Just 300 metres from the border crossing between Serbia and Hungary, a gateway to the European Union, around 30 men are standing in the middle of a field. It’s late January and the temperature is near zero. Nearby are several abandoned buildings where they are temporarily living. An open fire, made of wood, tires, and plastic, serves as the only source of warmth, but it creates heavy and poisonous air inside the squat. They are waiting for drinking water, food, and warm clothes to be distributed by a group of volunteers – the only people helping them to survive the winter.
These men, most of them from Pakistan and Afghanistan, were pushed from their homes by ongoing conflicts and poor economic conditions. They are trying to cross the Balkan corridor to seek asylum in the EU, but got trapped in Serbia when Hungary and Croatia erected razor wire fences on their borders in 2015. For many, this journey has been part of their life for several years, and has involved multiple deportations and restarted attempts at making it to the EU.
As part of my PhD research, I spent a total of five weeks between May 2017 and January 2018 in seven transit squats and three state-run camps in Serbia.
The chances of making a legal border crossing from Serbia to the EU countries of Hungary or Croatia are getting slimmer. The legal border crossing points into Hungary currently accept only two to six people per working day. The “lucky” ones are mainly families with children, who often pay the Serbian state authorities €3,000 per family to appear on top of highly corrupted “waiting lists” which stipulate who gets access and whose asylum claim will be assessed. This makes single men the most disadvantaged and vulnerable group in such transit camps, and they often have to rely on their own support networks, deemed illegal by Serbian authorities.
Choosing to squat
I was told by volunteers that in January 2018, around 500 displaced people, most of them men, slept in structures made of pallets and tarpaulin or occupied abandoned houses near the northern Serbian border. When I visited them, these men told me they squatted to avoid theft, physical and sexual abuse, and deportation from the state-run accommodation centres in Serbia where 800 people often live in one space.
As Rahes*, an 18-year-old Pakistani who I interviewed in an abandoned building located in the Serbian-Hungarian border zone, told me:
Two weeks ago, there was a big fight when one person died. The day after, the Commissariat (the state authority managing asylum and migration in Serbia) randomly picked every third person in some rooms and transported them to a closed camp by the Macedonian border.
Such random transportation of the men to the south of the country, further from the entry points to the EU, is not the only reason why the men reject life in state-run asylum and reception centres. They say the centres restrict their free movement and autonomy, and ability to try the “game” – their term for attempting to make an irregular border crossing into Hungary, and into the EU. This can involve hiding underneath trucks, or paying human smugglers an average of €2,000 to €3,000. But it’s dangerous, and according to a team of voluntary doctors who I spoke to, the “border games” from the Balkan corridor to the EU resulted in 78 deaths in 2017.
Safety in numbers
One people smuggler I talked to told me he’d earned €21,000 the previous week for successfully transporting four families across the border, and his business had risen due to increasingly tight controls on the EU’s external borders.
But smugglers often use physical and sexual violence and torture to obtain additional fees above those previously agreed upon or to exact money from those who refused to pay. Haseeb, a 28-year-old Afghani who I spoke to in a squat in the fields close to the Hungarian border, told me:
I was kidnapped by smugglers who locked me in a flat and they were beating me. They … filmed how they were torturing me and sent it to my family asking for more money. My family sent them €800 euros and they let me go.
Some squats by the borders serve as transit hubs for smugglers’ clients and are managed by smuggling networks. Younger boys, between the ages of 13 and 17, particularly those who can speak English, are often targeted by smugglers who use them as “runners”. These boys take clients through the borders in an operation run by phone by a smuggler based in Belgrade. The runners can’t be arrested due to their age, protecting the smugglers from potential prison terms.
A 16-year-old “runner” from Pakistan called Hafsa, who lives in a squat by the Hungarian border, told me he is paid €300 – 10% of the total – for the high-risk job of walking with the clients across the border to an awaiting car.
I have no chance to apply for asylum. I will stay here in Serbia in this house. This is the first time I earn money.
As they are undocumented, the men don’t have any legal protection in the squats and are at risk from abuse by smugglers and violent attacks by local gangs and the police. To gain protection, some men hide in squats located in remote forests and fields in large groups. Ferdous, an 18-year-old Pakistani, who occupies two abandoned buildings with other 50 men by the Hungarian border, showed me a big wooden stick hidden in his room and explained:
Look, this is our gun against the gangs and police. Last night, two police officers came, pointing at us with the guns and shouting to give them money. One hit my friend into his face by a gun grip and stole from him €100. The other night, groups of men with masked faces came to our house with knives, attacked us, stole our money, phones, and food. We need to be many of us and ready to fight back to protect us.
Despite the EU’s push to step up security along its external borders, this hasn’t stopped people trying to cross them. Instead, they have become trapped in a spatial void, with only hazardous routes out. In these transit spaces, behind closed borders, the fight for freedom is getting more difficult and the vulnerability of those stuck in limbo is increasing.
*All names and identifiable information have been changed to respect anonymity.