EU border closures mean single men have to wait up to four years to leave Serbia. Many face violence and destitution when they try to make their way out of the country.

An old factory in the outskirts of Šid, a sleepy town at Serbia's northwestern border with Croatia, is strewn with the remains of lives lived on the run: Broken shoes, discarded clothes, plastic spoons and demolished tents lie amid fragments of bulldozed walls and shattered windows. 

It's a place to rest for 100 to 200 refugees and migrants who live around the town; numbers fluctuate all the time due to regular police raids, coupled with people's determination to come back. Some only come for a few days or hours before "going game" - what they call crossing the border. Others come to rest after being pushed back, sometimes violently, by the Croatian police.

Hamid*, an 18-year-old Afghan boy with delicate features and large, tired eyes, walks out of a spacious room he shares with other Afghan men. Most are in their twenties, but a few are minors travelling alone. They're some of the 5,000 asylum seekers still stranded in Serbia since the the Balkan route officially closed in March 2016. Among them, however, are also new arrivals.

Sheltering from the scorching midday summer sun, a small group is trying to get some sleep on blankets laid out on the floor. "Yesterday we slept in the jungle," says Hamid, who always greets people with a calm smile. "But only [for] one or two hours. Police came at 5 am and took maybe 40 or 50 people to Preševo," he says. "I ran."

"The jungle" is what refugees call the corn and sunflower fields around Šid and the forest near the border, where they normally sleep in small groups, without tents. Places like the factory make easy targets for police raids. 

The Serbian authorities take pride in these operations, which they say are aimed at restoring order and ensuring refugees stay in official facilities. Aleksander Vulin, who was the Minister of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Policy in June, praised one such operation in which, according to Serbian media, 100 migrants were taken from Šid to camps across the country.

Conditions in Preševo

But for the young migrants and refugees living near the Croatian border and betting on their luck to reach EU countries like Italy or France, being taken to Preševo - a government-run facility at the southern border with Macedonia - is like a death sentence. At the very least, it sets them back by the 300 euros they say they'll have to pay a smuggler to get back to the border. Many also fear being forcibly deported to Macedonia, something human rights groups on both sides of the border have been documenting.

Hamid can't afford that. He left the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan - where the Taliban have been vying for control of the local insurgency with militants belonging to an Islamic State-affiliated group - 19 months ago. Back home, he worked in a car wash and he's the eldest of three brothers.

Preševo is one of Serbia's reception centres, with capacity for about 1,000 people and currently accommodating 441, nearly half of them children, according to UNHCR. It is known by refugees and migrants in Šid as "the closed camp." A permit system regulates refugees' freedom of movement across the country, but refugees allege that in Preševo it is rife with corruption. 

According to Stevan Tatalovic, who works for Info Park, a Belgrade-based organisation that assists asylum seekers in Serbia, refugees and migrants pay smugglers between 3,000 and 4,000 euros to be in "guarantee groups" to simply cross the Serbian border into the EU. 

"The state tolerates smugglers," he claims, alleging that the state does not prosecute smugglers and wants refugees to leave. While most refugees are in government-run camps, only 42 people were granted refugee status in Serbia in 2016.

However, most refugees are determined to move on. According to Ivan Mišković, a spokesperson for the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration in Serbia, virtually the only legal way for refugees to move forward is to be accepted into the Hungarian asylum system, which takes in 50 refugees per week on average. According to Mišković, waiting times are about a year for families, and up to four years for single men. 

This has caused more and more refugees without thousands of euros to pay smugglers to give up and look for a way back, according to Tatalovic of InfoPark. 

Facing violence and push-backs 

But for the men and boys sleeping rough in Šid, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, the only way is forward. 

"My family always asks me: did you get to Europe? I say I'm trying. I'm trying to cross the border but I'm sent back, again and again," says Hamid, who talks to his family once every three weeks, borrowing a phone from a friend. All of his belongings were stolen, while his papers were taken by the Croatian authorities during one of the many illegal push-backs he experienced. He attempted ten crossings over ten months.

"Police caught me 20 kilometers from the border," Hamid recalls. "When they asked me where I was going, I told them to Zaghreb to apply for asylum. They said that I should go back to Serbia, that Serbia is good for me," he says. 

Near the factory, under a bridge near unused railway tracks, some of the men are washing themselves in what looks like a river of stagnant water contaminated by sewage. Others are washing their clothes and hanging them up to dry on the bridge. 

The refugees stranded in the Šid countryside are able to get two meals a day thanks to a small but determined group of young volunteers, who fund their activities through private donations. 

Like a number of others, Hamid was first displaced from the camp by the train station in Šid, which was dismantled earlier this year, reportedly following complaints from local residents. The Commissariat relocated refugees to other camps. However, upon getting back from Croatia without his papers, Hamid says he wasn't allowed back in and was instead assigned to Preševo. The Serbian authorities issue refugees with permits to leave the camp for a maximum of 72 hours. However, those who overstay that permit can lose their place and be relocated.

Waiting for a loophole

Push-backs at the Croatian-Serbian border, as well as the nearby border with Hungary, have been widely documented and are considered illegal under international and EU law. Asylum seekers knocking at the doors of the EU are turned back without their cases being examined, often violently. Police at the Hungarian border is known to be particularly ruthless, using dogs and rubber bullets, according to several accounts. Hungary, which has erected a high-tech border fence equipped with heat sensors and loudspeakers, has even passed a law to legalize push-backs if they happen within 8 kilometers of the fence.

The UNHCR has counted 323 "collective expulsions" from Hungary and 371 from Croatia in June. In July, the numbers of push-backs from Croatia grew as smugglers moved business to Šid. MSF documented 24 cases in which refugees had come back from the Croatian border with bruises from beating with batons, tree branches as well as kicks and punches, since the beginning of the year. 

"Of these, 18 happened between May and June. But it's just the tip of the iceberg," Andrea Contenta, humanitarian affairs officer for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Serbia, told DW. 79 people died so far this year along the supposedly closed Balkan route, adds Contenta.

At around 6pm, people start gathering near a sunflower field for dinner as volunteers arrive in their white truck and set up the distribution point. 

A group of men in their twenties are discussing going "game" tonight. They're from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and some of them have attempted it more than 20 times. All have experienced police violence at least once, mostly batons. But they hope tonight will bring them luck.

*Name changed to protect identity


More articles