Refugees and migrants — including children — crossing the Balkans route to other parts of Europe are routinely subjected to ill treatment and abuse by border police, new research has found.
Human rights group Amnesty International released a report on Tuesday claiming that asylum seekers and migrants attempting to cross through Macedonia and Serbia told of being beaten by police and pushed back unlawfully.
One man from Afghanistan explained how Serbian police near the border with Hungary beat a woman who was five months pregnant. Another Afghan refugee claimed that he was part of a group pushed back to Greece by Macedonian police.
"I saw men badly beaten," he said. "They beat my 13-year-old son. They beat me too."
Alongside physical abuse by authorities and border deportations, the report also details how some migrants crossing the borders are forced to pay bribes to police at the borders of countries. One witness told Amnesty that Serbian police near the Hungarian border threatened to return his group if they refused to pay 100 euros ($110) each.
The Balkans route — that includes travel through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary — has overtaken the more perilous Mediterranean route to become the busiest irregular passage into the EU. According to figures collated by Amnesty, the number of people apprehended crossing the Serbia border into Hungary has risen by 2,500 percent, from 2,370 people in 2010 to 60,602 in 2015.
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Those making the journey — half of which are fleeing the war in Syria — are attempting to make it to other, wealthier parts of Europe who offer greater assistance to asylum seekers and refugees than other EU countries including Greece and Hungary.
Under the EU's Dublin regulations, people seeking refuge are required to do so in the first European country that they set foot in. Such a requirement has been criticized for causing strain on the EU's outer fringes and neighboring states. According to a report released in June by UNHCR, more than 55,000 migrants arrived in Greece in 2015, putting pressure on a country whose economy is already fragile and leading to worsening conditions for migrants and asylum seekers.
Moreover, for those who pass through Greece and make it to Hungary, they are faced with further complications.
According to Amnesty's report, those who are detected entering Hungary irregularly are routinely detained in often overcrowded conditions. In 2014, Hungary granted asylum to just 240 people. In June 2015 the country announced plans to build a fence that would stem the flow of migrants passing into the country from Serbia.
Speaking to VICE News, Amnesty International researcher Sian Jones said that there needs to be greater responsibility from both inside and outside the EU in helping migrants pass safely to other countries.
'Most people would like to reunite with families who have already been given asylum in other European countries, but we fear thousands of refugees are left irregularly in countries that cannot help them.'
"Both Serbia and Macedonia, who are not part of the EU, want to believe that they are transit countries, and their systems are completely inadequate. Both need to improve their asylum system. Those reaching these countries are faced with pushbacks, particularly in Macedonia where these are also accompanied by routine violence.
"We're concerned that people should not be sent back to Macedonia. It's poor at offering people asylum and many there are detained, sometimes for months on end," she told VICE News.
Jones continued: "Most people would like to reunite with families who have already been given asylum in other European countries, but we fear thousands of refugees are left irregularly in countries that cannot help them."
In 2014, only 10 asylum seekers were granted asylum in Macedonia, while only one person was granted asylum in Serbia, Amnesty claims. In both countries, the report says that people are left without legal status or protection and are vulnerable to human rights violations.
For those who do make the journey on foot in order to avoid the dangerous trip by sea, the route itself is not devoid of complications.
Jones told VICE News that she spoke to asylum seekers who faced massive physical endurance on their journey.
"We've seen people turning up in Serbia asylum center barely able to walk, and we've talked to people who have walked through Macedonia without food for three days because they didn't want to show themselves to the authorities."
One man fleeing the war in Syria, who gave his name only as B, explained how he also walked for three days through Macedonia, two of those days without water or food.
"We lost our bags, everything in Macedonia. In Serbia we hid for two days to avoid being found and sent back," he said.
Another migrant said: "Before the war I never thought of going to Europe, except maybe as a tourist. Our dreams were all destroyed. I dream to see my child running in the street again."
Follow Kayleen Devlin on Twitter: @KayleenDevlin