The Aftermath of an Exodus: Afghans stuck in Serbia still trying to ‘hit the game’

Author: Jelena Bjelica and Martine van Bijlert
Date: 14 June 2017

For more than six months, the dilapidated barracks behind Belgrade’s main bus station housed over a thousand men and boys – most of them Afghans. Conditions, despite better weather and increased assistance, remained dire and the migrants continued to live under the looming threat of eviction. In May 2017, the authorities finally moved in, vacated the buildings and tried to transfer all the inhabitants to government-run centres. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert and Jelena Bjelica visited the squat and  some of the government-run centres, in the weeks leading up to this event. They describe the changes since they were last in Serbia and discuss the options that are available to Afghans now.

This research on Afghan migration to Europe was supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations.

Afghans in Serbia: an overview

Serbia is an important transit country for Afghans en route to Europe. During a brief period in 2015 and 2016 the borders in Europe were open for Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis as part of the so-called “humanitarian corridor” (see this earlier AAN analysis); during that time well over half a million people passed through Serbia on their way to Western Europe. After the corridor closed in the spring of 2016, Afghans continued to enter into Serbia. The country became a place where they could recuperate from their harrowing journey and reconnect with smugglers to organise their onward journey (for more details see this earlier AAN analysis).

During our first visit to Serbia in June 2016, a few months after the closure of the Balkan corridor, AAN found a large concentration of Afghans congregating around the ‘Afghan Park’ in central Belgrade. This was where new arrivals were dropped off, new deals with smugglers negotiated and from where attempts to illegally cross one of the borders often began. Most people AAN met in Belgrade, in the summer of 2016, had been caught off-guard by the closing of the humanitarian corridor and were now trying to continue their journey through Hungary.

In November 2016 during a second visit, AAN found that migrants’ ability to travel onward to Western Europe had been seriously hampered after Hungary fortified its borders. The number of Afghans who found themselves stuck – out of money and abandoned by their smugglers – continued to grow as more people arrived. A sizable community of single men and boys had, by that time, started to camp out in a series of abandoned warehouses behind the city’s main bus station.

During a third visit in April 2017, described in this dispatch, AAN revisited the warehouses behind the bus station and found that things felt slightly more settled, although no less desperate, as the likelihood of successful illegal border crossings into the EU seemed to have greatly diminished. Although the inflow into Serbia had slowed over the winter, it was still greater than the outflow which seemed largely stalled.

The Serbian government tried hard to accommodate all migrants in government-run centres, but up to an estimated 15 to 20 per cent (or around 1,200-2,000 people) continued to live on the margins, seeking shelter in squats and parks in Belgrade city or in the forests close to the country’s northern and western borders. (1) Afghans continued, by far, to make up the largest group of migrants in Serbia, both in and outside the government-run centres.

The Belgrade squat: a more settle community – but only for a short period

Total estimates varied, but on average at least a thousand people were living in the barracks – most of them Afghan (and to a lesser extent, Pakistani), all of them men or boys. (2) The Afghans we met largely came from eastern Afghanistan (in particular Nangrahar, Laghman and Kunar) and the provinces around Kabul (Kapisa, Logar, Parwan). (In the government-run centres, especially those that housed families, the demographic was markedly different: there were more Dari-speakers and a wider range of areas of origin, as opposed to the largely Pashto-speaking inhabitants in the squat).

The squat came into being in late 2016 when the main government-run centre close to Belgrade (Krnjca centre) tightened its admittance criteria and no longer accommodated unregistered migrants. (The two parks, which many would sleep in at night, had in the meantime been dug up, supposedly as part of a landscaping effort.) With winter on the way, groups of men started to camp out on the porches of the old customs warehouses in search of shelter. They gradually forced their way inside and turned the large and leaking halls into makeshift rooms using blankets, pieces of wood and derelict furniture (for early photos, see here). Initially, the government tried to clamp down on the situation. It issued a public letter banning non-governmental organisations from providing assistance. However, after a botched attempt to evict the squat in late November 2016, the authorities’ attitude softened and efforts to somewhat improve conditions in the barracks were slowly tolerated (more details in this dispatch).

When AAN returned to the squat in April 2017, a modest proliferation of NGOs and volunteer groups had improved things. In November 2016, there had been daily hot lunches and ad hoc distributions of blankets and other items, but otherwise the inhabitants were largely left to fend for themselves (see also this Al Jazeera video). In late April 2017, different groups were providing meals and tea. There were field visits by NGO workers and medical teams, as well as social activities – including a cricket match between Afghan and Pakistani teams and presumably a distribution of soccer balls and cricket bats.

More warehouses had been opened up or broken into, which meant that existing spaces felt less crowded. The squat was also noticeably cleaner, after various NGOs and volunteer groups had installed toilets, trash-cans, sinks and showers. Small tents inside the warehouses provided greater privacy. The distribution of simple wood-fire cookers with pipes had somewhat improved health conditions, but on cold days the air inside was still thick with smoke. A small generator powered an improvised outdoor mobile phone charging station a few times a day.

The outer walls of the barracks had been covered in colourful graffiti, which gave the place a slightly surreal feel, while an area at the edge of the premises had been cleared and made into a makeshift open-air mosque with flower-lined paths leading up to its entrance. There were smaller prayer areas inside the buildings for rainy days (attendance varied and several people were also observed praying in their own ‘rooms’).

A medical team from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) visited several times a week on its rounds through the town to distribute tickets for disinfectant showers against scabies (body lice was less of a problem after winter). In a secluded area at the back of the premises there were large white tents with bunk beds where minors could spend the night.

There had been a considerable turnover of people, leaving very few familiar faces from the visit in November 2016. Many of the squat’s earlier inhabitants, tired of the winter’s hardships, seemed to have moved to the new centre for single men in the former military barracks of Obrenovac, which opened in early February 2017 (the centre had an initial capacity of 550 and is is currently at its maximum occupancy of around 1000). There had also been an outflow from the squat towards the northern border in February and March 2017, in a last-ditch attempt to cross into Hungary before it changed its law and complicated its asylum procedures (see this companion dispatch).

Many of the men and boys in the squat that AAN talked to had arrived in Serbia in late 2016 or  early 2017. But even though they were relatively recent arrivals, most of them had left Afghanistan before the Balkan corridor closed in the spring of 2016. They had simply spent a long time on the road.

A few men had left Afghanistan following the closure of the corridor, but they were by far in a minority. Among them was a particularly tragic case of a new arrival from Logar. He told AAN he had been dropped off at the Afghan Park by one of the smuggler’s aides that morning. When he left Afghanistan in December 2016, the smuggler assured him he would still take him all the way to Austria without any problem; he charged 4,500 euros for the whole trip. When they finally arrived in Serbia that morning, after three failed attempts to cross the Bulgarian border, he was told this was as far as the smuggler would bring him and that the deal was now off. The man was visibly shaken. (For more on how many smugglers have left Afghans stranded since the closing of the Balkan corridor, see this earlier dispatch).

Vacating the squat: Serbian authorities try to regain control

During AAN’s earlier visit in November 2016, the squat’s inhabitants had been very much on edge. They feared police raids and eviction, and many were constantly ‘on call,’ hanging around in the Afghan Park in the evening, waiting for word from their smugglers. Others still believed the rumours that Hungary would temporarily open its border and were frantically seeking updates. In late April 2017, in contrast, the squat felt more settled, although most of its inhabitants seemed resigned rather than reassured. It was notable that around half of the Afghans we spoke to said they were no longer trying to cross the border. Some had simply not tried at all – either because there was too little chance of success, or because they no longer had the money to pay for it.

In November 2016 it was already clear that the authorities would not tolerate the squat indefinitely, particularly as the barracks were scheduled to be demolished to make way for the Belgrade Waterfront, a controversial high-end infrastructure project in the centre of town. Several high-rise buildings had already shot up next to the squat in April 2017, providing a towering and surreal backdrop to its makeshift cricket field and outdoor mosque.

Then, on 5 May 2017, the Serbian authorities announced their decision to definitively move migrants from the barracks – see the Serbian language news here (which cited citizens’ complaints, rather than the Belgrade Waterfront project). A first group was moved on 10 May 2017. Volunteers described scenes of “panic” and confusion – as well as obstruction by smugglers, who tried to stop people from taking lunch, presumably in an effort to bolster claims of a “massive hunger strike”:

There was a feeling of mass panic; refugees were crowding into a dark room to write their names on ‘the list’, which determined where they would go. We felt responsible for boys that help us run the tea project and worried for their future. There is a camp specifically for unaccompanied minors (under 16) but this information did not seem to reach them. Many young boys were boarding the buses to large camps where their minor status may be overlooked and their asylum claim jeopardised.

The squatters’ eviction – together with similar operations in the north and west of the country (3) – appeared to be inspired by the authorities’ wish to establish the government-run centres as the only places where migrants could stay. Aleksander Vulin, the Serbian minister of labour, employment, veterans and social policy, emphasised this point when he visited the vacated squat:

We have shown these people what is better for them, [while] refraining from violence. These hutments will be completely removed, and we will not allow the irresponsible settling of migrants – not only in Belgrade, but also elsewhere in Serbia, because capacities exist to accommodate all of them. (See article, with video footage of the vacated squat, here.)

Moving migrants into the government-run centres

Serbia currently has 18 reception and asylum centres, with a total capacity of around 7,000 beds (for the latest figures see this UNHCR update from early May 2017). Many of the centres were originally set up to deal with the masses of people who were travelling through the Balkan corridor in late 2015 and early 2016, and are, for that reason, located on or close to the various borders. The centres are in principle open, with the exception of Preševo – the largest and best-serviced camp.

Several of the men who lived in the Belgrade barracks were also, or had been, registered in one of the camps. A young man from Baghlan, for instance, showed us his card for the Obrenovac centre, but said he preferred to spend his time in the squat: “I go to the camp about once a week to have a shower. Otherwise conditions are exactly the same as here [in the squat]. Okay, it’s warmer in the camp and there is electricity, but at least here you are free.” A man from Kabul, who had travelled to Serbia with his eleven-year old son, also preferred to spend his days in Belgrade (leaving his son at the centre), as he tried to gauge what his options were. (4)

Some of the centres had been set up specifically to accommodate single men, such as the one in Obrenovac, while others mainly housed families. The camp in Preševo, on the Serbian-Macedonian border in the south, had a mix of single men and families. It was the least popular of Serbia’s camps. Stories about its closed nature had made many wary of going there (in practice, people were allowed out but only in a controlled manner: a limited number of exit passes were granted per day.) It is also the camp that is the furthest away from any border on the way to Western Europe, and the fact that migrants had in the past been expelled to Macedonia instead of being dropped at Preševo, made many migrants nervous. (5)

AAN also visited the reception centre in Pirot on the Bulgarian border. The camp had opened in December 2016 and had a very different feel to it than the squat or the large centre in Preševo. A row of chalets on the side of a mountain, inhabited almost exclusively by families (the majority were Afghans, a smaller proportion Syrians and Kurds) the place had the feeling of a relaxed holiday camp. Conversations with the Afghan families living in the camp, however, showed that, although conditions were marginally better, with no one fearing eviction or expulsion, they experienced the very same feelings of limbo and desperation as those living in the squat.

Where to go from here?

Conversations with the Afghans stuck in Serbia – on where to go and what to do – tended to be circular, with no real resolution. Most still hoped to be able to travel onwards, but many realised that chances of doing so had become slim. Probably around half of the squat’s population was still regularly trying to “hit the game” (game zadan – the Dari slang used for trying to illegally cross the border). (6) The families in the government-run centres seemed more settled, but even there, people still regularly left the centres to try their luck.

Apart from illegally crossing the border, there was the option of the ‘Hungary list” for Afghans who were registered with the Serbian authorities: Every week ten people from this list are allowed to lodge an asylum request with the Hungarian authorities. The system has given Afghans in Serbia something to wait for, but it was unclear to most whether this was actually a real opportunity, or whether they were just waiting for something that was illusory, as chances of actually being allowed into Hungary have seriously declined. (7)

It was also clear that many Afghans now realised that even if they did reach Western Europe, their journey might still not be over, as asylum requests often fail and deportations – whether back to Afghanistan or a third country – are on the rise (see also this recent AAN analysis). In the Belgrade squat, AAN encountered several deportees and Dublin cases (the latter are those who are returned to their first known point of entry within the EU; Bulgaria in most cases). A Pashto-speaking Pakistani, for instance, who tried to practice what was left of his French, had been sent back to Afghanistan from Belgium and had since managed to make his way back to Serbia.

Although several men in the squat said they were determined to continue their journey (“Germany or death”), it was clear that many were quietly considering other options: a prolonged stay in Serbia, travel to another transit country or a return to Afghanistan.

The asylum system in Serbia is largely untested. Chances of success are slim and there are no real policies yet in place for the integration of those who might be accepted. The appetite to actually request asylum in Serbia, therefore, has remained limited. A profiling exercise by Asylum Office staff in early 2017 (referenced here on p 11) established that out of 8,000 migrants staying in the centres, only up to 130 people wanted to apply for asylum. Interest may have increased somewhat since then, but so far actual applications are few and are often discontinued. (8)

For those who were – reluctantly – considering returning to Afghanistan, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) offers the Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) program. (9) According to IOM Serbia, interest was high, and growing. However, in the first four months of 2017 only three Afghans returned to Afghanistan from Serbia through the AVR program. Although many Afghans expressed an interest in AVR, most of them did not follow through with the process, either because they changed their minds or were not quite ready to give up yet. (According to IOM Serbia, eleven Afghans signed a consent form in the first three months of the year; four immediately dropped out and of the remaining seven, only three finally showed up for the Skype interview with the Afghan Embassy in Sofia). Secondly, and more importantly, the Afghan Embassy staff in Sofia, after the first three Skype interviews, told IOM they no longer wanted to do interviews online (and have so far offered no alternative methods to conduct interviews or issue travel documents). As a result, IOM still advertises the programme but, for the moment, can do little for those who no longer have travel documents.

A new alternative option that surfaced was to travel to other ‘transit countries’ where people believed conditions might be better and/or chances for work greater. In particular Greece was mentioned. The trip to Greece, facilitated by smugglers, was said to cost around 1-2,000 euros. Alternatively, those without money could try to be expelled to Macedonia and then make their own way to the Greek border.

We were still asked, both in the squat and in the camps, whether Europe would open its borders again. Migrants found it hard to believe that the EU would leave them in limbo and not come to their aid. Practically everyone we talked to was tired and out of money. Though psychologically still ‘in transit’ and on their way to Western Europe, some were slowly starting to consider alternatives – none of which were very attractive or offered much hope of success.

(1) Estimates of both the total number of migrants in Serbia and those living outside the centres varied. UNHCR, according to an early May 2017 report, had counted a total of 7,219 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. This figure included around 1,200 refugees and migrants (mostly Afghans and Pakistanis) who were “sleeping rough” in Belgrade city, an estimated 200 of which were unaccompanied minors. Several aid workers in Serbia, however, told AAN they believed the actual total number to be closer to 10,000, with an estimated 2-3,000 people staying outside the government-run centres. This report by the Belgrade Center for Human Rights (BCHR) also indicated that Asylum Office staff believed there were around 8,000 people living in the centres in early 2017 (p 11).

(2) In early 2017, UNHCR estimated the squat had a population of 850 to 950 people; but volunteers working in Belgrade said they believed the numbers to be closer to 1,300-1,500. Getting an accurate number of the people living in the sprawling barracks was complicated by the fact that they tended to move in and out. Many men and boys spent their days in town, returning only at night to sleep, while others visited the squat during the day and took a shuttle bus back to the nearby government-run centres in the evening.

(3) The Serbian authorities also acted in the north and the west of the country, close to the Hungarian and Croatian borders. In April 2017 the authorities said they had detained 200 “illegal migrants” who were staying in the forests near Šid and that they had “unburdened” the city’s local reception in response to “unpleasant events that migrants took part in.” (According to local reports a foreign man with an axe had entered a house and had threatened the children who were home alone. According to Commissariat officials and aid workers, however, the man had been part of an initiative that sought to integrate migrants by having them do errands for local people, such as chopping wood. They said the man had neither threatened nor robbed anyone, and that the incident had either been a misunderstanding or an intentional exaggeration).

(4) The man had just moved to Subotica in northern Serbia to wait for his turn on the ‘Hungary List’ (see further on in the text), which was supposed to be imminent. He said he had also registered for IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return program, but had not yet heard back. He was not very optimistic about the chances. Others, he said, had already been waiting for several months to be repatriated, and these were people who did have documents (he had ‘lost’ his tazkera or Afghan identity card, in Bulgaria.) He was also unsure of his chances in Hungary, as he was likely to be kept in a closed camp there, which would prevent him and his son from travelling onwards.

(5) Aid workers, on the other hand, considered the Preševo reception centre a model camp, with the highest level of services. Originally established as a one-stop-shop for the humanitarian corridor’s mass transit, the centre had since been rigorously refurbished and expanded to accommodate longer-term stays. This was a big change that took a while to be implemented. An aid worker described how the lagging procurement meant that for months the camp’s inhabitants had received three meals of canned tuna and biscuits per day – food that had only been suitable for people on the move.

(6) A young man from Jalalabad, for instance, who had arrived in Serbia in early January 2017, told us he had tried to enter Croatia twice, and Hungary once. Now, he said, his smuggler was no longer answering the phone and had blocked him on Facebook. He was trying to get more money to find a new smuggler, but was not very hopeful, as his father was a simple sharecropper [dehqan] in Afghanistan. One of his friends said he had attempted eight ‘games’  or illegal crossings so far, including once to Romania, but unsuccessfully each time. Another man, who had been in Serbia for over a year, said he had “hit the game” twenty times, but that might have been an exaggeration. He said he spent a few days in Hungary once, but was detected and sent back. Now with the Hungarian border practically sealed he was unsure whether it was still worth trying.

A boy of around sixteen told us his father had arranged a ‘guaranteed’ trip from Kabul to Europe for him – a higher-end version of the journey, supposedly with less hardship and a greater chance of success – but the smuggler had given him the cheaper ‘chocolati’ version instead. He had spent a total of eleven months in Bulgaria (seven of which in detention) and eight months in Serbia. Now the smuggler had left him completely. He tried to cross the Croatian border once by train without outside help, but he and his friends were discovered by another passenger, who called the police.

(7) The latter – waiting for something that is illusory – seems to be the case. Asylum requests in Hungary are routinely denied based on the fact that Serbia is considered a “safe third country.” Moreover, asylum seekers are, in principle, no longer allowed to enter Hungary when they lodge their claim; instead their request is processed while they are kept in containers in ‘transit zones’ at the border. (According to an adviser to the government this does not constitute detention, as asylum seekers are “allowed to leave the transit zone for Serbia at any time.”)

The list system itself is fairly opaque. New names are passed on to the Hungarian authorities, after which Hungary includes some, but not all, names on a numbered waiting list (usually, we were told, an estimated 20 to 30 names per week are included). Once a week the numbers of those whose turn is near are announced, after which they travel to the reception centre in Subotica in the north and then onwards to the transit zone.

(8) In the first quarter of 2017, the Asylum Office received 92 asylum applications and
interviewed 44 people. No protection statuses were granted. One case was dismissed on its merits and 35 cases were dismissed or discontinued because the people in question had left Serbia or had withdrawn from the asylum procedure. For those who continue their application, chances are slim. According to the Belgrade Center for Human Rights (BCHR), the Asylum Office tends to automatically apply the safe third country concept. Since the Asylum Act came into force almost a decade ago (in 2008), asylum has been granted in 41 cases and subsidiary protection in 49 cases. Moreover, as noted by the Belgrade Center for Human Rights (BCHR):

[Serbia] still lacks a clearly defined migration policy. Over the past few years, it has been taking in foreigners, who have not regulated their legal status and have no intention of settling down in Serbia. Although the state officials have told the media that Serbia had vowed “to its international partners to secure 6,000 strong, solid beds” for the accommodation of the migrants, it remains unclear in which specific enactment the state has assumed the obligation and how it reflects on the migrants’ legal status and their realization of their rights.”

(9) In 2016, IOM assisted 6,864 individuals to return to Afghanistan through its AVR program, by far most of them from Germany. See this earlier AAN dispatch for details (under “voluntary returns”) and this IOM report for the 2016 figures.