Talking to the Refugees Hiding in Serbia's Abandoned Factories

Talking to the Refugees Hiding in Serbia's Abandoned Factories

"They receive you with a heartfelt, 'Welcome to Europe, we'll kill you.'"
April 17, 2017, 7:00am

This article originally appeared on VICE Alps.

It has been a year and a half since Jamal* left his home in Kunduz, Afghanistan. But for the past seven months, he has been stuck in Serbia—behind the border fence that Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orbán recently erected. While Jamal and about 200 others wait for their chance to cross the border, they're living in an abandoned brick factory near Subotica, in the north of the country. He isn't sure what feels farther away these days—his home, which is 3,700 miles to the east, or the European Union, which starts just 12 miles to the north.

Jamal has made several attempts to jump over the fence, but border patrol officers have caught him every time. "They let dogs loose on us the last time we tried," he says, as he shows me the injuries he's suffered while trying to cross. "They receive you with a heartfelt, 'Welcome to Europe, we'll kill you.'"


Hamza, 22, is from Pakistan. He's been on the run for three years and four months, ever since his family was displaced by the Taliban. Although spending the past few months at the factory has made him lose hope of entering Hungary, he doesn't think giving up is an option either.

This winter, Serbia received about 100 refugees per day—most of them from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Out of fear of being deported, some of them don't get registered in Serbia—they camp outdoors or find shelter in abandoned factories instead of seeking shelter in the state's refugee camps. All refugees living in or near the abandoned factories at the border are men, and most are traveling alone. They rely heavily on volunteers, who visit often to supply them with food, clothes, and blankets.

But even though volunteers bring some of the basic necessities, there's no electricity or running water at the factories—that means no toilets and no showers, too. NGOs have criticized the Serbian government for not doing enough for those stuck in the country, but at the same time, there is only so much a country as poor as Serbia can do, in light of the neighboring country closing its borders. And while Orbán has ordered a second fence to be built on the border with Serbia, the EU has yet to come up with a humane plan for those stuck behind it.

Fayaz has also spent the past couple months in the same factory as Hamza and Jamal. He's in his mid 20s and from Afghanistan. "Do you know war?" he asks me after I take his photo. "I have seen war, and I escaped it. But that doesn't mean that I'm safe now."

*Jamal asked us to keep his real name private.

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Volunteers bringing food to an abandoned brick factory near the Serbian-Hungarian border