World’s displaced squeeze through Balkan Route
Wave of migrants presses through Serbia, while a few trickle into Kosovo, some unintentionally.
You see the litter first. Then line of hundreds of black backpacks snaking down the street. Then the group of reclining migrants, mostly men, from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and countries further afield like the Gambia, Nigeria and Somalia clumping under trees and bushes to avoid the searing sun and the 35-degree heat. They’re waiting to get into the recently opened “One Stop Center,” which looks like a military encampment in a former tobacco processing plant. There, they will be fingerprinted and photographed and then given 72 hours to get out of Serbia and into Hungary.
And every day between 1,000 and 1,500 more of them are arriving.
Residents in Presheva, a small town in Serbia that borders both Kosovo and Macedonia, say there has been a marked uptick in migrants since Ramadan began about three weeks ago.
“Little Presheva has become the crossroads of the world,” said one international official. “Conflict has sent them to Europe’s doorstep.”
Most of the people are fleeing war and sectarian violence. There is a large group of Palestinians raised in Syrian refugee camps, Iraqis scared of the Islamic State, and Afghanis fleeing a continuously disintegrating state.
“I don’t like killing, and I don’t want to be drafted into any army,” said 22-year-old Mehyar Abboud, from Masyaf, Syria, a predominantly Alawite (the ethnicity of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad) city. He has been seriously studying cello and describes his passion for Yo-Yo Ma and Philip Glass, and described with sadness the fact that he had to leave it in Turkey because it is too bulky for the road. His brother Alaa’s violin was keeping their place in the long and winding line.
“This journey is hard but there is no killing here, so everything is okay,” he said, describing the arduous route he travelled from Greece to Macedonia before arriving in Serbia.
Migration is a growing problem across Europe—thousands of migrants died off the coast of Italy in April alone, prompting a European-wide summit of European leaders--and migrants and smugglers re-routing their journeys over land.
Migrants have increasingly tried to reach Europe via the so-called “Balkan Route.” First they get to Turkey from their home country and then taking a boat to Greece, cycling or walking through Macedonia, and then crossing illegally into Serbia. Macedonia three weeks ago passed a law giving migrants 72 hours to move freely on public transport, which has eased their travel and meant they are now piling up even more in Serbia. Before the law was passed at least 25 migrants were killed by a train as they were trying to follow the tracks north.
If they register in Serbia, migrants also have 72 hours to move freely using public transport, enough time to get to Hungary. At Serbia’s northern border with Hungary, migrants are finally in the Schengen zone and can reach their selected destinations, usually Germany, France or Sweden.
According to EU Border Agency FRONTEX, the number of illegal migrants arriving at the EU’s external borders has gone up 2.5 times compared to the same period as last year, from 61,500 to 153,000. But the number of migrants using the Balkan route has gone up by a factor of nine.
There is no unified response to the migrants, especially before the reach EU territory.
Taking matters into its own hands, on July 6, the Hungarian parliament voted to build a 13-foot fence along its 110-mile border with Serbia at a cost of 20 million euros. Construction began on July 13.
Serbia an aspiring EU candidate, feels the heat but lacks the funds to address migrants properly. At this point Serbia is paying 15,000 euros on a daily basis just in infrastructure for migrants and thermal imaging cameras at its borders.
“The solution is not in the walls, but in a common and serious policy of EU countries, which do not have a responsible and serious policy on this issue, and all the rest of us who are on this transit route,” said Serbian Prime Minister Vucic on a visit to Presheva last week.
“You can not stop a process in which people with certain territories of Central Asia or the Middle East come here in search of a better life on the road to Germany and other Western European countries,” Vucic said.
At the train station groups of migrants try to proffer evidence of their education and pedigree. Sabbah Abdullah, 44, showed his membership in the International Tae Kwon Do society. Syrian engineer Faiz Ashi proffered his expired passport, with stamps from Italy, Poland, and the Soviet Union, explaining in Russian that his community of Orthodox Christians was endangered in his hometown of Damascus.
“We thought the conflict would end soon, we thought we could wait it out, but each year it is getting worse and worse,” Ashi said.
Practically speaking, migrants taking the Balkan route have little reason to go through Kosovo. It makes the journey longer and potentially more problematic with two additional sets of borders to cross. But a relatively small number of people, some intentionally and others by happenstance end up in Kosovo.
“Some people make a wrong turn or are misled by smugglers,” said Fitim Zariqi, director of Kosovo’s asylum center, in Magura, an easy to miss village, eight kilometers from Prishtina International Airport.
In 2014, around 100 migrants ended up at Kosovo’s asylum center, more than 60 percent of them Syrian. So far, 2015 is on track to reach a similar number, Zariqi said.
The center, which opened in 2012, has never come close to testing its capacity of 50 people. When Prishtina Insight visited the center in April, six people were staying there: A family of five from Albania — they were escaping a blood feud — and an Algerian man.
Residents at the asylum center are free to come and go, and are given 40 euros a month while they remain in Kosovo (families get 65). Almost no one stays long enough to complete the six-month asylum procedure.
“It’s a resting point,” Zariqi said.
The place felt a bit like a lonely, like a youth hostel or student housing that one one had really used yet—some of the beds were wrapped in plastic. Signs on the wall, in English and Arabic explained the rules, while a cafeteria offers three meals a day. There’s free medical care, too.
In the cafeteria, the Algerian man, Ahmed, stared blankly at a TV playing music videos, while young boy from Albania stared curiously at him.
Ahmed, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that his real name was not used, recounted how he ended up in Kosovo. He’d left Algeria 11 months earlier, after 13 years in the army and a stint in prison. Ahmed was reluctant to give details about why he was in prison, but said it was connected to getting a woman pregnant out of wedlock.
Ahmed said he had served his time in the army in an anti-terrorism unit, and that remaining in Algeria would have been dangerous. He flew to Turkey and traveled mostly on foot to Greece, Macedonia and eventually Belgrade. He spent three months living in Belgrade with an Algerian friend before he was evicted.
Instead of heading north toward Hungary, as most migrants taking the Balkan Route do, Ahmed decided to go south.
“My friend told me it’s better in Kosovo. The cigarettes and the cost of living is cheaper,” Ahmed said in Arabic through an interpreter.
Ahmed eventually arrived in Gjilan, after traveling by hitching rides and walking. He found shelter an empty house. He stayed for three days. On the last day the owner showed up and police came.
“Praise god. When the police found me, they gave me coffee, cigarettes and food. In Macedonia, the police beat you. In Kosovo they will give you food,” Ahmed said.
The police took him to Prishtina, where a translator was brought. (Ahmed speaks only arabic and French.) There, he officially requested asylum and was transported to the center in Magura.
Ahmed looked much older than his 35 years - his face wrinkled and scarred. Ultimately, he said he wants to get to Switzerland and reunite with his son, whom he’s never met, and the boy’s mother, whom he wants to marry.
Ahmed said has not been in touch in years, and does not know exactly where they are. “I pray I will find them,” he said.
As of July, Ahmed had left the center, perhaps continuing his journey north once again.
In Kosovo, the migrants continue to trickle in. Last week, nine migrants from Syria were apprehended near Prizren. They had arrived illegally via Albania. It’s too early to say whether the surge on the main Balkan Route will spill over into Kosovo. But if it does, authorities say they are ready.
“Since other countries in the region are experiencing an increase, we too are expecting it,” Zariqi said. “At the moment we have no reason to be worried, but it doesn’t mean we aren’t preparing ourselves for an influx of migrants.”