Got stuck on the Balkan route – the gateway to Western Europe

Got stuck on the Balkan route – the gateway to Western Europe

In 2015, Šid was a mobility hub for people on the move. Today the city in northwest Serbia is a backwater basin.

Even good deeds cannot do without infection protection these days. And so this Saturday the residents of the refugee camp from Šid, a 16,000-inhabitant city in the very north-west of Serbia, stand in line in the midday sun and have to wait until they can advance. Two guards sit at the gate and only let one of them out at a time. Helpers have parked a station wagon next to a kiosk across the street. When the refugees approach, they take a red plastic bag out of the trunk containing oil, pasta and canned food. You put the bag on the floor, take a step back, the refugees nod in thanks and go back through the gate with the bag.

The train station is directly opposite their warehouse, freight trains are on shunting tracks. When they start moving, there are only a few fields that they roll over, then Croatia begins and with it the EU. The refugees want to go there too, that’s why they are here.

The donations for them are slowly drying up. Last time the parcels were worth 20 euros, “now it’s maybe 5 euros,” says Vladimir Fazekaš, the pastor of the Methodist congregation in Šid. He wears sandals on his bare feet and a mask over his mouth. After half an hour all the bags are distributed. Fazekaš gets into his Opel station wagon and drives to the rectory. He speaks German, like many in Šid, a place in the old settlement area of the Danube Swabians. Fazekaš studied in Vienna and married an Austrian. The young couple took over the church four years ago. It was once founded by the Blue Cross associations from the German abstinence movement and has outlasted communism.

Your garden is the size of half a soccer field. Fazekaš and his wife have set up a tomato plantation with a climbing frame with a slide in the middle. “We built that during corona,” says Fazekaš. “Some are fleeing war, some want a better life, most of them in Germany,” he says of the people in the camp. “There used to be more organizations here that helped them. People don’t donate that much money anymore.”

“Before”, that was in 2015. On their “March of Hope” the refugees come to Serbia via Greece and Macedonia. First they move on to Hungary. But on September 12, 2015, the country had the last part of the border with Serbia sealed off with a NATO wire. 700,000 refugees came through Šid in the following months, first on their own, then in transports organized by the government from the Macedonian border. The small town is the gateway to Western Europe.

This route is often simply called the “Balkan Route”. But that is incorrect, says researcher Marc Speer. The Balkan route is characterized by a much longer history of migrant mobility, which “was often clandestine and is now again clandestine”. What happened in 2015 in Šid, among others, is what Speer calls a “formalized corridor”: irregular migration that was managed and thus regulated by government agencies. Humanitarian considerations only played a part in this, says Speer, which is why it was not a “humanitarian corridor”.

The states involved were more concerned with speeding up transit through their territory. “They simply saw this as the more rational problem solving than in the physical defense of the borderline,” said Speer. But that won’t last. Austria’s foreign minister at the time, Sebastian Kurz, put pressure on and from November 19, 2015, Serbia will only allow refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan into the country. On February 19, 2016, it closes the border for everyone. And it becomes quiet again in Šid.

Fazekaš remembers that time exactly. Those who couldn’t get a seat on the train had to walk a few kilometers to the village of Berkasovo. The way there leads past pear trees and through corn fields, the road winds up a few hills, then an inconspicuous barrier shows that the border crossing is now closed. “Everything here was full of containers, the refugees had to do a health check,” says Fazekaš. “Most of them only had a short rest, then we went on in buses.” At that time, Muslim communities distributed böreks and blankets. There were so many that people threw them away because they had had enough. “I then collected the blankets again, which was a shame,” says Fazekaš.

Back then, Šid was a hub of mobility. Today it is a backwater basin. The EU member Croatia is not yet part of the Schengen area. The most important condition for this is: to keep its border closed. Therefore, from 2017 the Croatian police switched to sending refugees back directly to the borders – illegally and often with violence. On November 21, 2017, the young Afghan woman Madina Hussiny died.

She had crossed the railroad tracks with her mother and five siblings that night when a freight train came out of the dark. The family had previously made it to Croatian territory but had been forced by border police to go back. “They have thermal imaging cameras, you don’t have a chance today, they’re just waiting for you, they know where you’re from,” says Fazekaš.

And so today there are three refugee camps in Šid, with a total of around 1,500 people. In addition, there are around 150 who live in the forests in the area. Everyone wants to go to Croatia, very few succeed. Like all rural regions in Serbia, Šid is suffering from emigration, says Fazekaš. “There are people here who have two masters and work in the fields.” Many young Serbs move to the cities, the government offers some refugees to give them a right of residence and to let them live in empty houses. “But hardly anyone wants to stay.” The attitude towards the refugees is meanwhile “very negative” in the city, says Fazekaš, also because of the occasional theft.

Abdula Zubair also wants to continue. He lives in the warehouse across from the train station. The young Afghan is 24 years old, he is wearing a red short-sleeved shirt and a brushed haircut, his English is almost perfect. In Kabul, he studied international relations at a private university and then worked for an NGO. In a small street café, he tells how he left Kabul on December 1st, together with his 18-year-old sister and his 56-year-old mother. They flew to Europe via Dubai, and the family has been in Šid since the beginning of July.

In the camp they share a room with another family of three from Afghanistan. He wants to go to Germany. “It is the only country that can welcome migrants with open arms,” he believes. His mother had a heart operation in Afghanistan. You need a heart medication that costs 1,500 dinars a month, the equivalent of 12 euros. Everyone in the family receives 3,000 dinars a month in aid, they use the money to pay for the medicine, and the rest they buy tomatoes or eggs.

The family tried four times to come to the EU. “In Romania the police took everything from us, the power banks for the cell phone and money. The first time they broke my nose, the second time I was hit,” says Zubair. The Croatians did not beat him, but pushed him back. His mother has not been able to walk since the last attempt.

So Zubair hopes that a tug can accommodate them in one of the trucks that drive from here to Croatia. “But that’s very expensive.” Because the risk for the driver is enormous. The EU has equipped the border crossings with detectors that can detect heartbeats and stale air without the police having to open the containers. Zubair knows that.

The EU would like to see Serbia accept some of the refugees. When Zubair asked if he could apply for asylum here, the staff at the home said: “Please don’t stay here.” Nobody really wanted that either. Anyone trying to get to Croatia can cancel their registration with the home management for three days. That is how long the room will be reserved. Zubair shows a piece of paper, it is a kind of pass that the refugees get when they de-register. Most of the camp has been there for about a year, and there are also some who have lived there for almost three years. “Some go off every night, and mostly they come back.” The police let them be. “Last time there was a patrol almost directly at the border and only said to us ‘Good luck!'”

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