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.
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.