only does the physical misery take its toll. The situation also triggers the traumas they have already experienced. Last week two Afghan boys tried to kill themselves. One of them was successful.

When the Talibans threatened Ahmad and killed several of his family members he had to get away. Ahmad misses his family, his work and his home country. He misses playing cricket and football, and he misses socialising with his friends. Four times he has tried to get into Austria, but every time he has been forced back. He doesn’t understand why.
”We are not terrorists. We are the victims of the terrorists”.
When Ahmad and Nigar finally got to Turkey they were delighted. Death was behind them and they were approaching Europe. Ahmad imagined a life living with his cousin in Austria, continuing his studies. Up to then the journey had been difficult. One of the members of their group was shot and killed when they crossed the Iranian border and the man’s brother had to leave the body in order to continue. Ahmad had heard of Europe as a safe place to seek refuge and that people were friendly towards refugees. He had never imagined things being this bad.
“Back home the Talibans would kill us, but here, we die every day. This is not a life.”

Since November the Serbian authorities have tried to empty the informal camp by indirectly prohibiting organisations from giving out aid. Despite the passive aggressive strategy many people have stayed. The borders to the north are only a couple of hours away by train, and most formally authorised camps are located at a further distance. Also, Belgrade is the place to find human traffickers. For most of the migrants the relative comfort and safety of being in the hands of a human trafficker is a distant dream as the cost is between two and three thousand Euros.

Day is turning to night. A group of refugees have put together their resources and made dinner. In the outskirts of the area hundreds of railway sleepers are scattered. They are impregnated with creosote – a carcinogenic substance. With the help of some plastic bags they have been lit on fire, and a few of them are now burning, spreading a pungent prickly smoke.
A man is giving out food from a blackened saucepan – a brown daub of onion, beans and chicken. Many of those who have gathered in the unofficial miserable camp have done so because it is close to the northern borders. The border to Hungary is only a few hours away by train.

The misery of the refugee camp is played out in front of a backdrop of Serbian everyday life. Trains come and go as usual. In front of the central station a man in a green Lada stands waiting. He has a crossword puzzle on his lap, the engine is idling in the cold and the windows are steamy. A few humanitarian workers pass by with some sixty migrants. They are being moved to a new camp in Obrenovac. A yellow bus is waiting nearby. One young Afghani refugee sits down in the bus. But this does not mean that there will be more room in the cramped camp that he is leaving. Simultaneously, a new group of the same size arrives from Bulgaria.

The only meal of the day. It’s almost one o’clock. Hundreds of men in the camp form a long winding line in an open area between two longhouses. The humanitarian organisation Hot Food Idomeni drives up in a black car with a white trailer. Volunteers put up a couple of fences on which they hang black plastic bags. It’s time for the only meal of the day: white bread and a stew of beans and chicken.
Most of the people have tried at several occasions to cross the borders to Hungary or Croatia to reach Italy, France or Austria. UNHCR recently estimated that there were around 7900 refugees in the country. An important factor of the increase is the fact that Hungary now only lets ten people a day pass through the open border controls. The result: Serbia has gone from being a transit country to becoming a dead-end.

A little group of young Afghans have been lucky in their choice of sleeping area. Most of the abandoned houses behind Belgrade’s central station consist of enormous warehouses which the migrants themselves have split into smaller compartents using old shelves and lumber. The smoke from dozens of fires in the huge room makes breathing difficult after just a few minutes. The young Afghans are happy when their friend finally manages to set fire to some firewood so that they can get a cup of hot morning tea. Close to a third of the twelve hundred migrants are unaccompanied minors.

25-year old Sail Muhammad counts backwards when talking about how long he has been on the run: 3 months in Serbia, 4 months in Bulgaria, 8 months in Turkey and 17 days in Iran. His eyes tear up when he talks about his children. They’re all girls: seven, five, four, three and two years old. The oldest girl is deaf. ”I cry every time I call them.”
He has been travelling for more than half a year, and been here for three months. Samiulla Ahmadi is eighteen years old and from the Logar province of Afghanistan. The Talibans are active in the area and they engage in suicide bombings against civilians and directed murders against politicians and government employees.

The ground is covered in garbage and leftovers. It’s freezing cold. Fat rats run between the houses, and in the frosty bushes stiff clothes are hanging to dry. There is a smell of burned plastic, firewood and freshly boiled tea. It’s difficult to keep the vermin away. Lice are difficult to comb off in the dark.
Some of the refugees never visit the city centre. They are ashamed of how they look. Years of travelling and months in this dirty misery have had their toll.

There is a possibility of showering at a hotel close by, for those who can pay. But 300 Serbian dinars (around 2 euros) is a lot of money for a refugee. Instead, many do as Alim Khan. He heats water in a big rusty barrel and shivers while he tries to wash of the worst of the dirt under the bare sky. He is 20 years old and from Pakistan. Last time he tried to cross the border he was beaten and robbed by the Bulgarian police. The goal is to get to Italy, get a residence permit, a job, and then help his family to come after him. He never wants to return to the violence and bombings in Pakistan. The wounds from the dog bites have healed, and ”insha’Allah” he wants to make a new attempt in a couple of weeks.

Humanitarian organisations in Serbia have gathered hundreds of testimonies of similar violations from border police. They even call some of the abuse torture. There have been cases where policemen have forced refugees to get undressed in -15 degrees, and then poured water over them and left them. People have testified of being forced to stand in line with their hands on the person in front of them for long periods of time, with policemen spraying their faces with pepper stray if they turn their heads the slightest.

Samiulla Ahmadi wants to get to France and continue to study, get a job and help his family in Afghanistan. Life in the unofficial camp is a daily struggle against the cold, the hunger and the lice. With no heat or water it’s difficult to take care of your personal hygiene. Plastic bottles filled with water do not melt when put in the fire. A friend helps Samiulla with his morning wash. He has been travelling for more than half a year. Here he has been for three months. Samiulla Ahmadi is eighteen years old and from the Logar province in Afghanistan. There the Talibans are active, engaging in suicide bombs against civilians and directed murders against politicians and government employees.

A man is coughing outside one of the abandoned houses. ”I am never having a cigarette ever again”. In the darkness inside a fire gleams. A pungent smell fills the nostrils. It’s almost twelve o’clock and Amir Khan is boiling water for tea. He is fourteen years old and has fled from Afghanistan. He wants to get to his brother in Sweden, if that is impossible he wants to go to Norway. He has only heard good things about those countries. So far he’s tried to cross the Hungarian border seven times. In three to four days he will try again. As many others he thinks the Serbian policemen treat them well, but the lack of humanitarian aid is disheartening.
Everyone has received two blankets and they get one meal each day, but that help doesn’t come from the authorities, instead it comes from humanitarian organisations. If the Serbian government had fully implemented their strategy, they wouldn’t even get that. The humanitarian organisations interpret the strategy as trying to increase the misery in the camp until the migrants voluntarily leave and move to official camps. But they are also overcrowded.

Hundreds of railway sleepers are scattered around. The migrants cooperate at all times. Even if the help here is almost non-existent the authorities turn a blind eye to their presence, and the Serbian police treat them with respect. The Hungarian and Croatian border police are a different story.
Despite the fact that several foreign embassies, Doctors without borders, Human Rights Watch, European Court and Civil Rights Defenders have tried to make Hungarian and Croatian authorities respect the human rights of the migrants, the abuse continues. Most of the migrants stay in one of the overcrowded official camps and Serbian authorities are trying to increase their capacity. But the migrants’ fear of being deported, the lacking freedom of movement and the proximity to the human traffickers make a lot of people come to the abandoned houses in Belgrade.

Miodrag Ćakić works for the aid organisation Info Park. He dreads what will happen in the spring. In accordance with the Dublin agreement Germany has started to deport vast numbers of refugees back to Bulgaria, and they are now trying to get back into EU-countries through Serbia.
Even now, when almost no refugees come here, the overcrowding of the camps is 30 percent. When it gets warmer we fear that a lot of new refugees will come into the country. The big numbers in Bulgaria are just waiting for better weather before they start moving again.
The pungent smell of garbage, human faeces and old firewood affects everything. If someone smells like soap they’re probably a journalist or a humanitarian worker.
The impregnated railway sleepers burn badly, spreading a poisonous smoke that stings the throat. Just before lunch time an aid worker arrives in a smaller truck and leaves fresh firewood. It’s gone in a couple of minutes.

Apart from unofficial help from a few humanitarian organisations there is little help to be found. Every day consists of keeping the cold at bay, getting something to eat and gathering strength for yet another attempt to cross the borders into the EU.
Since November the Serbian authorities have tried to empty the unofficial camp by indirectly prohibiting organisations to give out aid. Despite the passive aggressive strategy many people have stayed. The Hungarian and Croatian borders are only a few hours away by train, and most of the official camps are located further away than that.

The afternoon is turning into evening and in the distance Belgrade glimmers. Chicken and tomatoes are simmering in a saucepan. Alim Jantaggar is cooking with a friend. He is from Maidan Wardak in Afghanistan. His father, who used to be a taxi driver, was shot dead by the Talibans for playing music in his car. He studied and worked in London for eight years, before moving back to Afghanistan two years ago, when his mother fell ill in a heart condition. Now he is trying to get back to Europe. He has tried four times. Until now.

Text and photo Paul Hansen
(translation from Swedish: Evelyn Jones)

Berättelsen i korthet