Migrants Meet Smugglers in Serbia: Is the Balkan Route Really Closed? - asks Katarzyna Rybarczyk

During the 2015 European migrant crisis, hundreds of thousands of migrants arrived in the European Union through the Balkan route, which became one of the major migratory paths mainly for refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

More than half a decade later, the route might officially be closed, but the migrant movement never ceased.

That becomes evident when looking at Serbia where smugglers regularly pick migrants up from various points in the country’s capital, Belgrade, and help them continue their journey to the EU.

When the Balkan corridor was open, refugees had this certainty of finding protection after reaching one of the EU member states. Now, they do not know whether they will be let in and, on the way, they are entirely at the mercy of smugglers who frequently become their abusers.

Serbia, an important stopover.

For migrants trying to get to the EU, Serbia represents a crucial step in their journey. Although not in the EU itself, the country is located on the organisation’s edge so migrants who make it there are almost at the finish line.

Once they make their way from the Middle East or Central Asia to the Balkans, they need to reconnect with smugglers. In Serbia, the smuggling network is so large and effective that even if they cannot reach the person who helped them initially, they can easily find someone else.

‘It is assessed that at any moment, there are at least 500-600 people in transit in Belgrade’ Afghanistan Analysts reported.

Sadly, even though so close to their final destination, from this point onwards the journey proves to be especially difficult with increased police presence, barbed-wire fences, and smugglers who cannot always be trusted.

The Afghan park.

The main hub of migrant activity in Serbia is the Afghan park in Belgrade. Located not too far from the city centre, right next to the central bus station, the park bears the promise of a better life.

Afghan Park

There, almost daily, one can see migrants with their belongings packed in a few bags, waiting for minibuses that will drive them across the borders.

Where are you going?’, I asked a group of young men waiting for their smuggler in the Afghan park.

‘To Europe’, they replied, meaning clearly not the continent but the European Union.

The vans that pick migrants up from the Afghan park take them first across the border to Hungary, thus entering the EU, and later to richer countries such as Germany or France.

Profitable business.

Before I went to Serbia to investigate whether the Balkan corridor is still active, I was reporting from Iraqi Kurdistan. There I met several people thinking of embarking on a journey through this route. They told me that it costs around €5,000 for the first leg of the trip, to the Balkans, and then additional €3,000 or €4,000 to continue the journey to the EU.

For most migrants, paying for the trip means spending a few years worth of savings. Each truck can fit at least ten people but travelling is usually done in groups of twenty or more. The profit smugglers make from each journey is, therefore, huge.

Sometimes one smuggler can only take migrants across a few borders, not all the way to the EU so they have to look for new ones on the way. That puts them at risk of being taken advantage of. People who organise these journeys know those who are the most desperate will pay any price not to have to go back to their conflict-ridden home countries.

Dangerous game.

Smugglers lure migrants in with promises of employment in Europe and claim that they can take them there directly. In most cases, however, the journey is not so smooth.

On the way there are parts of the route that migrants have to cross on foot, often in darkness, over difficult terrain, and in temperatures falling below freezing. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for smugglers to abandon the refugees and run away with their money.

Finally, even making it to the EU does not mean that migrants reach safety. On the contrary, violent pushbacks and abuse at the hands of security forces are common.

Or, even in a scenario where they do get let in, many find themselves stuck in detention centres and refugee camps, alienated from the rest of society and living a life that does resemble what they thought was awaiting them in Europe.

About the author:

Katarzyna Rybarczyk is a Political Correspondent for Immigration Advice Service, an immigration law firm operating globally and providing legal aid to forcibly displaced persons. Through her articles, she aims to raise awareness about security threats worldwide and the challenges facing communities living in low and middle-income countries.

Images: Katarzyna Rybarczyk

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