A group of young Afghans leave the forest and head for downtown Dimitrovgrad, in southern Serbia. They are ragged and dirty, and they have brought little except an occasional plastic bag. They’ve just come from Bulgaria, and the stories they tell sound like a horror movie.
“Border guard dogs chased us,” says Zabiullah, from Nangahar. “They were shooting. Fifteen of us were captured. One died. We were in the forest for four days without food.” The others nod gravely. My interpreter himself insists, “Are you sure the person died?” “Yes, sure. It happened Sunday.”
They don’t know the person’s name, and there’s no place to validate the testimony of a new murder of a migrant in Bulgaria (later, the Bulgarian government confirmed at least one murder at the border). But all the stories, even those made by other groups I met, are consistent in their descriptions of systematic violence perpetrated by the police of that country against refugees, particularly in the region on the border with Turkey.
Salar, 25, who works as a volunteer at the identification center in Dimitrovgrad, says he spends his days listening to these kinds of stories. “They say that when the police in Bulgaria catch them, they take everything from them: their money, phones, everything,” he says. “Then we see them come here in that condition.”
The refugees show signs of beatings or dog bites. Ibrahim, a Syrian Kurd from Qamishli, exits the center and joins to explain that he and his wife and children were detained in Bulgaria “for no reason.”
€25 bus ticket to Belgrade
Dragana Golubović, the Serbian Commissioner for Refugees, says that between 1,500 and 2,000 people per week arrive in Dimitrovgrad, most of them young and many of them children.
I was not permitted to enter the identification center, where, as the volunteers outside explain, the conditions are “very basic.” After a few hours in the center, the refugees receive a 72-hour permit to travel through Serbia. Outside the center there are buses and some taxis. The trip to Belgrade by bus costs €25, or €200 by taxi.
A decent economy flourishes around the migrants trudging the Balkan route, even here in this remote center of southern Serbia.
Afghans, however, have nothing except clothes soiled with mud. Some of them look around bewildered. Volunteers have arrived from outside to help, but they aren’t well received by the locals, who perhaps consider them as competition.
The police arrive and try to dismantle an aid tent marked “no border” — to distinguish from government checkpoints — that provides clothes and basic provisions. By the evening, the situation seems to be resolved.
Four months, 200,000 refugees
In Preševo, 120 miles from here, on the border between Serbia and Macedonia, the situation is different. The flows, first of all, are much larger. “On Monday, 8,000 people came, but the average is 5 or 6,000 per day,” says Slobodan Savovi, who is responsible for the “one stop” identification center for the Serbian Commissioner for Refugees. “Since July 8, when we opened, 200,000 people have passed.”
The refugees form long lines outside the former tobacco factory. After passing through metal detectors, and receiving a bag of food from the Red Cross, people are registered and receive permission to stay in the country for three days. “They can also apply for asylum,” Savovi says, “but in practice nobody does.”
Unlike Dimitrovgrad, here the vast majority of people in line are from Syria. They have families, and there are lots of children.
For the Syrians, the nightmare was not in Bulgaria, but the short stretch of sea between Turkey and Greece. They pay the traffickers between $1,000 and $1,500 apiece to board the rafts. But the gangsters don’t get in; they explain how the engine works and point toward shore. “We were saved by the Greek navy,” says a man waiting with his children. “The boat was sinking. They took us to Mytilene.”
Even in Preševo, conditions are very basic. The whole reception system is based on the expectation that the refugees will stay only a few hours. Outside the identification center, vendors selling tickets to the Croatian border wait impatiently. The trip costs €35. Dozens of buses pull in and out all the time.
The volunteers are the ones providing most of the information, and comfort. Among them are Vjoleta and Goran, from the group Women in Black in Belgrade (“We were supportive to the refugees from the Balkan wars; we stand in solidarity with migrants”), and Vanya, a Bosnian girl who took refuge in Switzerland during the Balkan wars. She has been helping migrants for months now with the association Borderfree.
Preševo, a predominantly Albanian town of just over 10,000 inhabitants, is the main port of entry into Serbia along the Balkan route.
The different streams, one from Macedonia and one from Bulgaria, converge at Berkasovo, just north of Šid, where the refugees cross into Croatia. If borders upstream in Austria, Slovenia or Croatia are closed, even temporarily, it would cause chaos in Berkasovo.
Last Thursday, the town resembled Dante’s Inferno. There were migrants caked in mud from traveling several miles on foot. Dirt and debris surrounded the tents that lead to the fences and police lines marking the Croatian border. Masses of people pushed and cops yelled, trying organize people into small groups.
Inevitably, families were separated, while volunteers from both sides of the barricades tried to reunite children with their parents. The children, along with the women and the elderly, are those who suffer most in this situation. Inexplicably, there is no priority access for them or any of those most vulnerable. They remain for hours under awnings, in the cold and in the dirt, waiting to continue the journey.
The flow of refugees and migrants crossing the Balkan peninsula is slowly turning into a humanitarian crisis of major proportions. The conditions on the road are worsening along with weather. The only thing that seems to change is the determination of these people on the run.
Beside themselves with fatigue, children in their arms, Syrian women walk straight ahead with stony faces. They’re on a mission. The Afghan boys have the same look. It’s what carries them onward, stopping neither for the sea, nor the beatings of Bulgarian policemen, nor the walls of Hungarian President Victor Orbán.