• Press Release

Refugees stuck in no-man’s land on Serbia/Hungary border amid appalling humanitarian failure

September 16, 2015

More than 1,000 people, including many families fleeing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, remain stuck in abysmal and rapidly deteriorating conditions along a Serbian motorway after Hungarian authorities closed the border crossing yesterday, Amnesty International said today from Horgoš on the Serbian side.

Humanitarian organizations, including the UN Refugee Agency, have been virtually absent so far and the Serbian authorities’ only response has been to send a handful of police to the border area. Hundreds of refugees are sleeping rough on a closed motorway, with only ad hoc aid from volunteers and severely restricted access to food, running water or toilets.

“The refugees we’ve spoken to have described the uncertainty and indignation they feel, stuck in limbo with a complete lack of information. They are effectively stuck in a no-man’s land on the Serbian border and the Hungarian border fence,” said Tirana Hassan, Director of Crisis Response at Amnesty International, from Horgoš.

“Even more refugees are streaming in today as the situation rapidly deteriorates. The Serbian authorities and the European Union knew this was going to happen and yet failed to respond adequately, meaning hundreds of the most vulnerable people are now stuck between razor wire and the abyss of not knowing what comes next.”

Amnesty International’s delegation spoke to an Afghan woman who has two young children, including an eight-year-old son with cancer. Since the Hungarian border was sealed, they have been sleeping rough, and they have very few possessions – her baby daughter doesn’t even have shoes. Their most precious belonging is her son’s medical report.

Since the area near the border crossing is open countryside along a motorway, there is no shelter or food, and severely limited toilets and running water. The refugees are doing all they can to keep the situation under control, but conditions are extremely dire – a makeshift sign in Arabic and English implored people not to “pollute the surroundings of the camp by your excrements [sic].”

Any refugees who have tents are using them, but hundreds are sleeping rough on the motorway or the roadside. Amnesty International spoke to a family of 10 people from Syria who had a single tent in which only the children could sleep. Other families have nothing and are exposed to the elements, with some seeking shelter in nearby woods.

The aid response has been ad hoc, with no coordinated effort from the Serbian government so far. Volunteers are distributing milk and basic items, but it is a drop in the ocean in terms of the humanitarian needs. People have no access to basic needs and are unable even to feed their families, a further affront to their dignity.

Amnesty International’s researchers saw a large number of extremely vulnerable people, including many with disabilities, who have no specialized assistance of any sort. A 16-year-old girl in a wheelchair from Kobane, Syria, told the organization she and her sister were unable to check into a local hotel as they lacked documents and were forced to spend the night at the makeshift camp, where a family finally took them into their cramped tent.

Those stuck at the Serbia/Hungary border seem to have no information at all about what comes next.

People consistently told Amnesty International they were not interested in hand-outs in the long term, but want to work, live in dignified conditions and be contributing members of society. Many told the organization they do not want to be in this situation – they have to be there.

“What we are seeing along the border is how hundreds of men, women and children are suffering the dire consequences of the Hungarian authorities’ appalling lack of humanity in closing and militarizing the border yesterday,” said Hassan.

“The Serbian authorities had full knowledge this was coming and yet failed miserably to respond. Thousands of people fleeing war are seeking protection in EU countries. Instead of coming to their aid, European governments are fencing them off and seem incapable of finding longer-term solutions.”