BELGRADE , 15 April 2015 (IRIN) - Under a tent behind a deserted brick factory in Subotica, the last Serbian city before the border with Hungary, Afghans and Iraqis shelter from the rain and cold. Subotica is the last stop on an increasingly well-trodden route into the European Union for undocumented migrants and asylum-seekers. The brick factory is a place to rest while they wait for the right time to cross.
"We wanted to pass last night, but it was raining and my mother was tired," says Amal, a 19-year-old Afghan.
They arrived in Subotica after a 5,000-kilometre journey through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Bulgaria, carrying their few belongings in plastic bags.
A few hundred metres away, a mobile clinic run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) dispenses health care to another group of Afghans.
Last year in 2014, the numbers of migrants using the Western Balkan route into the EU reached unprecedented levels. According to Europe’s border agency, Frontex, the Serbian-Hungarian frontier has become the third most popular route into the EU for irregular migrants and asylum-seekers, after Greece and Italy.
Every day, hundreds of people from Syria, Afghanistan and even Somalia arrive in Belgrade, the capital of ex-Yugoslavia, before heading north to Subotica.
“The Balkans have always been [on the] migration road, at a crossroads of civilizations,” says Stéphane Moissaing, MSF’s coordinator in Serbia. “What is new is Serbia’s status in the process of its accession to the EU. They have to respect the European rules about asylum and migratory flows.”
A report released today by Human Rights Watch (HRW) finds that Serbia still has a long way to go in terms of complying with EU laws concerning the right to seek asylum and treatment of migrants.
Interviews with 81 asylum seekers and migrants between November 2014 and January 2015 revealed that many had experienced abuse, extortion and summary returns to Macedonia at the hands of Serbian police.
Incidents of abuse were particularly common in or near Subotica where the migrants reported that police stopped them and forced them to hand over their money and mobile phones under the threat of violence or deportation.
Under EU pressure, the Serbian government began recognizing refugees in 2008, but its asylum system is still embryonic. It granted refugee status to just four out of 16,500 asylum-seekers in 2014. Another 5,000 claims were registered in the first few months of 2015. With only 70 employees and no translators, social workers or lawyers, the Commissariat of Refugees in Serbia, the government agency tasked with processing asylum applications, is struggling to cope with the rapid increase in the number of claims.
The capacity to provide transiting migrants and asylum-seekers with even basic food and shelter is also limited. At the brick factory in Subotica, one group of Afghans say they have been sleeping on the cold, hard floor of the factory for the past week.
Serbia learned the word “refugee” during the war that devastated the Balkans in the 1990s. In the Krnjaca Centre for Asylum Seekers in a suburb of Belgrade, Syrians, Afghans and Somalis are accommodated alongside displaced Serbs from Croatia and Bosnia who arrived there 20 years ago.
Currently, there are five centres for asylum-seekers across the country, which together can accommodate up to 780 people. Others are set to open in the coming months, but the rapid increase in migrant numbers has stretched capacity.
At a centre in Bogovadja, one hour outside Belgrade, about 30 African migrants are sleeping outside in the cold when IRIN visits. Sitting around a fire on dirty blankets, they express their frustration.
Part of the problem is the overly bureaucratic procedure for accessing an asylum centre.
"You have to ask the police for an intention of asylum request," says Moissaing, which often takes two or more days to process.
According to the HRW report, police sometimes refuse to register asylum claims making it impossible for those individuals to access food and shelter, never mind the asylum system. Researchers also found many migrants living outside the centres, including families with small children and unaccompanied minors.
With an unemployment rate of nearly 22 percent, Serbia offers few opportunities for migrants and asylum-seekers needing to eventually earn an income. Most view it as a short-term transit point on their way to a final destination in northern Europe. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the average length of stay at the asylum centres is just 6.5 days. A three-day temporary residence permit issued by the police used to be just long enough to cross the plains and marshes that mark Serbia's porous border with Hungary.
However, since the beginning of the year, under pressure from the EU, police controls at the Hungarian border have been stepped up and in early February, a joint police operation between Germany, Austria, Hungary and Serbia was launched.
During a visit to the Hungarian side of the border early one morning, many police cars are visible, some of them with captured migrants inside. The EU’s Dublin regulation means asylum-seekers can be deported back to the first country where they are registered (and fingerprinted), but Hungary is not a popular final destination for most.
Rather than apply for asylum in Hungary and risk being returned there, most opt to be immediately returned to Serbia where they can make another attempt to cross the border undetected.
“We are collecting more and more testimonies about migrants who come back to Belgrade,” says Rados Djurovic, director of Asylum Protection Centre, one of the few organisations helping asylum-seekers in Serbia.
Migrants are increasingly visible in the capital. In a park in front of the bus station, several dozen wait for papers, smugglers, a bus, or a taxi. With the reinforcing of the Serbian-Hungarian border, many may only get as far as Belgrade.
Around midnight at a hostel in Belgrade’s city centre, Hazem and Saad, two young Syrians, discuss their second attempt to cross into Hungary with three Serbian smugglers.
“The price is 1,500 euros to go as far as Austria. Last time we were caught in Hungary, the police gave us two possibilities: to take our fingerprints or return us to Serbia. We chose the second option,” says Hazem, a journalism student from Damascus.
*Names have been changed.
This photo feature is part of a series following the Western Balkan route into the European Union increasingly being used by undocumented migrants and asylum-seekers. See the first part on the treatment of asylum-seekers at Bulgaria's border with Turkey here.