Hundreds of new refugees and migrants, many of them children, are arriving in every day despite the prospect of sleeping rough in sub-zero temperatures and reports of violent treatment, Save the Children has said, as it calls on the EU to do more to help.
Influx of refugees leaves Belgrade at risk of becoming 'new Calais'
The EU-Turkey deal, which was supposed to stem the flow of refugees arriving in by boat, has meant many refugees are being forced to take a deadlier land route to cross the Balkans, with children as young as eight experiencing harsh weather conditions, dog bites and violent treatment by police and smugglers.
Although Serbia is not part of the European Union, it borders Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, and has become a transit point for those hoping to reach western Europe. not able to cross the border into Hungary, which is the direction of travel most would like to take.
Serbia does have asylum centres but when space becomes available, many migrants and refugees are too anxious to go to them, fearing that they will be detained indefinitely or deported illegally. Many of them are turning to smugglers for help instead, charities claim.
In the past two months, Save the Children estimates that 1,600 cases of illegal push-backs from Hungary and Croatia have been alleged by refugees and migrants, who have been forced – often violently – back into Serbia, despite already having crossed its border.
The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) confirmed in its weekly briefing that it was continuing to receive hundreds of reports of foreign nationals being expelled from EU countries in the Balkans and sent back to Serbia.
An average of 30 cases a day of “unlawful and clandestine push-backs” highlights a disregard for the human right to an individual assessment of the need for international protection, according to Save the Children.
Belgrade “risks becoming a dumping zone, a new Calais where people are stranded and stuck” the humanitarian group Médecins Sans Frontières has warned.
The conditions in the city, where 2,000 people are sleeping rough in an abandoned warehouse outside Belgrade train station, have been described as “horrific and unimaginable”.
Gemma Parkin, a spokeswoman for Save the Children who has just returned from Serbia, said: “It’s worse than anything that I’ve ever seen while working on the refugee crisis in the last few years. It is worse than the jungle in Calais and I thought that was the worst humanitarian crisis that you could envisage inside Europe or at least on the borders but this is really shocking.
“At night it was -15 and in the day -12. It was unimaginably cold because of a huge snow storm that hit the whole of the Balkans. You’re ankle deep in snow and you see people wearing trainers that have got holes in them with their toes sticking out.
“You’ve got children as young as eight-years-old completely alone sleeping in this abandoned warehouse with no beds, no windows, no heating. The way they are keeping warm is by burning rubbish so toxic fumes are filling the whole place.”
Parkin told the story a 12-year-old from who is trying to reach relatives in Germany but has been stuck in the Belgrade warehouse for three months. The boy had told him: “During the trip I had many problems, especially in the woods. The Bulgarian police beat us, took our money, asked us why we came to Europe. We also had problems with the Mafia.”
Parkin said: “These lone children as young as 12 are in these horrific and unimaginable conditions and are more willing to put their faith in the hands of smugglers rather than any EU-wide system that should have been set up for the refugee crisis.”
Parkin witnessed one Iraqi family, arriving at Miksaliste in the early morning, who had crossed the mountains on the Bulgarian border in the snow the previous night, with their children. Their eight-year-old daughter was very distressed and had to be carried most of the way and the mother needed urgent medical attention on arrival.
They told her they had fled when their house was bombed and the children could no longer attend school because of Islamic State
Parkin said: “Most of the people Save the Children speaks to are fleeing conflict or persecution and so would have the right to claim asylum,” she said. “But they don’t feel like they have the opportunity to have their case heard.”
Save the Children estimates that there are up to 100 refugees and migrants arriving in Serbia every day and is supporting the government to refurbish safe spaces and support services prioritising lone children. About 46% of refugee and migrant arrivals in Serbia are children and 20% are unaccompanied.
The UNHCR said at least five refugees had died of cold since the start of the year. “Saving lives must be a priority and we urge state authorities across Europe to do more to assist and protect refugees and migrants,” a UNHCR spokeswoman, Cecile Pouilly, told a press briefing in Geneva on Friday.
This week, the Serbian authorities made additional temporary space available to get people off the snowy streets and into shelters. The charities have warned, however, that it still far from enough to meet the needs of people who are sleeping rough.