Asylum seekers trapped in Serbia forced to live like animals

January 2, 2017

Translation of “We descended into the migrants’ smoking Hell” published in on January 1st, 2016.

Cold that chills to the bone, the smell of burnt plastic, mountains of trash, clouds of choking smoke. These are the conditions we found ourselves in at the industrial buildings behind the bus station in Belgrade. This is where those migrants come who have not made it into a Serbian reception facility. There are more than one thousand people here. When we visited this makeshift camp in mid December, a rumor was circulating that Hungary would open its borders at Christmas. There were those who reacted to this rumor with skepticism, they knew there was no chance this would happen. It looks as though they had accepted their situation, and now only fear secret deportations.

The area surrounding this Belgrade bus station paints a peculiar picture. It is blanketed in a spicy smell of smoke. Among the people hurrying to get from one place to another, you can see more and more shivering migrants wrapped in grey blankets. We are to meet members of an NGO, Info Park, in the square adjacent to the train station. We first met them here in September. Back then, the NGO was operating out of a wooden shack at the site, but that shack is gone now. This was where the migrants once came to receive meals. Tijana Sijaric, the NGO employee we are here to meet, arrives and asks us to hurry because they will soon start distributing food.

As we circle around the train station, Tijana tells us that Serbia’s reception facilities can host approximately 6,000 migrants. In this area, there around 1,600 asylum seekers, the majority of whom are from Afghanistan but also include a small number of Pakistani, Iraqi, and Syrian youth.

“Why aren’t they in the reception facility?” we ask.

For three reasons, Tijana says.

First, there simply isn’t enough room for all of them. Families receive priority treatment. There are also problems with registering the migrants, and many are left outside the camp simply due to administrative problems. Finally, many migrants do not want to stay in the reception facilities because they are afraid they will be deported to Macedonia.

But are these fears justified? Tijana says she doesn’t know. But she does know that the majority of those camped out in the area have already tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to cross into Hungary. These people decided to come back to Belgrade.

As we approach the warehouses, we can see clouds of smoke billowing over the area. We also see that the smoke is coming from inside the building, from underneath the roof. It is a frightening sight. Tijana explains that there is no heating in these buildings, nor is there electricity. The migrants must burn trash to stay warm. If our smartphone is right, it is -5 Celsius in Belgrade at the moment.

As we continue along between the warehouses, our eyes are greeted by a sea of trash. Migrants navigate through the trash to find a spot to defecate. Upon finishing, they head back into the smoke.

“Just look at this situation. It is unbearable,” Tijana says as we enter into a more spacious square. The air is cleaner here but it is freezing cold.

We see a long line of migrants. Food distribution will begin soon. Tijana tells us that her organization was recently banned from distributing food and clothing to the migrants in public areas. She says authorities issued the ban to drive asylum seekers to the shelter of the reception facilities. But the intention quickly proved ineffective because of the lack of room in the facilities. It is here that migrants will receive lunch today, no longer in the park next to the train station. Children are at the front of the line. Tijana smiles at them and pats a small boy on the head.

We step into one of the warehouses. Our guide directs us down an open hallway to a man who understands English. Muhammed crossed through Bulgaria from Afghanistan. He has been in Serbia for three months. He tells us that his family stayed home, but that his older brother has managed to make it to Germany. His brother can’t help him because he does not have a passport. He could not pass back into Serbia.

Muhammed has tried to cross the Hungarian border three times but has been sent back to the Serbian side after every attempt. He finally gave up and came back to Belgrade. He thinks Serbia is a better country than Afghanistan because at least he is safe here. But this place is hell. It is terribly cold at night, he can’t sleep, and he can already feel the effects the heavy smoke has had on his lungs.

We notice a young man hurrying to one of the fires – of which there appear to be hundreds scattered around us. He sticks his foot in the fire, sock and all. He waits for a second, and enjoys the heat for a few moments. But he keeps his foot in the fire. I want to shout at him to pull his foot out of the fire, but he just leaves it in there. Then, just as the sock on his foot is about to catch fire, he slowly pulls his foot out of the fire. He chokes the smoke coming out of his sock with the palm of his hand. He puts his shoe back on and walks away.

Meanwhile, a few people begin to surround us. News has spread that we arrived from Hungary. More and more people are coming toward us.

They ask whether Hungary will open its border for Christmas. Muhammed translates for our benefit.

It most certainly will not, we respond.

They start speaking again, and Muhammed tells us that they have heard Hungary has promised to allow migrants to cross the border on Christmas.

This is a lie, we tell them.

The expressions on their faces turn to disappointment. They are not upset, just hopeless. A few of them turn away and leave. But the question bothers us, so we tried to find out who generated the rumors, but we find no one.

Another man comes up to us. He speaks great English. His name is Ibrahim Rahimi. He takes his glove off to shake hands and introduce himself. He tells us that he has tried to cross the border into Croatia three times but has never succeeded. He was pepper-sprayed in the face during his last attempt.

We ask him how his English is so good.

He was studying engineering in Afghanistan and started working. He is now 30 years old, and has two boys and two girls. His family is in Afghanistan, in a safer province. Ibrahim says he left the country because he was confident he would be able to secure employment as an engineer, and he could then help his family. He pulls out his telephone and shows us pictures of his family and diploma.

Ibrahim says people in Serbia are nice, he sometimes feels like he is in pre-war Afghanistan. But this camp is hell. It is so cold he can’t sleep, and they spend the entire night warming their hands above the fire.

I would take notes but my fingers are reluctant. The below-freezing temperature has taken a toll on my hands. Ibrahim looks at me, smiles, and offers to lend me his gloves while I write. Instead, I ask him to take notes for me while I warm my fingers. I tell him to write whatever he’d like, even a message to Hungary.

“We are in a terrible situation,” he writes. “We are suffering from a multitude of problems. Please help us if you can, help us reach our destination.”

Surprisingly, Ibrahim does not ask to give him anything. By asking for help, he was referring to opening the borders — but even he has no illusions about that. He would have liked for the border to be opened on Christmas, but he sees this is unlikely.

Ibrahim asks us to follow him, he would like to show us his own nest. First, we step into the smoke-filled warehouse. Blankets are scattered along the ground. Ibrahim guides towards glass walls. These glass walls, blackened by smoke soot, might have once served as walls for the employees that worked in this warehouse near the train station. As we pass through the doorway, we see two fires in the room. The air inside the room is burdensome. Those residing in the room are more experienced than us, they wrap scarves over their faces when they step in this room, in their home.

We leave the room and step out into the fresh air. As we walk along the ruins of this warehouse, we see something disconcerting in the distance. It’s as though naked men are standing outside in the freezing temperature. We approach the scene and the sight becomes even more unbelievable. It’s like a depressing dream.

Men, dressed only in their underwear, are burning trash under a barrel. They are heating the water, splashing it on themselves. The steam rises off their bodies. We are shocked to learn that this is how these people cleanse themselves, among mountains of trash in the freezing cold, as naturally as though this was a shower room, or as their mothers had taught them.

A few meters over, people wrapped in blankets burn wooden rail track ties. Quietly, they stare into the flames. A young man breaks the silence with his calm voice. But this alarms us because the tone of his voice does not fit into this environment at all. Shouting would have been more acceptable. He tells us in English that he left Pakistan because it became too dangerous for him to live at home. All their money is gone.

His name is Aves. He tried to make it to the reception facility but there was no room left. This place is worse than Pakistan, he says. He smiles at us and shows us his blanket. It’s only a few millimeters thick. He tells us their problems. They are cold, they can’t sleep because of the cold, they have no medication, and they only receive food once a day.

“And they are deporting us,” he adds.

There is reason to doubt what he says. Officially, Serbia has never transported migrants back to Macedonia. Tijana has never heard of this happen, and she knows a lot of migrants.

Aves tells us he has not been deported yet. He then calls over to a few people who have been. He points at a man in a red sweater from Afghanistan. His name is Ser Hanna. He tells us that he was thrown back to Macedonia from Preševo, Serbia, one month ago.

A year ago, Preševo, located on Serbia’s southern border, was one of the most important points along the West Balkan Route. Once people arrived to Preševo, they were only one border away from the European Union — either through Hungary or Croatia. Up until now, approximately one million people crossed through Preševo. A reception facility has been erected in the town. But the camp is a closed-camp, and the migrants avoid setting foot  there. After being deported, the man tells us he had to pay the human smugglers another EUR 300 to be smuggled back into Serbia.

We could not get to the bottom of whether people are really being deported, but we certainly heard stories from migrants who claim that people who arrive in Preševo are deported to Macedonia.

We spent three hours around the warehouses, but that was enough for the cold and smoke to cross through our clothes. As we left the bus station behind the warehouses, the air became cleaner. From the banks of the Sava River we can see the futuristic “Beograd Na Vodi” real estate development project that is financed by Arab money. Gazing further down the river we see the warehouse ruins blanketed in smoke which houses more than one thousand people, people hoping for a better future. We no longer see the warehouses when we reach the park behind the bus station. But it is there and no one knows how much longer the experience of visiting this hell-on-Earth will stay with us.