Refugees still braving the soul-crushing 'Balkans route'

Refugees still braving the soul-crushing 'Balkans route'
Analysis: Refugees escaping Syria, Iraq and Libya are being forced to choose between risking the graveyard of the Mediterranean, or indefinite internment in eastern Europe, writes Tajana Tadić.
6 min read
30 May, 2017
Syrian refugees trapped at the Serbian border with Hungary face few options [Anadolu]
On Friday May 26, yet another vessel found itself in distress in the Mediterranean sea. 

Prudence, a search and rescue ship operated by Medecins Sans Frontieres, was sailing at twice its capacity, with more than 1,400 people on board.

Unable to dock at any Sicilian port, due to security restrictions surrounding the G7 summit place in Taormina that weekend, they were forced to extend the harrowing journey of the refugees and migrants on board for another 48 hours until they reached Naples.  

Tragedy was averted - a huge relief after a capsizing earlier that week when a boat was lost 30 miles off the Libyan coast. There were very young children among the 34 people who lost their lives that day.

The number of people attempting the crossing is growing, with daily numbers reaching up to a couple of thousand. According to IOM's latest figures, 1,530 people have either died or disappeared in the Central Mediterranean since the beginning of 2017.

In accordance with the European Union's policy of hiding human suffering offshore, German and Italian ministers of interior have called for an EU border protection mission to be deployed to Libya's southern border, claiming it is the only way to curb the ever-expanding smuggling business and prevent more deaths at sea.

In accordance with the European Union's policy of hiding human suffering offshore, German and Italian ministers of interior have called for an EU border protection mission to be deployed to Libya's southern border

It remains unclear how this will help those trapped in detention centres in Libya, where they face abuse, torture, kidnapping and even the prospect of being forced into prostitution or sold into slavery.

Read more: Europe's border regime leaves the Mediterranean a (profitable) graveyard

If we turn to the somewhat forgotten Balkan route, where the movement of people continues clandestinely, the situation is not as deadly as it is soul-crushing.

In Hungary, Ahmed H remains in prison on terrorism charges, while the interpreter at the Roszke 11 trial has been charged with perjury after it surfaced that she altered one of the defendant's statements to such an extent that she turned it into an admission of guilt. 

An amendment made to Hungarian asylum law in March 2017 legalised detention of all people seeking international protection. They have been rounded up and shipped off to isolated container camps situated on Hungary's southern border with Serbia.

Seeking asylum in the transit zones, where just five people are processed each day, seems virtually impossible, especially when viewed in light of the fact that, in Serbia, thousands of people are waiting for their chance to cross the border.

Even getting your name on the list doesn't guarantee passage, as names are often sold, and the victims left stranded, their future uncertain.

The majority of refugees and migrants who have been stranded in Serbia for months - 6,842 according to the most recent UNHCR data - are housed in government run camps. Their presence in Belgrade remains low profile, as people taking shelter in the barracks behind the bus station - photos of whom were widely circulated this winter to great outrage but little initiative to alleviate the situation, other than the actions taken by volunteers and grassroots NGOs - have been forcefully evicted.

Some had their belongings sprayed with pesticide, in anticipation of the scheduled demolishing of the building and the continuing of the construction of the Belgrade Waterfront.

"Reports of 137 collective expulsions from Croatia were received - more than double the preceding week - with many alleging to have been denied access to asylum procedures and to disproportionate use of force by Croatian authorities," the UNHCR report mentions.

Refugees, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, attempt to enter Croatia along a railway from Serbia [Anadolu]

With two published reports at the beginning of the year, volunteers and activists from Croatian NGOs have been trying to bring attention to the violent and unlawful expulsions of refugees and migrants from Croatia, but it is obvious that, after a short lull, systematic violations of the human rights of people seeking international protection have continued.

Volunteers from "Are You Syrious?", an NGO here, travelled to Serbia and spoke to refugees who detailed the abuse they had experienced.

"Two nights ago, border police in Croatia arrested a group of 15 young men, the youngest of whom was 14," one refugee told us. "They arrested them for illegal crossing. After their arrest in Croatia, they were all taken to the police van and driven to the border with Serbia. Police officers formed two parallel lines in front of the van and forced the men to come out, one after another, while beating them hard with sticks.

"They also broke their phones purposely and then sent them back to Serbia. Some from the group were so badly beaten that they needed to go to hospital."

Due to the escalating violence on Croatia's borders, AYS and the Centre for Peace Studies have prepared another report in which they bring testimonies from refugees, as well as photographic evidence and medical documentation made by Médecins Sans Frontières, who have, along with Medecins du Monde, been continuously treating refugees who have suffered violence at the hands of Croatian police.

In a particularly chilling moment, the new report compiled by the NGOs details violence suffered by a group of unaccompanied children who were attempting to leave Croatia on two separate occasions.

After having been found in a smuggler's car near a border crossing, the boys were slapped, beaten and threatened, with guns pressed to their heads, in order to give up information on the smugglers and the amounts they had paid.

Read more: Desperate conditions inside Greece's migration jails, despite promises of reform

The picture is grim, especially knowing that the push-backs and police brutality which accompany them aren't the only way in which Croatia deals with refugees and migrants who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in its territory.

The past few months have also seen an increase in rejections of applications for international protection made by applicants from Syria and Iraq, with the majority coming from Baghdad, Mosul and Aleppo. The rejections were based on the assesment of the Security and Intelligence Agency, in which they invoked Article 41 of the Security Vetting Act citing a so-called "security obstacle".

The reasons behind these "security obstacles" is not disclosed to the applicants or to their legal representatives, and arguing against them is extremely difficult.

One would be wrong in thinking that countries in the Balkans are outliers and that the situation for refugees across Europe is any better

It is not necessary to elaborate on the sheer depravity of designating people who are fleeing from the Islamic State group, or airstrikes from the Assad regime, the Russian airforce or the US-led coalition - which seems to be increasingly endangering civilians - as threats to national security.

Some refugees in Croatia, including families with young children, are severely disheartened by these rejections. "Voluntary returns" are not uncommon. However, in the context of this violent system and the precarious situations in which refugees find themselves, these returns can sooner be characterised as forced, rather than voluntary.

It is necessary to note, however, that one would be wrong in thinking that countries in the Balkans are outliers and that the situation for refugees across Europe is any better.

If we look at the overcrowded camps in Greece, the agonisingly slow relocation system which has kept vulnerable people living in tents for over a year, as well as the collective deportations of asylum seekers which come as a consequence of the EU-Afghanistan "Joint Way Forward" agreement, it is clear that what we are dealing with is not a refugee crisis, but a crisis of European asylum policies.

Tajana Tadić is a Balkans-based graduate student and refugee aid worker with 'Are You Syrious?'

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