Bulgarian police beat refugees as humanitarian crisis worsens

Europe. In one unconfirmed report, Bulgarian border police shot and killed an Afghan asylum seeker. As the weather worsens, desperation grows at Serbian checkpoints.

by Andrea Oskari Rossini, Dimitrovgrad (Serbia)
il manifesto, Oct. 26 2015

At the Serbian border — photo Reuters

A group of young Afghans leave the forest and head for down­town Dimi­tro­v­grad, in sou­thern Ser­bia. They are rag­ged and dirty, and they have brought lit­tle except an occa­sio­nal pla­stic bag. They’ve just come from Bul­ga­ria, and the sto­ries they tell sound like a hor­ror movie.

“Bor­der guard dogs cha­sed us,” says Zabiul­lah, from Nan­ga­har. “They were shoo­ting. Fif­teen of us were cap­tu­red. One died. We were in the forest for four days without food.” The others nod gravely.

My inter­pre­ter him­self insists, “Are you sure the per­son died?”

“Yes, sure. It hap­pe­ned Sunday.”

They don’t know the person’s name, and there’s no place to vali­date the testi­mony of a new mur­der of a migrant in Bul­ga­ria. But all the sto­ries, even those made by other groups I met, are con­si­stent in their descrip­tions of syste­ma­tic vio­lence per­pe­tra­ted by the police of that coun­try against refu­gees, par­ti­cu­larly in the region on the bor­der with Turkey.

Salar, 25, who works as a volun­teer at the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cen­ter in Dimi­tro­v­grad, says he spends his days liste­ning to these kinds of sto­ries. “They say that when the police in Bul­ga­ria catch them, they take eve­ry­thing from them: their money, pho­nes, eve­ry­thing,” he says. “Then we see them come here in that con­di­tion.” The refu­gees show signs of bea­tings or dog bites.

Ibra­him, a Syrian Kurd from Qami­shli, exits the cen­ter and joins to explain that he and his wife and chil­dren were detai­ned in Bul­ga­ria “for no reason.”

€25 bus tic­ket to Belgrade

Dra­gana Golu­bo­vić, the Ser­bian Com­mis­sio­ner for Refu­gees, says that bet­ween 1,500 and 2,000 peo­ple per week arrive in Dimi­tro­v­grad, most of them young and many of them chil­dren. I was not per­mit­ted to enter the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cen­ter, where, as the volun­teers outside explain, the con­di­tions are “very basic.”

After a few hours in the cen­ter, the refu­gees receive a 72-hour per­mit to tra­vel through Ser­bia. Outside the cen­ter there are buses and some taxis. The trip to Bel­grade by bus costs €25, or €200 by taxi.

A decent eco­nomy flou­ri­shes around the migrants trud­ging the Bal­kan route, even here in this remote cen­ter of sou­thern Ser­bia. Afghans, howe­ver, have nothing except clo­thes soi­led with mud. Some of them look around bewil­de­red. Volun­teers have arri­ved from outside to help, but they aren’t well recei­ved by the locals, who perhaps con­si­der them as competition.

The police arrive and try to disman­tle an aid tent mar­ked “no bor­der” — to distin­guish from govern­ment chec­k­points — that pro­vi­des clo­thes and basic pro­vi­sions. By the eve­ning, the situa­tion seems to be resolved.

Four mon­ths, 200,000 refugees

In Pre­ševo, 120 miles from here, on the bor­der bet­ween Ser­bia and Mace­do­nia, the situa­tion is dif­fe­rent. The flows, first of all, are much larger.

“On Mon­day, 8,000 peo­ple came, but the ave­rage is 5 or 6,000 per day,” says Slo­bo­dan Savovi, who is respon­si­ble for the “one stop” iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cen­ter for the Ser­bian Com­mis­sio­ner for Refu­gees. “Since July 8, when we ope­ned, 200,000 peo­ple have passed.”

The refu­gees form long lines outside the for­mer tobacco fac­tory. After pas­sing through metal detec­tors, and recei­ving a bag of food from the Red Cross, peo­ple are regi­ste­red and receive per­mis­sion to stay in the coun­try for three days. “They can also apply for asy­lum,” Savovi says, “but in prac­tice nobody does.”

Unlike Dimi­tro­v­grad, here the vast majo­rity of peo­ple in line are from Syria. They have fami­lies, and there are lots of chil­dren. For the Syrians, the night­mare was not in Bul­ga­ria, but the short stretch of sea bet­ween Tur­key and Greece. They pay the traf­fic­kers bet­ween $1,000 and $1,500 apiece to board the rafts. But the gang­sters don’t get in; they explain how the engine works and point toward shore.

“We were saved by the Greek navy,” says a man wai­ting with his chil­dren. “The boat was sin­king. They took us to Mytilene.”

Even in Pre­ševo, ​​con­di­tions are very basic. The whole recep­tion system is based on the expec­ta­tion that the refu­gees will stay only a few hours. Outside the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cen­ter, ven­dors sel­ling tic­kets to the Croa­tian bor­der wait impa­tien­tly. The trip costs €35. Dozens of buses pull in and out all the time.

The volun­teers are the ones pro­vi­ding most of the infor­ma­tion, and com­fort. Among them are Vjo­leta and Goran, from the group Women in Black in Bel­grade (“We were sup­por­tive to the refu­gees from the Bal­kan wars; we stand in soli­da­rity with migrants”), and Vanya, a Bosnian girl who took refuge in Swi­tzer­land during the Bal­kan wars. She has been hel­ping migrants for mon­ths now with the asso­cia­tion Borderfree.

Dante’s Inferno

Pre­ševo, a pre­do­mi­nan­tly Alba­nian town of just over 10,000 inha­bi­tants, is the main port of entry into Ser­bia along the Bal­kan route. The dif­fe­rent streams, one from Mace­do­nia and one from Bul­ga­ria, con­verge at Ber­ka­sovo, just north of Šid, where the refu­gees cross into Croatia.

If bor­ders upstream in Austria, Slo­ve­nia or Croa­tia are clo­sed, even tem­po­ra­rily, it would cause chaos in Berkasovo.

Last Thur­sday, the town resem­bled Dante’s Inferno. There were migrants caked in mud from tra­ve­ling seve­ral miles on foot. Dirt and debris sur­roun­ded the tents that lead to the fen­ces and police lines mar­king the Croa­tian bor­der. Mas­ses of peo­ple pushed and cops yel­led, try­ing orga­nize peo­ple into small groups. Ine­vi­ta­bly, fami­lies were sepa­ra­ted, while volun­teers from both sides of the bar­ri­ca­des tried to reu­nite chil­dren with their parents.

The chil­dren, along with the women and the elderly, are those who suf­fer most in this situa­tion. Inex­pli­ca­bly, there is no prio­rity access for them or any of those most vul­ne­ra­ble. They remain for hours under awnings, in the cold and in the dirt, wai­ting to con­ti­nue the journey.

The flow of refu­gees and migrants cros­sing the Bal­kan penin­sula is slo­wly tur­ning into a huma­ni­ta­rian cri­sis of major pro­por­tions. The con­di­tions on the road are wor­se­ning along with weather.

The only thing that seems to change is the deter­mi­na­tion of these peo­ple on the run. Beside them­sel­ves with fati­gue, chil­dren in their arms, Syrian women walk straight ahead with stony faces. They’re on a mis­sion. The Afghan boys have the same look. It’s what car­ries them onward, stop­ping nei­ther for the sea, nor the bea­tings of Bul­ga­rian poli­ce­men, nor the walls of Hun­ga­rian Pre­si­dent Vic­tor Orbán.

Originally published in English at il manifesto global.