Thousands of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants – including children – making dangerous journeys across the Balkans are suffering violent abuse and extortion at the hands of the authorities and criminal gangs and being shamefully let down by a failing European Union (EU) asylum and migration system which leaves them trapped without protection in Serbia and Macedonia, said Amnesty International in a new report.
Europe’s Borderlands: Violations Against Migrants and Refugees in Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, finds that an increasing number of vulnerable people are being left stranded in legal limbo across the Balkans. The situation is exacerbated by push-backs or deportations at every border, restricted access to asylum en route and a lack of safe and legal routes into the EU.
“Refugees fleeing war and persecution make this journey across the Balkans in the hope of finding safety in Europe only to find themselves victims of abuse and exploitation and at the mercy of failing asylum systems,” said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia.
“Serbia and Macedonia have become a sink for the overflow of refugees and migrants that nobody in the EU seems willing to receive.”
The report is based on four research missions to Serbia, Hungary, Greece and Macedonia between July 2014 and March 2015 and interviews with more than 100 refugees and migrants. Their testimonies reveal shocking conditions facing those who travel the western Balkans route – which has overtaken the Mediterranean route to become the busiest irregular passage to the EU. The number of people apprehended crossing the Serbia-Hungary border alone has risen by more than 2,500 percent since 2010 (from 2,370 to 60,602).
The route which takes refugees and migrants by sea from Turkey to Greece and then over land across Macedonia to Serbia and into Hungary is less deadly than the sea crossing from Libya but it is still fraught with dangers and obstacles. Since January 2014, 123 refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants have drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Greece and 24 were killed on railways.
‘We are going from death to death’
Arrivals to the Greek islands – including children – face appalling reception conditions and most travel to Athens before attempting to cross into Macedonia en route to other EU countries.
At Macedonia’s border with Greece, and at Serbia’s border with Macedonia, refugees and migrants are routinely subjected to unlawful push-backs and ill-treatment by border police. Many are forced to pay bribes. One witness told Amnesty International that Serbian Border Police near the Hungarian border threatened to return his group to Serbia if they refused to pay €100 each.
One Afghan refugee told Amnesty International how he was part of a group pushed back to Greece by Macedonian police. “I saw men badly beaten. They beat my 13-year-old son. They beat me too,” he said.
Some of those interviewed by Amnesty International had been pushed back more than 10 times, in operations that often take place well inside the Macedonian border.
Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers reported being pushed, slapped, kicked and beaten by Serbian police near the border with Hungary and an Afghan refugee told Amnesty International that “a woman who is five months pregnant was beaten.”
Refugees and migrants are also vulnerable to financial exploitation by smugglers and attacks by criminal groups. Two Nigerian men told Amnesty International how they were held up in Macedonia: “Nine men attacked us with knives. We went to the police to ask for help…but they arrested us.”
‘If you die here, nobody will come and ask about you’
Many refugees and migrants are arbitrarily detained by the authorities. Hundreds, including families, pregnant women and unaccompanied children, are detained for prolonged periods at Macedonia’s Reception Centre for Foreigners – known as Gazi Baba - without any legal safeguards or any opportunity to claim asylum. Many are held unlawfully for months in inhuman and degrading conditions so they can act as witnesses for the Macedonian prosecution in criminal proceedings against smugglers.