Migrants and refugees stranded in Serbia have gone on a hunger strike near the Hungarian border in protest against closed borders and EU restrictions. Lidija Tomic reports from the border.
In recent weeks, nearly 3,000 migrants, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, have been stuck in a legal limbo all across Serbia. Their number is growing constantly since Hungary tightened its rules for asylum-seekers and decided to push back all those caught within eight kilometers of the border. Out of sheer desperation some have gone on a hunger strike to draw attention to their plight. "We will sit here and drink only water to show the desperate situation we are facing in. We are not criminals. We are all here because we have lots of problems in our own countries," one refugee, who recently arrived at the check point in Horgos, told DW.
Budapest has deployed 10,000 police and army forces along the fence and limited the number of daily admissions to a maximum of 30, leaving hundreds of migrants stranded in the transit zone between the two countries.
Not a parking lot for migrants
Faced with a pileup of migrants, Belgrade decided last week to launch joint police and army patrols to protect its borders with Bulgaria and Macedonia from illegal immigrants and smugglers. "Serbia cannot be a parking lot for Afghans and Pakistani whom no one else in Europe wishes to accept," Serbian PM Aleksandar Vucic said. "New procedures will be implemented without using force and erecting border fences," Vucic said, stressing that human smugglers will be punished most severely.
The failed military coup attempt in Turkey has raised fears over security, given Ankara's role in helping to seal off the Balkan route. Rados Djurovic, executive director of the Serbian Asylum Protection Center, said that the current situation in Serbia is manageable but could spiral out of control if more migrants remain stuck in the country. "The Turkish government has taken control, so unexpected changes shouldn't happen. But if Ankara would let a larger number of migrants out, it will be seen in Serbia immediately," Djurovic told DW.
According to Djurovic, Serbia's main problem is the lack of capacity - both in human resources and material. If the situation changes and a majority of migrants seek asylum, then the main issue will be how to speed up the procedures. "About 100-200 migrants enter Serbia every day. In the same time, only 15-30 leave the country. It means that we should expect more migrants stranded here", he said, adding that Serbia could quickly become a buffer zone.
Stuck in limbo
Public parks and the Mikseliste help center near the bus station in Belgrade are currently home to hundreds of migrants. An additional 2,000 are stuck in camps along the Serbian-Hungarian border. Upon arrival in Subotica, they were split in two groups, each heading to a different transit zone. Afghans made their way to Horgos check point, while Syrians and Iraqis headed to Kelebija.
Serbia: Camp of the hopeless
After applying for a legal entry into Hungary, some, due to bad weather and dire conditions in makeshift camps, returned to a temporary collective center in Subotica. Among them was Ibrahim Fariri, 27-year-old Iraqi, his wife and their 10-month-old daughter. They were drying their wet clothes on a small electric heater at the bus station and waiting to unite with a family they were traveling with.
"We were separated and reunited several times since we left our village in February. Those were the moments of despair and happiness that we've been through," Ibrahim told DW. "While crossing the Serbian-Bulgarian border, we lost our friend's 4-year-old son. We were walking quietly through the woods during the night. At sunrise we realized that he was missing, and after searching the whole morning, we found him hiding in a bush. We were very lucky."
But the conditions in the camps are gradually getting worse.
Pressure grows as Hungary gets tough
"All three camps are severely overcrowded, living conditions are filthy and basic shelter is in a short supply. Hygiene conditions are far from acceptable. There are few toilets and no bathrooms in the improvized camps. The only water tap is mobbed by people trying to wash and do the laundry", 26-year-old Fardin Ahmadi told DW. "Serbian authorities along with the aid organizations do their best to prevent the humanitarian crisis. But it's not that simple. Just in a few days we faced extreme summer heat, and now we are freezing. I will use the current situation and try to cross the border near Kelebija check point illegally with my friend tonight. If we don't succeed, we will wait for our turn to enter Hungary legally".
Fardin passed the Balkan route last year and arrived safely in Germany, but left shortly after he received a call from his mother. "I felt as I had betrayed her. I left her alone in Baghdad. But as soon as I came back home, I changed my mind and started a new journey to the EU with my best friend".
They easily crossed the Turkish border and then paid 5,000 euros to a smuggler they met in Istanbul to get them to Germany again, but only made it to Serbia. "Some of our compatriots have already tried to sneak across the border. They walked for about 30 minutes until the police caught them. Hungarian officers have beat them and pushed them back to Serbia the same night. But they told me where their smuggler cut the fence", he said.
Violence and abuse
According to Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC), more than 2,000 potential asylum-seekers have been denied access to Hungary. The NGO has been receiving a growing number of reports about serious abuses of migrants in the transit border zones with Serbia.
"The violence and the push-backs are indiscriminate, children and separated children also fall victim of it. The HHC has talked to three 16-17-year-old Afghan asylum seekers who told us they were beaten and tear-gassed by uniformed men at the border and that dogs were released on them. One of the boys had been bitten by the dog on his nose, traces of which were still visible 10 days after the incident", Aniko Bakonyi, project manager at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, told DW.
She said that Hungary is obliged to provide access to its territory and the asylum procedure for asylum seekers under EU law and the Geneva Convention on Refugees. "The most recent amendment that came into force on July 5 contradicts Hungary's international obligations. It shows that all the measures taken by the Hungarian government during the past year - legal amendments or building of a physical barrier - have failed to stop the flow of asylum seekers to Hungary and now all the government has are extra-judicial means," Bakonyi said.