BELGRADE, Serbia — In the gloom of an abandoned warehouse, a weary-looking Pakistani man named Hayat Ali shivers in a blanket, comforting a sick friend lying at his side. Meters away, children as young as nine crowd around an open fire, their faces and clothes filthy. Outside, the ground is blanketed with snow. The temperature has dropped as low as 3ºF in recent days.
This scene is not playing out on the fringes of a disaster or war zone, but in the heart of a European capital. Since 2015, when the migration crisis began to hit, camps like this have sprung up across the continent from Greece to France, crowded with desperate migrants enduring wretched conditions in their quest to reach a better life in Europe.
This latest miserable shantytown, containing as many as 2,000 migrants, is made up of a cluster of abandoned railway warehouses in central Belgrade, Serbia, where hundreds of men and children sleep rough behind the city’s bus depot.
Following failed attempts to cross the borders into the European Union, the migrants are stuck here in hellish conditions. Their desperate situation has prompted warnings from the United Nations that some could die during a brutally cold winter snap.
Aid agencies and Serbian authorities have different explanations for why the migrants are sleeping rough, rather than in the better-appointed – albeit nearly full to capacity – government-run asylum centers across the country. The government says the migrants persistently refuse help due to groundless fears that they will be deported, and that warm beds are available for whoever wants one. Aid workers describe the reports of deportations as credible, while some migrants report having their requests for shelter turned down because facilities are full.
What’s not in dispute is that their dire situation is a result of Europe’s collective failure to adequately respond to the migrant crisis, and that this is unlikely to change unless a political solution is found, soon.
Temperatures plummeted to 3ºF (minus-16ºC) last week, leading to serious cases of frostbite and forcing those in the warehouses to stay awake throughout the night, huddled close to fires to make it through to morning.
The constantly burning fires – fuelled by chemically treated industrial wood scavenged from nearby – may help to stave off the cold, but they bring their own problems: Their carcinogenic smoke is responsible for hundreds of chest infections in the camp, according to Momcilo Djurdjevic, a Doctors Without Borders physician.
“Our spit is like coal. Our noses are full of carbon,” says Ali.
He is taking antibiotics for the same hacking cough and chest infection afflicting his friend. With no running water or sanitation, disease spreads easily, with severe infestations of body lice and scabies commonplace, says Djurdjevic. Washing here requires heating water in an oil drum over an open fire in the snow; Ali has not bathed in a month.
The 44-year-old former teacher says he decided to leave his wife and six children in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province after he received a written death threat from the Pakistani Taliban saying it was un-Islamic for his wife, a fellow teacher, to be working outside the home. After discussing with his wife, he says they decided he should try to seek asylum in Europe. He hopes to settle in Italy – although he knows nobody there – having heard that he could get asylum there more swiftly, allowing him to bring his family over sooner.
As with many in the camp, Ali’s story is difficult to verify; he says he has no identity papers, as he did not have time to apply for a passport before he fled.
“I had a luxury life in Pakistan. I was a teacher. We had two good salaries – I had a car and a motorbike and a lot of cash in my hand,” he says.
He gestures at the squalor of his small patch of the warehouse, where for three months he has slept in a blanket on a concrete floor, meters from an area used as a toilet by hundreds. “Now my hand is empty,” he says.
Serbia lies on the so-called Balkan route, the main overland passage which hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Middle East and Asia have taken to reach desirable ‘destination countries’ in northern Europe. Serbia, which is not a member of the European Union and is relatively poor by European standards, has become a heavily trafficked transit country, with migrants mostly arriving with the intention to continue northwest.
“We’re completely aware of the fact that nobody wants to stay here,” Ivan Miskovic, spokesman for Serbia’s Commissariat for Refugees and Migration, said. He says that of the few dozen who sought and received protection last year, barely any remain in the country.
During the early stages of the crisis, the human tide flowed freely under the “wave-through” policy that allowed migrants to cross borders with minimal controls. But in March last year, governments along the route began closing their borders. The makeshift camp in Belgrade sprang up as people were pushed back – sometimes violently, according to migrants and aid agencies – from the borders of neighboring countries further along the route.
Most attempting to leave are turned away by Hungary, to the north, where Viktor Orban’s right-wing government has built a huge razor-wire fence along the border. In the warehouse, Dawood Khan, a 26-year-old waiter from Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, shows a bandaged hand he says was fractured when he and 12 others were pushed back while trying to illegally cross the Hungarian border two days earlier.
“They sprayed (pepper spray) in my eyes. They beat me very badly,” he says.
Andrea Contenta, a humanitarian affairs adviser for Doctors Without Borders, says his organization has heard hundreds of reports of such violence on the border and routinely sees migrants presenting with injuries that support their claims: bruising consistent with beatings, dog bites and Taser wounds, inflammation from pepper spray.
The Hungarian government says that it “utterly rejects” the allegations. “The police are performing their duties lawfully, professionally and proportionately, and they place special emphasis on treating migrants humanely and with respect for their human dignity,” the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister said in a statement.
But despite the dangers, the migrants have continued to arrive. And Europe’s focus on sealing its borders has increasingly driven migrants to rely on smugglers and to employ risky methods – such as arduous marches through forests – in their attempts to illegally cross the closed borders, Contenta said.
Most in Belgrade, like Khan, have been pushed back numerous times, returning after each failed attempt to the shantytown – where they can meet more easily with people smugglers – to plan their next crossing. Ali has been stopped and pushed back 10 times, he says; he intends to keep trying.
Why are they sleeping rough?
Serbia has responded to the growing backlog of migrants on its territory by undertaking to provide shelter for 6,000 people at 16 government-run reception centers throughout the country. The shelters are nearly full, with many exceeding their capacity, according to the U.N.’s refugee agency; it says there are 7,200 migrants in Serbia, while unofficial estimates from aid officials have put the numbers as high as 8,000.
As many as 2,000 migrants remain outside the official shelters, with many refusing places in the centers because of fears Serbian authorities will deport them to countries to the south. Others claim they have been turned away from official shelters because the facilities are full.
Following the recent freezing temperatures, Serbian authorities launched a campaign to encourage the rough sleepers to move into the government-run centers, where they are given access to warm shelter, hygiene facilities and three meals a day. “We did everything we could to persuade these people that they should move,” says Miskovic.
Despite the centers being nearly full, Miskovic claims the rough sleepers – whose numbers his government estimates at more than 1,000 – can be squeezed in. “If you have a kitchen, you can put beds in(side),” he says. “If there are five people in the room according to standards, we could put seven or eight beds in. This is not the moment to follow the procedures in a strict manner.”
Miskovic says that as a result of the push, 450 people have moved into the official centers over the past week, many of them women and children. Nearly half of the people in the official camps are 18 and under, and 15 percent of them women, according to the U.N.
Nasir Ahmad, a 9-year-old from Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, has been sleeping on a pile of blankets in the corner of a warehouse for a month, despite having been offered a place in a government center. His older brother, his guardian, refused the move out of fears of deportation.
No going back
Everyone who spoke to VICE News has a destination country in mind, about which they invariably knew very little. And each says that whatever hardships they face in the camp, the promise of a new life in western Europe makes being here preferable to staying at home. Even if they continue being pushed back to Belgrade, they say they intend to keep attempting to cross into the West. They express hope that European leaders will decide to open the borders – an outcome that appears increasingly unlikely in the hardening political climate.
“I will keep trying,” says Tahrir Rafiqi, a 17-year-old from Logar Province, Afghanistan, who has been pushed back from the Hungarian border seven times in three months. “In Afghanistan, everyone has problems. I can’t go back.”
“The fact is nobody wants these people,” says Miskovic. “This is a huge burden for us. We are doing our best … Do you think they’d be allowed to set up an unofficial camp in the center of London or Berlin like they did in Belgrade? You want to say that we’re not tolerant?”
Despite the differences of opinion between the government and aid agencies over elements of Serbia’s response, they agree that the situation is the product of Europe’s collective failure to manage the migration crisis.
In the meantime, for all the official promises of a warm bed, Ali prepares for another night in the warehouse. He plans an 11th attempt to cross the border once the weather improves, but will consider returning to Pakistan in a few months if his luck doesn’t change. More snow is forecast for the days ahead.