Abuse, illness and extortion await migrants in Balkans
Asylum seekers are being pushed into hands of smugglers, say human rights groups
Migrants sleep near the entrance to a “transit zone” on the Hungary-Serbia border. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
Amin Sharifi had spent 15 days in a “transit zone” on Hungary’s southern border before the country rejected his asylum request. He had been sent back into Serbia, where he now faced a night on the streets.
The friend with whom he had travelled from Iran had, by inexplicable contrast, been allowed to cross into Hungary and seek asylum, so Sharifi (28) was now alone, as well as tired, hungry and wracked by a hacking cough.
But he could only laugh at the suggestion that this might be the worst moment of his two-month voyage from Tehran towards the European Union.
“When 10 of us finally got through, our smuggler told us to hide there in the woods and wait for him to come back with food.
“But he was arrested and we had to stay there, with hardly any food and water, for seven days. Then a car came to take us through Macedonia, but it was so full that I had to go in the trunk. That was also very bad.”
Sharifi, who was a hospital administration worker in Iran, said it took another week to sneak into Serbia and several more days to reach the transit zone built into Hungary’s border fence, where he complained that Hungarian police had “used bad words and laughed at us, and called us terrorists”.
“I cannot go back to Iran – people are not free there and we live in fear,” he said. “I will have to find another way to go on. But I am very tired, and have little money left.”
After Balkan states tightened border controls in February, the main migrant route to the EU returned to the shadows, boosting business for people smugglers.
That month, the EU’s police agency, Europol, called people smuggling the “fastest-growing criminal market in Europe” and warned that gangs could this year make double or triple the estimated €6 billion they earned from the practice in 2015 if the migration crisis continued to grow.
While the number of migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece has now fallen sharply, thousands still reach Austria and Germany each month through the Balkans and Hungary, and many arrive with significant health problems caused by their punishing trek and alleged abuse by smugglers, police and border guards.
“You should not treat animals like they treated us. They made us sit, and hit us with sticks. If we made a noise, they hit us again and laughed at us. We did not expect this in Europe. ”
His claims could not be verified, but rights groups have accused Macedonian and Bulgarian security services of mistreating migrants.
This month, 69 migrants were found alive in a truck travelling through Macedonia, and Slovak customs officers shot and wounded a Syrian refugee when the car she was in allegedly failed to stop as it arrived from Hungary.
“The restrictions at the frontiers, without taking into consideration the individual circumstances, needs and vulnerabilities of all potential asylum seekers, is pushing people further into the hands of smugglers,” said Francois Tillette de Mautort, humanitarian affairs officer for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Serbia.
“MSF teams bore witness to and treated the physical and mental health trauma sustained by violence. Those problems mostly occur in Macedonia and Bulgaria, but it includes as well violence from smugglers and mafia,” he added.
“In Subotica, 78 per cent of medical consultations provided by MSF have been for conditions related to the tough journey . . . as well as difficulties created by border closures. The journey from southern to northwestern Europe remains extremely difficult, mainly due to the lack of assistance and regular violence.”