Europe’s Waiting Room for Refugees: Negotiating Borders and Performing Resilience in Serbia

Guest post by Kathryn Metz, Outreach Coordinator at The Ohio State University’s Center for Slavic and East European Studies. Her research examines the human dimension of EU migration laws and policies, specifically the policy of border externalization in the Western Balkan countries. In her position at Ohio State, she trains K-12 teachers and educates K-12 students on human rights issues in Eastern Europe.

This post is based on fieldwork I conducted in Serbia between July-August 2017. I conducted thirty semi-structured interviews and five weeks of participant observation with male Afghan refugees in order to understand how they are coping with their limited mobility due to closed borders along the Balkan route and restrictive asylum procedures. Despite the precarious state of limbo that these men are living in while they attempt clandestine border crossings, many of them claimed that life in Serbia was better than in Afghanistan. The men I met invariably used the term ‘refugees’ to describe themselves, despite not having been granted this status. To respect their self-identification, I will use this word to refer to them in this post. The accompanying photographs were taken by photographer Jenny Brover and are used with her permission. All names in this piece have been changed to respect the privacy of those I interviewed.

Sid, Serbia

Three and a half miles from the Croatian border, the final border that remains between refugees and re-entry into the European Union, lies the town of Sid. On the outskirts of the town, a dilapidated squat serves as a distribution point for the volunteers, who provide aid to the refugees and migrants, who have traveled to the border to attempt a crossing.

On a sweltering August afternoon, the squat is alive with the buzz of people taking care of themselves, showering, and charging their phones.

Dinner is distributed in a sunflower field behind the squat, where the men visit before they ‘go to the game,’ a euphemism they use to refer to trying to cross the border.

+

Many men in Sid choose to live outside the Serbian-run reception centers. Instead, they sleep rough in what they call the ‘jungle’ – the forest along the border – so that they can attempt these nightly crossings.

Most of the men I met in Sid were from Afghanistan or Pakistan, although there were also a few Northern Africans from Morocco and Algeria. While the latter reported a desire to reach France and apply for asylum there, the Afghans and Pakistanis often do not have a clear vision of their intended destination. Their plans fluctuate depending on stories they hear from their acquaintances who have already reached Western Europe.

Walking east along the train tracks in 100-degree Fahrenheit (38 °C) heat, I encountered a group of disappointed Afghan refugees who were pushed back from Croatia earlier that day. They showed me their empty phone cases and accused the Croatian guards of stealing their phones and money before driving them to the border and ordering them to reenter Serbia. Their feet were covered in blisters and callouses that their ragged shoes woefully failed to protect.

Noor, a 26-year-old Afghan refugee, laments that the moment they were pushed back was the worst, describing the crushing desperation that set in when they realised that they were about to be returned to Serbia. Their hopes of moving on were shattered by another unsuccessful attempt to cross the border.

Later in the evening, Noor and his friends attended a makeshift English class run by a few American volunteers. Their moods were visibly lifted as they actively engaged in answering questions about politics in their home countries. Distracted from their earlier misfortune, that same evening they began preparing for their next border crossing.

Subotica, Serbia

The men I interviewed reported, on average, attempting 50 crossings during their time in Serbia, which ranged from 3-12 months. Those who do not try to cross from Sid are located in Subotica, a town in northern Serbia at the borders with Hungary.

Despite Hungary’s fencing off strategies, I found over 100 refugees and migrants living rough in the ‘jungle’ and making nightly expeditions to the border.

Hungary’s second fence, completed in April 2017, is equipped with heat detecting sensors and emits a message translated into four languages, warning the trespassers that damaging the fence is a punishable crime.

Such warnings do not deter those who have chosen to exit Serbia in the north. Zakir, an 18-year-old Afghan refugee humorously declared, ‘they can build 100 walls and we will still find a way to cross them!’

Reality, however, proves that the Hungarian border fences do restrict mobility and in turn, lead refugees and migrants to seek more precarious ways to exit Serbia. By September 2017, the Hungarian government reported that there had only been 1,184 successful attempts to cross the Southern border illegally, whereas in 2016 the number was over 18,000.

The high probability of apprehension does not deter the men from venturing to the border each night, often walking up to four hours to reach the fence where they often wait with a smuggler who is equipped with wire cutters. If they do not detect any guards, the smuggler cuts a hole in the fence and sends the refugees running. However, the technology on the ‘smart’ fence easily detects the refugees’ presence and alarms the Hungarian border hunters (Határ vadászok). 

Tired from walking hours to and from the border each night, the men sleep during the day and are awoken by the volunteers who come to deliver aid in the afternoon. Despite a disruption in their sleep schedule, they are happy to come out and interact with the volunteers.

Unlike in Sid, where the volunteers deliver food and supplies to a regular distribution point, in Subotica, the aid operation is more covert. This could be attributed to stricter enforcement of the November 2016 ban that prohibits aid distribution to refugees outside the official reception centers. The volunteers know the locations of abandoned houses where the refugees hide out and they make daily visits to provide them with water, portable showers, fresh produce, and medical assistance.

In abandoned houses throughout the ‘jungle,’ the men have a roof over their heads, but the shelter provides little protection otherwise. With broken furniture thrown about and old pictures still hanging on the walls, these homes appear to have been quickly abandoned by their former inhabitants. The floors are covered in garbage, collected throughout the years by the migrants and refugees who have sought shelter in these abandoned spaces.

Despite the rubbish, the men neatly set up their bedding in a row and call the place home; proudly giving tours to volunteers.

Taliban persecution

While sitting and talking with a group of Afghan men, they describe their home and how they yearn to return and visit their families. Nevertheless, the bloody conflict engulfing their nation is only worsening, with over 11,500 civilians casualties in 2016, the highest recorded number since the UN began collecting data in 2009.

Most of the young men I interviewed told stories of Taliban persecution. Zia, a 24-year-old Afghan, shows a scar creeping up his back, the result of shrapnel lodged into his spine from a bomb detonated by the Taliban against troops at a U.S. Army base in Kunar province. Zia worked as a contracted truck driver there for six years.

The gregarious 24-year-old applied for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) to the United States and waited over a year to receive protection. After receiving a phone call from a Talib, who threatened to kill him, he decided it was time to flee and left Afghanistan before his SIV finished processing.

‘What was I supposed to do? The Americans told me to wait, but the Taliban would not wait! I had no choice. I had to go,’ he affirmed. 

With the omnipresent danger to life that exists back home, Afghan refugees refuse to consider turning back despite their intense longing. They believe Europe is their last hope for safety; however, the reality will not meet their expectations.

The Joint Way Forward

The Joint Way Forward  is a 2016 agreement signed by Afghanistan and the European Union, allowing EU member states to deport an unspecified number of Afghan asylum seekers to Afghanistan if they do not meet the requirements to gain protection in the EU. Afghanistan has agreed to readmit the deportees in exchange for aid money from the EU. Between 2015-2016, deportations from EU member states increased from 3,290 to 9,460.

Amnesty International recently published a report condemning this policy and the precarity it creates for deportees, arguing that returnees are at risk of death, torture and other human rights abuses in Afghanistan.

In the jungle along the borders, the men are only hoping to enter the EU. The expectant light of a brighter future is reflected in their eyes. It is the fire that stirs them to remain resilient despite the difficulty in crossing the Croatian and Hungarian borders undetected and push onward toward the European Union. For many, though, the flame will be extinguished when they reach the ‘promised land’ and they face the harsh reality. Europe will not protect them and may, in fact, send many back to danger.

Source: Faculty of Law | University of Oxford