Indignity, corruption and fear on Balkan migrant route

After the cruelty of smugglers, long waits in the sun, short nights in cold camps and interminable train and bus rides, migrants and refugees taking the Balkans route into Europe feel their dignity has been stripped away.

“It starts on the (inflatable) boat from Turkey to Greece. Nobody cares if we live or die. And the extortion, fear and exhaustion stay with us until we reach our destination,” said Mohammad, a 25-year-old from the devastated Syrian city of Homs.
“We leave our countries to flee oppression, but we find on the way that our dignity and humanity are totally lost,” the former student said as he got off a bus in Belgrade.
Every step along the way from Turkey’s shores to Greece, through Macedonia and Serbia and then Hungary, tens of thousands like Mohammad must face obstacle after obstacle.
They wait to register with local authorities under the burning sun in a string of border crossings and grim reception camps such as the Presevo reception centre near Serbia’s border with Macedonia, with precious little food or water to be had.
Children, pregnant women and the elderly can be seen walking long distances on dirt tracks to cross makeshift frontier posts from Greece to Macedonia and then Serbia — separate from the international crossings for people with the right passports or visas.
Hundreds are crammed into old trains and scores on buses, with children sleeping and women breastfeeding their babies in the aisles.
“We are like ghosts here,” said Ahmad, a 27-year-old Iraqi father of a four-month-old baby who sold his garments store in Baghdad before he and his wife Alia set off on the journey.
“We see so many countries, but we are hidden from everyone’s sight. It’s like they just want us out, they don’t want us to exist,” he told AFP on board a train packed with about 1,000 refugees and migrants en route from Macedonia to Serbia.
– Petty corruption –
While humanitarian organisations and volunteers try to fill in for a remarkable dearth in governmental assistance along the Balkan route, the travellers mostly cover their own expenses.
The complexities of their paths give rise to a web of extortion and petty corruption along the way.
At the gates of southern Serbia’s Presevo camp, a hustler offers the migrants two different prices for bus tickets to Belgrade.
“You pay 50 euros ($55) if you don’t have the paper, 25 if you do,” he says, referring to the permission to stay in Serbia for 72 hours, which allows the migrants to move towards their next destination, Hungary.
A man in his 20s from Damascus who identified himself by his nickname Aswad said he too was offered a fake permit at a supermarket near Serbia’s Miratovic camp for 40 euros “to avoid the wait in the camp,” he told AFP.
“If we had the money we might have taken the offer but we decided to spend the night in the camp until our permits were processed,” said Aswad, who is travelling with six of his friends.
When a police checkpoint stops two buses near Vranje in southern Serbia with 150 people on board from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan on Sunday afternoon, seven fake permits are detected and a chaos of miscommunication begins.
The buses are halted and all the passengers’ documents held until six of those who paid for fake permits own up and are taken to the police station to give a statement, along with the driver.
– ‘Let us travel legally’ –
During the five-hour wait by the 450-kilometre (280-mile) highway from Presevo to Belgrade, the rest of the 150 passengers become restless.
“The baby needs to have his bottle, where can I get water?” asks Ahmad, the Iraqi, as his wife tries to calm the hungry baby.
“We’ve been waiting here for hours, without food or water, and we aren’t allowed to move from here. Why should everybody suffer like this?” says Rami, a 21-year-old Syrian.
“We are in the middle of nowhere and we don’t know what’s going to happen to us. I am very depressed: every time we think we’ve overcome an obstacle, another appears.”
Well after nightfall, the police van returns the passengers who fell prey to the scam and the buses depart for Belgrade. By the time they arrive at dawn, everyone is exhausted.
For Mohammad, the 25-year-old from Homs, the solution is simple: “If states took a decision to let us in legally, this wouldn’t happen. There would be no smugglers or corruption if we were allowed to travel here in dignity.”
He fears that until he reaches Germany, he will not receive the treatment he dreams of.
“However much we have suffered, we are seen as illegals here, not as people who need shelter and care.”

1 September 2015