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Closed borders boost people smuggling across Balkans

Refugees continue to cross the Balkan route into Europe that the EU-Turkey deal was meant to cut off. Smugglers show the way. Marianna Karakoulaki and Dimitris Tosidis report from Chios, Thessaloniki, Belgrade and Sid.

When Mohammed, 27 — not his real name — arrived in Greece, he knew it would not be too easy for him to reach Europe; yet he was hopeful that once he arrived on the Greek mainland his European dream would come closer. This is what his smugglers in Turkey had promised him. The reality, however, was very different.

DW met Mohammed in Chios during the summer and kept in contact with him. By September he had finally arrived in Athens. Mohammed — a Bedoon from Kuwait — is neither a citizen nor a migrant; he is considered stateless. Although it would have been fairly easy for him to receive international protection in Greece, he did not apply for asylum in Chios: In fact, he decided not to register on the island.

Read more: Greek nationalist anger turns to violence against refugees

The restrictions of the 2015 deal between the European Union and Turkey, which keeps refugees trapped on the Greek islands until their asylum applications are examined, meant one thing for Mohammed: He had to find a different way to get to the mainland. When the time was right, he paid €800 ($939) to a Syrian with asylum in Greece who looked like him. Then he bought a ticket for the ferry to Athens and left Chios.

Another waiting period began in Athens. Mohammed lived in a small apartment near the port of Piraeus as he waited for instructions from his smuggler. More than six weeks passed passed, and he still was not sure how he would be continuing his journey. He initially thought he would travel to Italy via the port of Patras, one of the oldest exit points for refugees and migrants in Greece.

'Good morning, I am in Thessaloniki'

At the end of October, Mohammed was instructed to take the train to Thessaloniki, where DW met with him again. He was staying in a cheap hotel that his smuggler paid for. The following day would be his last in Greece.

Mohammed speaks to his smuggler on the phone on a street in Greece

Mohammed speaks to his smuggler on the phone. He hurried to Thessaloniki after he was told he would cross the next day

His smuggler, an Iraqi in Turkey, instructed him to leave.

"He just called me. I need to go now. He had told me that we would leave in the afternoon. I don't know what happened, but I need to go to the park."

He, along with others, had to walk for two hours from Thessaloniki to a secluded area where they hid in a truck. They followed the now-closed Balkan route.

"I was so scared inside the truck. I was not alone and the truck was packed. Men, women and children," Mohammed told DW.

Read more: Child refugees in Greece sell sex for smugglers' fees

Once he reached Macedonia, he was left in a house next to the Serbian border for two days, waiting once again for instructions. Then he carried on to Belgrade.

"There were so many people in this home. From all over the place. All arrived the same way. We didn't have food for as long as we were there. Those who were in charge were from Pakistan. They didn't let us share its location. A Macedonian lady is also involved. She's probably the owner of the house," Mohammed says.

He says his smuggler has a huge network of contacts throughout the Balkan route — locals, authorities, refugees and migrants who work for him.

Thousands cross Balkan route

According to statistics from Frontex, the EU border agency, migrant movement along the Western Balkan route, which includes Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia, has not stopped. Between January and October this year, 9,964 people, mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, have been detected there. In the first two weeks of November, the United Nations refugee agency reported, 307 new refugees and migrants arrived in Serbia either following the Turkey-Greece-Macedonia route via the Greek islands or one of the oldest migration routes: Turkey-Bulgaria-Serbia.

Unregistered refugees and migrants sleep in an abandoned building in Belgrade

Unregistered refugees and migrants sleep in an abandoned building in Belgrade

Jadali, 22, from Afghanistan and Ahmed, 19, — not his real name — from Pakistan have been stranded in Serbia for almost two years. They live near the village of Sid next to the Serbian-Croatian border and have tried every possible way to reach Europe. Both of them arrived in Serbia via Bulgaria's land border with Turkey. According to other refugees and migrants stranded in the same area, the price to cross that border varies from €300 to almost €1,000.

"I spent three months in Turkey, three months in Bulgaria, I was deported several times from Slovenia and Croatia. I've been to three camps here in Serbia. I keep trying to cross on my own as I have no money for smugglers. Those who do have money, pay smugglers," explains Ahmed.

Jadali followed a similar path to Ahmed, though he was also at the Hungarian border, detained for six months before he was pushed back to Serbia.

Read more: Refugees in Serbia – stranded in a warehouse

Movement at the borders is very obvious in Sid. Day and night refugees and migrants try to find ways to hide inside trains or trucks. Police inspect trucks regularly; private security guards do the same at the train station. Meanwhile, refugees and migrants with money pay thousands of euros to taxi drivers, who in turn bribe border authorities.

Waiting for a call

Mohammed is still in Belgrade, waiting for his smuggler to call and inform him as to the next step. He has two options: Hungary or Romania. He has never met his smuggler in person. They only talk by phone. The whole journey will cost him €4,000, all included. There is a hidden notion of trust. Mohammed believes his smuggler, who is in Turkey, will not betray him and the smuggler believes he will be paid.

Men smoke water pipes in Balgrade's Mesopotamia café

Mesopotamia café in Belgrade has become a point of reference for refugees and migrants as they wait for their smugglers

Now, after more than three weeks in the city, and a failed attempt to smuggle himself out of Serbia, he spends his days at Mesopotamia café, which feels like it was relocated to central Belgrade from the Middle East, despite the old US pop songs playing non-stop and the clock with the Union Jack on the wall. Everyone there seems to be waiting for that same phone call.

"Every day I talk to myself: Nobody will stop me and I will reach Spain, which is my final destination," says Mohammed. "I hope everyone in this world is safe. All I want is a passport, to have the same rights as everyone else," he adds.

This article was produced with funding from the Migration Media Award, funded by the EU. The information and views set out in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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