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Sonia Nandzik

In Europe they only beat us, burn with cigarettes and release dogs on us. Europe is better

Western Balkans is the most popular route chosen by refugees aiming to reach Europe. The breakup of Yugoslavia meant, however, that countries like Serbia face a wave of internally displaced people themselves and are not ready to admit refugees from the South.

Balkan route

Hussein, a thirty-year-old Syrian, arrived to Kelebija refugee camp three days ago broken spirits. Naturally, he asks me about the chances for opening the border. I answer honestly but also cautiously in order not to encourage him to cross illegally.

The border will remain closed, but thanks to his nationality, Hussein will get a priority to cross it. On the other hand, he is a single man, and this means the whole process will delay.

The route that Hussein chose is the most common one among refugees and migrants trying to enter the European Union. It leads through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia to Serbia. From this place, everybody tries to enter Hungary or Croatia.

Hussein hasn’t seen his family for more than five years. He had escaped Syria before the fights started for good. – Three months after graduating from college I was walking on a street. A military car stopped next to me, and the soldiers told me to get in. They took me to one of the military buildings where they announced that from now on I am a soldier. This is how they do it in Syria. They just kidnap people from a street. You don’t even get a chance to inform your mother – he tells me evidently upset.

Hussein didn’t want to fight in Assad’s army, so he escaped after few months. He was hiding in Syria for almost a year trying to earn some money for crossing to Turkey. There he spent another year trying to make it to Greece. This journey brings traumatic memories.

– There were many children in our boat. We were drowning. Almost all of us were already in the water when the coast guard found us. This was the very last moment.

Hussein experience is shared by almost everybody in the camp. Stories about overcrowded, and sinking boats and smugglers leaving people in the middle of the sea are common. However, everybody here claims that it was a necessity. Escaping war, persecution, and poverty is very dangerous, but the faith in better and safer future in Europe is stronger.

Entrance to Kelebija transit zone camp, author: Sonia Nandzik ⓒ

Entrance to Kelebija transit zone camp, author: Sonia Nandzik ⓒ

European borders

The road from Turkey to the Hungarian border with Serbia or Croatia, so called Balkan route, usually takes few months. Now, with European borders closed, refugees have to add several months in camps. Many try to cross the border without waiting for their turn. The first obstacle comes when they attempt to overcome the border to Macedonia, which has been secured with a 2,5 meters high barbed wire donated by the Hungarian government.

In addition Macedonia protected itself from the ones that somehow manage to cross the fortifications by amending the asylum law. According to these new regulations, no legal consequences will follow if a foreigner that entered Macedonia illegally, leaves this country within three days.

The small surface of Macedonia doesn’t make it hard to cover the distance from the border with Greece to the one with Serbia within three days. Most of the refugees don’t want to stay in Macedonia in any manner and plan to leave this country as soon as possible.

An alternative to the Macedonian route is the one through Bulgaria. It’s a troublesome, and dangerous road and the border in Dimitrovgrad has a reputation of being one of the most depressing places in Europe. My friends who worked there last winter distributing most needed items, shared stories about refugees forced to wait in lines in temperatures as low as minus twenty degrees for several hours just to register.

No exceptions for women and children were made until humanitarian organizations demanded it. People came to this place with light backpacks and the clothes they had on. Very rarely was it a winter jacket, more often a jumper or a raincoat.

– This is how I imagine lines in concentration camps during the II World War – states a young German who distributed first aid needs in Dimitrovgrad last winter. – People reached that place exhausted, freezing and wounded. I will never forget the night a seventy-five-year-old women came to our distribution point. Her face was so severely beaten by the Bulgarian border police that it was impossible to imagine how she might have looked before – he adds.

Refugees showing wounds after encounter with Hungarian police, author: Info Park ⓒ

Refugees showing wounds after encounter with Hungarian police, author: Info Park ⓒ

The ones that managed to reach north of Serbia face a closed border. Each of the two crossings allows only 15 people to pass to the Hungarian side every day. Hungarians not only strengthened the border but also created new police forces.

Local press claims that the demand is so urgent that even people previously rejected will get the possibility to serve now. Those new units will also have a specific name: “határvadászok” – border hunters. Naming them this way is significant. It’s supposed to indicate the type of active approach towards the ones that get closer to the border.

The road from the Turkish coast to the Serbian-Hungarian border

Alternative ways


Surprisingly Hungarian actions discourage only a few to cross the border illegally. A young Pakistani who left his home eight months ago sadly tells me that he considers this option. For him, there is no alternative to the journey towards Western Europe. His father was murdered by the Taliban. Aged only fifteen, he became the head of the family. He wants to start working as soon as possible to support his mother and give his sister a chance to get married. He awaits his turn to cross the border for several months now.

I ask him whether he doesn’t fear the illegal crossing. I saw wounds from the police beating, and marks from dogs’ teeth on the bodies of those that failed. His answer comes as a surprise: – We escape one persecution to face another, but European borders are not that bad. In Iran they don’t ask, they shoot to kill. In Europe they only beat us, burn with cigarettes and release dogs on us. Europe is better.

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Main photo: Syrian refugee camp, Karkosik Erbil, author: Mustafa Khayat, CC BY-ND 2.0
Sonia Nandzik
Master in international relations from the Jagiellonian University and in sociology from the University of Silesia. She monitored EU policy for several years while working for the European Parliament and organising political campaigns. She promotes education projects and programs aiming at ending modern-day slavery. Those days you can find her in refugee camps in northern Serbia working on food distribution for refugees.
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