In Serbia, 2,000 refugees are currently seeking shelter in an abandoned railway depot in the capital city Belgrade, as they are refusing to go into official camps due to fears of deportation. As reported by Médecins Sans Frontières, this shelter risks becoming a ‘New Calais’ as the refugees, abandoned by European authorities, are stranded in the middle of a bitter Serbian winter with temperatures reaching as low as -16 degrees celsius. The organization has already seen refugees with frostbite and burns from the inhalation of toxic smoke, as people struggle to survive in an area where there is no running water, electricity or sanitation.
Despite these appalling conditions, the Serbian government has told charity groups that they cannot operate in these refugee camps. The Serbian government has been implementing, what the United Nations describes as a policy of ‘pushback,’ as they are deporting refugees back to transit borders.
Countries, such as Bulgaria and Hungary have also implemented a ‘pushback’ policy, which is contributing to the fears many refugees have about entering official camps. Hans Friedrich Soder of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has said that this policy “is not in line with the international and European law.”
In September 2015, Hungary built a fence along its border with Serbia. The ‘transit zone’ was meant to fast-track asylum seeker claims. Although, now, just 30 people are admitted to this zone each day, leaving hundreds of others to live in squalid conditions, such as the railway depot in Belgrade.
Additionally, based on the European Union’s ‘Dublin Agreement,’ asylum seekers must stay in the country in which they first arrive to. According to Daniel Smilov, the programme director at the Centre for Liberal Strategies, a Sofia-based think-tank: “Bulgaria has been registering them since the very beginning, which means that their first country of entry is Bulgaria. Even if they go somewhere else, they could be legally brought back.”
The Bulgarian government has later sent refugees back to the Turkish border, thereby continuing this cycle of ‘pushback.’ Bulgaria has a horrible refugee rights record, with the UNCHR citing that since the start of this year, 3 refugees have died from the cold weather in Bulgaria.
Serbia has not officially taken any refugees and has not provided a fair asylum process, and so refugees remain stuck on the border. Refugees pushed back from transit zones must either attempt a different route to the European Union or take further risks.
In late 2016, refugees who were going to be sent to the Presevo official camp in Serbia panicked when being pushed into a train to Presevo and jumped off the moving vehicle, which caused several injuries. Most refugees do not see Serbia as their end-point, instead, they are hoping to continue to countries like Hungary and Croatia, that provide a gateway to Western Europe.
Many refugees in the Preservo camp have been later pushed back over the border to Macedonia. In desperation, these refugees will often go straight back to the smugglers, who attempt to return them to Serbia once more, which continues the cycle. Peter Van der Auweraert, the Western Balkans coordinator for the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) has stated: ‘These people are refusing to move for a couple of reasons. Based on the stories that migrants tell us, it seems that some smugglers have infiltrated the groups and threaten them – [saying] ‘If you go to these centres, you will not be able to get to Europe.’ Some of the more radical activists are doing the same thing, saying, ‘You should stay and tell Europe how you are suffering here.’ To my mind, these people are being used to make a political point.”
The Human Rights Watch remains critical of the current asylum-seeker policies in Serbia and other European countries, where human rights continue to be undermined. Pushback policies have left fearful refugees stranded in freezing and dangerous conditions, with European countries ignoring their lawful right to asylum.