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A dusty road weaves through the bare fields that separate the Serbian border village of Miratovac from Macedonia. In the distance, where the yellow of the road dissolves into green fields, something twitches. At first it is a dark mass emerging at the road's vanishing point two kilometers away. Then the darkness gives way to color, and hundreds of blue, black, and red smudges shuffle into view. Each smudge is a refugee, looking to cross from Macedonia into Serbia on the path north to the European Union.
The refugees have just been released from a holding camp run by the Serbian government at the border. Most new arrivals spend no more than a few hours at the camp, which is designed to stagger the flow of the 3,000 to 7,000 migrants and refugees that cross the border every day.
Most of them, like 17-year-old Mahamet, are fleeing the war in Syria and hope to rebuild their lives in northern Europe.
"I want to go to Germany to finish school," Mahamet told VICE News. "School in Syria has stopped, school in Turkey has stopped."
In order to reach Germany, Mahamet will first have to enter Europe's borderless Schengen Zone, which begins at the Hungarian frontier with Serbia, some 600 kilometers (375 miles) north. Before making the journey, Mahamet must first register for travel papers in the nearby town of Presevo.
UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, has funded a fleet of buses to transport people from the border to Presevo, Serbia. But the road leading away from the holding camp is impassable, and the buses must wait in Miratovac.
It is along the two-kilometer stretch of road between the buses and the camp that local smugglers ply their trade in the midsummer heat. Left with no choice but to walk the length of the road, the refugees are left with few options.
By the time they reach Serbia, most refugees have been travelling under unpleasant and often dangerous conditions for upwards of 20 days. The law requires them to register for transit papers, but the process takes time and many are unwilling to wait.
The smugglers, who are predominantly taxi drivers, take advantage of this impatience by ratcheting up their prices. For the 10-minute ride to Presevo — a journey that would ordinarily cost just 1 euro — they charge 20.00 euros ($22.00) euros per person. The police seem unconcerned, letting the loaded taxis drive by unhindered.
"I ask [the police] why they don't do anything, they say it is not their responsibility," local activist Tomor Misini, who is temporarily contracted to the Danish Refugee Council, told VICE News.
Agon Ajeti has been a coordinator at Presevo Youth Center for the last two years, but he has been working with the NGO Youth for Refugees as an unpaid volunteer in Miratovac since June. The bulk of his work focuses around getting refugees onto the UNHCR buses to Presevo. To him, the smugglers are the competition. He and his team of volunteers cannot do anything to prevent the smugglers from operating, but they do everything they can to make the refugees aware of the free bus. Every time a new batch of refugees is released from the holding camp, Agon walks down the dusty road to greet them. "Salaam alaikum, you have a bus waiting for you, it's belash," he says, using the Arabic word for "free."
The smugglers do their best to disrupt Agon's efforts.
"They tell the refugees not to take the buses, that they are not from the UN but that we are mafia," Agon told VICE News. "Or they tell them that the buses will take them to an internment camp where they will be held for one or two weeks."
In Presevo, the profit margins for smugglers just get fatter. A "one-stop" camp has been set up there by the Serbian government for refugees to get food, water, medical treatment, and, crucially, papers. But the long queues and reportedly unpleasant conditions inside can end up pushing refugees away and into the arms of the smugglers.
An 18-year-old Syrian from Aleppo who had just received his papers described the ordeal to VICE News.
"It's too rough," he said. "The lines are too big and they don't treat us well. I have been standing in the sun for 12 hours for these papers. I went to the hospital for sunstroke. The doctors are great. The Red Cross are great. But you can't talk to the police, they don't treat us well."
A short walk from the one-stop camp, four Syrians sat on a low wall overlooking a side street. At the entrance to the street, three men stood by a taxi discussing something with the driver.
"We're going to Belgrade," one of the Syrians told VICE News before one of the men by the taxi calls to them.
"Go around the corner, in case of police," the man says.
The Syrians comply and the taxi reverses down the side street to the corner. Two of the men who had been standing by the car join the Syrians. The third man asks this reporter: "Hey, are you going to Belgrade? 150.00 euro ($169.00), no police, no problems."
When his offer is declined the Syrians are ushered out from behind the corner and into the waiting taxi.
The Presevo municipality is among the poorest in Serbia. Official statistics place unemployment at 46 percent, more than double the national average. However, local community leaders say the true figure is closer to 70 percent.
It has been estimated that refugees and migrants passing through Serbia collectively spend €6 million ($6.7 million) per day. In these circumstances, many Serbs are eager to take advantage of the business opportunities presented by the arrival of thousands of refugees eager to continue north, legally or illegally. Agon Ajeti said Miratovac's proximity to the EU means residents are well acquainted with smuggling goods.
"Miratovac is a business village, they did it before with cigarettes and marijuana because it is a border village," he said.
The ferrying of undocumented migrants and refugees by taxi drivers has been taking place for the last three or four years, he says, but it is only in recent months that the volume has increased to such high levels.
For migrants and refugees, travelling without papers can have both real and imagined advantages. On Sunday, Hungary announced the completion of a border fence stretching the length of its Serbian frontier, intended to deter potential asylum seekers. In recent days the fence has been at the forefront of many refugees' minds as they head north.
"We have a problem in Hungary with the fence," says Hamid Fatisni from Afrin, Syria, who hopes to eventually reach Norway. By skipping the registration process refugees can gain as much as a day's head start on their peers.
There is also a fear among many that submitting to registration could lead to detention or even mistreatment by police. These fears are largely unfounded today, for it is in Serbia's interest to ensure the people arriving on its southern border transit through to its northern border as quickly as possible. However, their fears have a precedent. In April of this year, Human Rights Watch reported on migrants and asylum seekers, some of them children, being extorted and physically abused by Serbian police officers.
Though many hope to avoid mistreatment from police by not registering for papers, there is a very real danger of being exploited or harmed while travelling without them. It is against the law for hotels to provide accommodation and bus companies to transport undocumented refugees. As a result, paperless travellers are forced onto the black market, where prices are ratcheted up considerably. Buses leaving Presevo for Belgrade offer two prices, 25.00 euro ($28.00) with papers, $60.00 ($67.00) without. There have also been reports of smugglers physically abusing the people they transport along the Balkan Route.
Local activists say they've repeatedly flagged the smuggling to UNHCR and that the agency doesn't seem to be taking any action, like putting pressure on the local police to stop the blatant smuggling.
When asked by Vice News about people-smuggling activities on the border with Macedonia, UNHCR Serbia Office Spokesperson Mirjana Milenkovski said that the she had spoken with the organization's lawyers and didn't have any "formal information about that topic."
When asked for clarification she said, "We have heard rumors like everyone else, but that's all. No formal information, just rumors."
This reporter observed UNHCR vehicles driving down the dusty road where the smugglers have set up shop in plain sight every day on two separate days in August. Activists working with the refugees say it is common to see the UN vehicles on the road.
Not all local residents are determined to profit off the migrants' misfortune, though. Occasionally a local resident in the few houses that line the dusty road will offer the migrants watermelons from their gardens, and run hoses of water for them to drink from. In Miratovac itself, people hand out milk to mothers of young children and a stand pipe with fresh water runs all day.
Agon Ajeti and his team of volunteers are making a difference, too. On Friday it seemed they had finally succeeded in turning the tide against the illicit taxi drivers. The volunteers do not directly confront the smugglers, for Miratovac is a small community and to do so would be to pick a fight with their neighbors.
"They do their job, we do ours," explains Agon.
However, their message about the free buses was getting through. Taxi after taxi was leaving Miratovac empty of passengers.
Even if the volunteers are winning the battle against exploitation of refugees in Miratovac, more people looking to make some fast cash wait at every stop of the journey north. Speaking in Miratovac, Mohammad, a refugee from Aleppo, told Vice News that he had a contact in on the border in Hungary who for 500.00 euro ($560.00) will help him avoid fingerprinting on arrival in Hungary.
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