Despite closed borders, Serbia still offers a path to a better future for many migrants. However, a new camp on the Serbian-Hungarian border could quickly become the next Idomeni, as Lidija Tomic discovered.
The Balkan route may be officially closed, but that's not deterring migrants and refugees from making their way to Serbia via Macedonia and Bulgaria. Every day 200 to 300 people, mostly from Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan and African countries, arrive in Belgrade. The influx has been "steadily rising" in the past few weeks, according to humanitarian organizations. Most of them have quickly reopened their offices in parks near the main bus station where refugees gather to try and get information on how to cross the Hungarian border on their own or to meet smugglers.
A small green area around the arrival terminal is already known as the Syrian park, while another across the road is now the Afghan park. The police and guards belonging to the Commissariat for Refugees are patroling both spaces, monitoring the situation and trying to prevent refugees from lying on the grass and setting up their tents. Most of refugees spend their nights at Krnjaca asylum center near Belgrade. Two buses drive anyone that is interested to a camp just outside the city where they are provided with a place to sleep, food, showers and Wi-Fi.
Belgrade offers hope
Elyassin, a 26-year-old man from Afghanistan, and his friends missed their last bus to the asylum center. They sat on a bench arguing what to do next. They couldn't sleep in the park and they didn't have enough money to pay for a room. "We arrived from Bulgaria two days ago. When we heard that we can stay in the city at a center without showing any papers, we decided to take a short break and prepare for our next obstacle - Hungary. We rested in the camp and wanted to see the city. Belgrade is beautiful! After a long time we have spent a great day, and we're not sorry for missing our bus," he told DW.
Elyassin and his fellow travelers, mostly under the age of 18, left their homes in Baghran, a Taliban-controlled village in Helmand province, and have been traveling together through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia, walking, hiding and crossing borders illegally.
"Our village is the most secure Taliban stronghold. We didn't have a choice. We had to leave our homes so we could live a normal life, educate ourselves, be respected, as people, and to work hard to get as much money to our families as we can. I know that I won't get it all at once, but I have to try. This journey can't be as tough as the life in Afghanistan," he explained, adding that their journey would be much easier if they could afford smugglers.
"Men from the camp told us that smugglers charge up to 1,500 euros ($1,670) per person for a trip to the EU. We don't have that much money and need to find our own way, just like we've done so far."
A young boy walks into the park and interrupts our conversation, proudly waving a piece of paper in his hand. "I've found instructions to the camp", he says. Grim faces suddenly turn into smiles and the group quickly says its goodbyes and follows the boy to the nearby tram station.
According to the UNHCR, around 1,400 refugees and migrants are currently passing through Serbia. From Belgrade they carry on north to Hungary, either by bus or with the help of smugglers.
After a short stay in Subotica, migrants move to the outskirts of Horgos, where a small tent camp has sprung up in no-man's land. More than 300 people have spent the weekend in makeshift shelters created out of blankets and branches along the heavily-fortified Hungarian border, patiently waiting to cross into the European Union.
Among them was Mahmud, a 17-year-old boy who left Afghanistan together with 12 members of his family. "We got here 20 days ago and we're still waiting to get into Hungary. There are no strict procedures. The Hungarian authorities are letting in small groups of up to 15 people a day, mostly families with small children. That's nothing compared to hundreds of us camping here," he told DW.
Day by day the camp is getting bigger. Migrants have already called it a small Idomeni with the same dire conditions. They have no toilets or showers, and they depend on aid groups for food, drinks and clean clothes. Some women could be seen washing their clothes at the only tap available, while men dug small holes in the ground and lit fires to prepare something to eat. Only the children seemed oblivious to their plight, running barefoot around the tents and improvizing games with a trash can.
"The situation is pretty inhuman, but I don't mind. I just want to continue our trip to Switzerland. If we don't get into Hungary in the next few days, I will search for smugglers again," Mahmud said.
So far Mahmud and his family have paid more than 35,000 euros to human traffickers to help them as they make their way toward western Europe. "We sold everything we had in Afghanistan including our home. All the money we spent along the way paid off. For example, when the Macedonian police caught my younger brother and me crossing the border with Serbia. Just a day after they sent us back to Greece, we were heading north again. Soon we were on our way again and smugglers transported us to Horgos where we reunited with our family."
"We have to move further to the EU now as quickly as we can. Even if the Hungarian police send us back, we will try to go through Romania. We won't give up until we have reached Switzerland", Mahmud said.