25th Mar 2018


Young migrants live rough in EU border forest

  • Living conditions in migrant camps in Serbia said to be appalling (Photo: Nidzara Ahmetasevic)

Zekeriah, a 23-year old Moroccan, who dreams of a better life in Sweden, tries to sneak across the border from Serbia to EU member state Croatia night after night.

He and others like him, such as Mohamed from Afghanistan or Selman from Pakistan, risk grave injuries to do it or risk, at the least, police brutality.

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  • Multiple reports of police violence against migrants trying to cross borders (Photo: Nidzara Ahmetasevic)

The young men are part of a larger group that lives in forests on the EU border after the EU closed the Western Balkans route and after Serbia shut down a migrant settlement in Belgrade.

"I came through Turkey, then Greece - Leros, Athens, Thessaloniki - Macedonia, and now Serbia," Zekeriah, who left Morocco at the end of last year and who speaks fluent English, told EUobserver.

He spoke by the road in Sid, a town in Serbia near the border with Croatia.

He was part of a big group of men - mostly very young or even minors - who came there to receive the only meal they get during the day. The meal is cooked and distributed to them by a group of volunteers.

"Some people live in camps, but me and my friends are living in the jungle [most migrants there call the Balkans' forests a jungle], close to the border. It is very hard. It was cold and rainy for days, and we have no tents or anything. It is just very hard,” he tells us, Zekeriah said.

He, and the others gathered there, attempt to cross the border night after night.

Zekeriah tried to do it six times in the past 20 days.

Sometimes they jump on trains and hide inside. Some try to ride on top of the train or under it, by holding onto the undercarriage.

Two weeks ago, three men from Pakistan fell off a train near the city of Vinkovci in Croatia. One was decapitated, one lost his leg, and one sustained minor injuries. All were in their early 20s.

They also look for "holes” in the EU border, but Zekeriah said these were getting harder to find after EU states closed the so called Balkans migratory route over one year ago.

"Sometimes, if I can be honest with you, the police beat us”, he added.

“They beat me, but not as badly as some of my friends. Last time, we were on the train when the police found us. They took us to the van, drove close to the border, then told us to go out one by one, and then they beat us,” he said.

"I will not give up, I think. I will try to reach Sweden if I have a chance. I will do it again and again. I have responsibilities and a family who relies on me," he said.

The barracks

Zekeriah used to live in the barracks, a migrant camp in Belgrade, Serbia's capital, where he had spent a few months.

(Photo: Nidzara Ahmetasevic)

Two weeks ago, the barracks were emptied by the Serbian government and the people were transported to different camps all over Serbia.

Many of them left the new camps immediately for fear of having restrictions imposed on their freedom to move. Some of the camps are closed detention centres and many of them have disgusting living conditions.

Zekeriah was not the only who complained of police heavy handedness .

According to the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, 262 people who tried to get from Serbia to Croatia in April to seek asylum said they were forcefully pushed back in violation of their legal rights.

People also reported a wave of police violence during the week from 15 to 21 May.

According to one source, 137 people reported police violence and push backs in this one week alone.

According to the testimonies, the violence included beatings with wooden sticks and tree branches, kicks and punches. Some had their mobile phones destroyed and others were robbed of cash.

Two international humanitarian organisations - Doctors without borders (MSF) and Doctors of the world - corroborated the reports.

"From 19 May, MSF has treated and documented 10 cases of the intentional injuries of people who are coming to the MSF clinic in Belgrade, after coming back from the Serbia-Croatia border," MSF told EUobserver.

The Croatian police has denied wrongdoing, but is conducting an investigation under NGO pressure.

Mohamed’s story

Mohamed Ibrahim is an 18-year old from Afghanistan who has been stuck in Serbia for eight months.

He spent most of that time in the barracks in Belgrade, but has attempted to cross the border countless times.

He said the last time he did it, one day prior to speaking to EUobserver, the police caught him and beat him up.

"They used sticks and fists," he said.

His also said they broke his phone - his only means of contact with the wider world.

(Photo: Nidzara Ahmetasevic)

“I cannot talk to my family now. They do not know if I am alive,” he said, amid visible signs of psychological distress.

Selman’s experience

Selman is a 19-year old from Pakistan who has been on the road for over 13 months, six of them in Serbia.

He told EUobserver that he tried to cross different borders 10 times, but was either pushed back or pushed back and beaten up the police on each occasion.

He also tried to cross to Bosnia, hoping to reach the Croatian border from that side with no success.

"Police from Bosnia arrested us and sent us back. Some people are in prison in Bosnia. It is not a good route for us,” he said.

“I will try again. Nothing else left to do. And for now, the only open road towards Europe for us is Croatia,” he added, echoing Zekeriah’s determination.

The volunteers who helped to feed the migrants in Sid say hundreds of people are sleeping rough in the woods.

The Serbian police regularly destroys their tents and other dwellings to discourage them from staying there.

But for men like Zekeriah, Mohamed, or Selman the border forest near Sid has become the end of the line.

They can hardly go forward, but say they also cannot go back, in what amounts to a problem rather than a solution in managing the arrival of migrants and refugees in the EU.

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