Life in a warehouse: Serbia’s stranded migrants and refugees

Derelict buildings in Belgrade house 1,000 of those forced back from western border

 

As winter finally releases its grip on Belgrade, a familiar sight is starting to return to Serbia’s capital: refugees and migrants, mostly Afghans and Pakistanis, playing cricket on any suitable strip of waste ground, parkland or pavement.

The biggest games are played on a weed- and rubble-strewn expanse of concrete behind the city’s main train station, which will soon be swallowed up by a controversial €3.5 billion redevelopment project called Belgrade Waterfront.

For now, however, the focal point of this wasteland remains a derelict warehouse complex that for two years has served as a shelter for thousands of people trying to reach western Europe via the so-called Balkan route.

Belgrade is a key staging post on that path, which was taken by more than one million people in 2015. From here travellers strike out for the borders of Hungary, Croatia or even Romania, depending which offers the best prospect of a successful crossing.

Balkan states officially shut their frontiers to refugees and migrants in March 2016, but with exits to the north now tightly guarded and people still trickling in from Bulgaria and Macedonia, the number of people stuck in Serbia keeps rising.

Officials say about 7,700 migrants are now in Serbia, with most being housed in state facilities, but the real figure could be closer to 10,000. About 1,000 people still sleep rough in the old warehouse behind Belgrade station, because they feel it offers better access to people smugglers and less danger of deportation.

Most say they have already made several attempts to sneak through a double-layer of closely monitored security fencing into Hungary, or to pick a path between the Danube river and border guards on Serbia’s frontier with Croatia.

‘Worse than Taliban’

Many also claim to have been abused by security forces somewhere on the Balkan route, which reaches Serbia via Macedonia and Bulgaria, with the latter branch now accounting for about two-thirds of arrivals, according to experts in Belgrade.

“They bust my arm and my nose – they are worse than the Taliban,” says Abdul (25), only half-joking about his impression of Balkan states’ border police. “One time I made it to [the Croatian capital] Zagreb, but they caught me and sent me back to Serbia,” he says.

“I don’t want to use smugglers, I just go with my friends and try to find a way through. I’ll keep trying – we might try again tomorrow.”

Abdul is standing outside the old warehouse, a complex of buildings with leaking roofs and broken windows, which backs onto railway lines running into the station.

Little light penetrates the buildings, and fires flicker here and there in the gloom, the crackle of burning wood and garbage mingling with the voices of figures half illuminated by the orange flames. It is an eerie scene, but less grim now than in winter, when the cold kept people inside and the thick smoke was oppressive.

“I left Pakistan one year ago, and I’ve been here for maybe four months,” says Han, a middle-aged man from Pakistan now living in the warehouse. “Will they open the borders? Do you have any news? I am not sure where to go – maybe Croatia, because they say Hungary is very violent.”

Recent reports from several major international organisations have documented alleged abuse against refugees and migrants, and urged governments to fulfil their legal obligations to people fleeing war and persecution.

Dog bites, tear gas

“We have seen injuries to people trying to cross borders, including dog bites, reactions to tear gas, injuries from beatings with clubs,” says Mirjana Milenkovsi, a spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR in Serbia, who estimates that about 300 people are still illegally entering the country each week.

She said NGOs were also concerned about the Belgrade warehouse and state facilities where residents were almost entirely young men, whose frustration over their situation occasionally sparked into violence along national lines.

“We have seen fights between Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, for example. The incidents have been isolated and not too serious so far, thankfully. But there is reason to be concerned.”

With about 60,000 people stuck in camps in Greece – many of whom are trying to make their way north, often paying people smugglers – and the EU’s refugee relocation plan yet to reach 10 per cent of its target of 160,000 people, the pressure on Serbia looks set to rise again over the summer.

“There is no real programme to help refugees assimilate in Serbia,” says Stephane Moissaing, the head of mission in Serbia for Médecins Sans Frontières.

“They are just housed and fed and told to wait. They are mostly young men, and they get depressed, frustrated and sometimes violent. They are offered no future here – so the camps and the warehouse are like time bombs.”

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