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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.

“In Gazi Baba there were about 400-450 people when we entered…People were sleeping even on the stairs, the overcrowding was terrible. There were mattresses on the floors and in the corridor,” a Syrian refugee told Amnesty International.

Former detainees told Amnesty International that they had been beaten, or witnessed beatings, by police officers in Gazi Baba and one described how, when some Syrians threatened to go on hunger strike, a policeman told them: “If you die here, nobody will come and ask about you. We will throw your dead body out.”

Failing asylum systems

Individuals who attempt to seek asylum in Serbia or Macedonia face severe obstacles. In 2014, only 10 asylum seekers were granted refugee status in Macedonia and only one was granted asylum in Serbia. Discouraged by the slow progress in processing asylum applications, most asylum seekers continue their journey into Hungary, where they face further violations of their rights.

Those detected entering Hungary irregularly are routinely detained, often in overcrowded and degrading conditions, or ill-treated by police officers. In 2014 Hungary granted asylum to 240 people – a small minority of the total number of applications.

While the majority of detained asylum-seekers are later released to open reception centers, those considered at risk of absconding remain in detention centers. Those who do not want to claim asylum in Hungary, which includes many hoping to claim asylum in other EU countries, are typically deported to Serbia and, in some cases, onward to Macedonia. Here they are left without legal status, protection or support and are vulnerable to further human rights violations.

Flawed EU migration policies

The ever-growing number of migrants and refugees taking the Balkan route is a consequence of a broader failure of EU migration and asylum policy, over which Serbia and Macedonia have no control. Placing the primary responsibility for processing asylum applications on the first EU country of entry and limiting safe and legal avenues of entry has put an unsustainable strain on the EU’s outer fringes and neighbouring states.

Rather than prioritizing improvements to the asylum systems of countries along the Balkan route, the EU has instead invested heavily in its efforts to strengthen their “border management” systems.

“Serbia and Macedonia have to do much more to respect migrants and refugees’ rights. But it is impossible to separate the human rights violations there, from the broader pressures of the flow of migrants and refugees into and through the EU, and a failed EU migration system,” said van Gulik.

“As increasing numbers of vulnerable refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants become trapped in a Balkan no-man’s land, the pressures on Serbia and Macedonia are mounting. These stresses, like those on Italy and Greece, can only be resolved by a much broader rethink of EU migration and asylum policies.”