Serbia: Asylum-Seekers and Migrants Left Out in the Cold

Julie Remy

BRUSSELS—Asylum-seekers, refugees, and migrants who have risked their lives to reach Europe are stranded in forests and abandoned buildings in Serbia and enduring harsh winter temperatures without sufficient food or shelter, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warned today.

According to the Serbian asylum office, approximately 16,500 asylum-seekers—mostly people from Syria, Afghanistan, and Sub-Saharan Africa—entered Serbia in 2014 to seek refuge and dignified living conditions in northern Europe. MSF called on Serbian authorities and European Union member states to provide asylum-seekers with aid and protection.

"In general they are poorly clothed, living in unhygienic conditions, unable to bathe, and are very hungry," said MSF medical coordinator Vasiliki Armeniakou. "Many have muscle and bone injuries and severe body aches, cuts, bruises, and frostbite as a result of days of walking or running through the forest."

An MSF team provides migrants with essential relief items and urgently needed medical care through mobile clinics in the village of Bogovadja and the town of Subotica since December. The most common health problems among migrants are respiratory diseases and skin ailments, mostly due to the cold weather and poor sanitary conditions.

Slideshow: Asylum-Seekers, Migrants, and Refugees Stranded in Serbia

A European Union law, the Dublin Regulation, usually requires asylum-seekers irregularly entering the EU to apply for asylum in their first country of entry. However, migrants and asylum-seekers are increasingly fleeing substandard conditions in Greece and Bulgaria and crossing the Balkan region on their way to northern Europe.

"EU member states must acknowledge the outrageous consequence of their policies and to improve current asylum procedures, reception conditions, and lack of integration, which are failing thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers," said Stuart Alexander Zimble, MSF's coordinator in the Balkan region. "Greece, Bulgaria, and the EU must improve access to asylum procedures and reception conditions for newly arrived asylum-seekers."

In Greece, a dysfunctional asylum system forces people in need of protection to stay in appalling conditions. Many take further risks by using smuggling networks to leave Greece in search of better assistance and protection. "The situation is so bad in Greece, you cannot stay there as an asylum-seeker," said one Afghan refugee who spent 18 months in a detention center in Greece and then went to Macedonia and Serbia.

On arrival in Serbia, many asylum-seekers find their only option is to sleep outdoors, under plastic sheeting or in makeshift tents, despite bitterly cold winter temperatures.

Every day in Bogovadja, dozens of asylum-seekers wait for their asylum applications to be registered. The asylum office there processes only a handful of registrations per day, forcing people —sometimes including pregnant women and children—to wait in the forest surrounding the village. In Subotica, near the Hungarian border, migrants shelter at night inside abandoned and ruined buildings. Some are sleeping outside, hidden in fields, to avoid running into the police.

MSF calls on EU member states, in particular Hungary, to abstain from returning third-country nationals to Serbia. Serbia, with the support from UNHCR, should provide adequate assistance and international protection to asylum-seekers, including increasing its capacity to register and accommodate every person who requests asylum at all asylum center locations, in a safe, friendly, and efficient manner.

Togolese man having to stay outside the asylum centre after being refused access says with tears in his eyes: I can't keep going like this without sleeping. It is maximum 5 minutes each time… I am beyond tired… I am too cold to sleep, I don't even have a blanket. I have to stay around the file outside to stay alive. I cannot sleep siting around the fire. We have to get the fire going. Why are we treated like criminals? It's been 4 days that we are freezing outside… And they denie us access. But why? We did all that is required. Went to the police station to ask for Asylum in Belgrade, but they refused to give us the papers and told us to go to Bogovadja, so we went, but here they again refused to give us the papers and denied us access in the centre... They told us to come back the next day as it was late when we arrived and that they would do it the next morning, but then, they didn't do anything the following morning, and then the weekend came and they told us they don't work during the weekend and to come back on Monday. What are we supposed to do during all that time... There is enough room to make everyone sleep inside the centre, we know it as we talk with the ones who managed to get in. Why do they leave us outside all that time in the cold. It is inhumain! I thought Europeans were good people. Now what am I supposed to think of them when they treat us worse than criminals?
Julie Remy