As winter sets in, Europe’s gateways are slowly closing down on refugees. Every month, new fences are erected and discriminatory policies leave thousands of ‘’unapproved’’ refugees to wander about the EU borders. Since November, all of those who are not Syrian, Iraqi of Afghani are systematically refused at the Macedonian, Serbian and Croatian borders.
Moreover, the European Commission revealed on Tuesday its new plan to strengthen security at its borders: if approved, the current EU border management agency Frontex would be replaced by an EU Border and Coastguard force with a doubled budget and increased personnel. According to Brussels, it would limit the migratory flow and save the Schengen zone.
However, as Europe keeps itself busy discussing security at its borders, refugees on the road are left to themselves. On the Balkan route, the lack of information available and the complete absence of route safety open doors to the worst kinds of abuse and encourage the expansion of smugglers’ networks and corruption.
I met 19 year-old Amin, in the camp of Dimitrovgrad, Serbia over two weeks ago. Like most Afghan refugees, he left his country after paying a 7 000 euro ‘’guarantee ticket’’ to have a local agent secure his travel up to Germany.
Generally, the ‘’deal’’ goes as follows: on the refugee’s route , the first agent gradually transfers money to the local smugglers in each new capital reached. Those then secure the road until the next destination, and so on until Europe. Like most of them, however, Amin’s agent was not reliable. After Iran and Turkey, he stopped making the money transfers and Amin had to face the local smugglers on his own.
Between smugglers, police and local corruption
Amin’s problems started in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital. For 26 days, he was detained in an agent’s house and couldn’t escape. Smugglers asked for 2 000 euros per head. Left without news from his first agent, he finally had to get money transferred from his family in Afghanistan.
Once out, he left Bulgaria by foot with a group of refugees. They walked for two days and two nights in the forest without stopping to rest or to light fires. They heard the stories of those caught by police: they were bitten by dogs, stolen and beaten before being deported or sent into camps.
On the morning of the third day, they finally managed to cross safely and arrived in Serbia. Away from smugglers and border police, Amin was soon exposed to the corruptive tendencies of the small border town of Dimitrovgrad.
He was barely out of the forest when a taxi driver convinced him to pay fifty euros for a ride to the camp, a ten minutes’ drive away. Once there, he noted yet another type of extortion. Inside the camp, police officers asked for money from the refugees for their registration: higher the amount, less the waiting time. His pockets empty, Amin waited a whole week before obtaining his papers. He then hopped on the first bus and left to Belgrade.
I was sorting out shoes in the Miksaliste refugee center in Belgrade when I met him again, a week later. He had just escaped from another agent’s house.
‘’I jumped from the fourth floor window’’ he told me with an uncertain smile.
He arrived in Belgrade at night when all ngo’s were closed and ended up sleeping in the so-called ‘’Afghan Park’’ near the city’s main train station where most of the smuggling activity happens. There, one smuggler convinced him to come with him. ‘’He said that he would take care of me, that he would give me a razor and new clothes. I followed him into a house. There, he locked me in a room and stole my mobile. He said he would not let me out until I gave him 2 000 euros.’’
‘’I stayed there for five days. Today I managed to escape and I came here.’’
I asked if he planned to take the 4 euro train to get to Sid, the Croatian border. He looked surprised, he didn’t know. A few hours later, I left him on the train platform. He waved goodbye and promised to invite me to Belgium as soon as he was settled.
Amin’s story is not outstanding. In the Belgrade camp, most refugees share similar stories involving smuggling, violence and corruption. Lacking coordination and adequate information, they are easily manipulated: in Belgrade, it is not uncommon to meet a refugee convinced that his only option to reach Europe is a 200 euro bus ride.
Their fragile situation is no longer a secret. Every day, masses of journalists collect and gather their stories and journeys. However, Europe still refuses to address the issue and the situation remains static: ten days ago, David Cameron walked along the Bulgarian-Turkish border with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, praising him for the efficient control of its borders and calling Europe to take him as an example. Meanwhile, Amnesty was publishing a new report on the Bulgarian police’s violent abuse on refugees.
Security according to European norms is a malleable concept. Plunged in the anxiety of new ‘’terrorist threats’’ after the Paris attacks, Europe shifted its focus towards a security rhetoric hostile to migration. Therefore, while the porosity of borders is presented as an alarming threat, corruption, violation of human rights and human trafficking, on the other hand, continue to blossom peacefully along the Balkan route.
Undoubtedly, such an absurd logic is doomed to fail. Already, the policy of selecting refugees based on their nationality caused a wave of ethnic tensions at the borders. Without a plan of action that is holistic and rational, the reinforcement of controls at the borders only risks to enrich informal networks, perpetuate abuse and radicalize refugees left to wander about the Union’s external borders. Surely an undesirable recipe for Europe.
-Photos by Alice Bernard
For french version: http://www.99media.org/pendant-que-leses-frontieres-2/