Migrants exploited every step of the way on Balkans route to Europe

The loss of more than 800 migrants in a shipwreck off Libya earlier this week drew the world’s attention to the plight of those crossing the Mediterranean. But further east, more and more people fleeing conflict and poverty are taking the Balkans route to reach western Europe, a journey also fraught with danger, reports Glen Johnson

In this February 28, 2015 photo, West African migrants walk on train tracks on their way towards the border with Macedonia near the town of Evzonoi, Greece. Dalton Bennett/AP Photo
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Novi Pazaar, SERBIA // In a once-abandoned factory deep in Serbia’s southern mountains, migrants bring pots of tea to the boil as snow drifts blanket the surrounding ravines and peaks.

Pop music from their homelands pumps from cheap phones. They hang clothes to dry from rows of bunk beds and while away the hours smoking cigarettes, staring at the ceiling.

From Syria and Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Ivory Coast, Iran and Afghanistan, they are here in a state-run reception centre for asylum seekers in the Serbian town of Tutin. The centre gives them the chance to heal after bruising and furtive journeys across deserts and through forests, escaping conflict and upheaval in their homelands.

Doubts weigh heavy on their minds as the hours drift by – within days most will be back in with smugglers, heading north towards Hungary and the European Union. The risks they face have done little to slake a fierce determination to reach western Europe.

“I love my country. Eritrea is a beautiful place,” says Janet, a 34-year-old from the tiny east African state. “But we have a dictatorship. I want to live in a good country, in peace, where I can have a good life.”

She is but one in a growing tide of people searching for a better life in Europe, and reliant on smugglers to get her there.

War. Poverty. Political repression. All are fuelling a global displacement crisis that has cast 52 million people – a number not seen since the Second World War – into lives of desperation and uncertainty.

Some 220,000 people boarded overcrowded boats in North Africa and Turkey last year, sailing across the perilous Mediterranean Sea to Greece or Italy.

Others, like Janet, take the Balkans route, which is slower but safer, drifting down railway tracks in Eastern Europe, filthy with scant possessions strapped to their backs.

The majority of migrants taking this route are fleeing the violence in Syria and Iraq, with the number arriving in Serbian reception centres soaring from just 44 in 2008 to 11,118 in 2014. Between 2013 and 2014 alone, arrivals increased by 8,712. And already in January and February this year there have been 2,232 arrivals.

Sipping on a glass of ginger-spiced tea, Janet recalls fleeing enforced national service in Eritrea – where Human Rights Watch says conscripts are routinely used as forced labour – late last year. She travelled with some 20 other people through minefields on the country’s border and into Sudan.

“[Back home] we had no money, no food,” says Janet, who left behind her husband and 11-year-old son. “No life.”

But Janet misses her son, she says, misses seeing him “playing soccer with his friends” on the streets of the capital Asmara.

Janet scrimped away donations from relatives until she had enough to bribe a Sudanese passport from a corrupt official. She boarded a plane bound for Istanbul, the start of the Balkan corridor route.

“I had friends who knew smugglers there,” she says, her nails painted blood-red and fingers tapping ash from a cigarette. “I got in touch with them through text message, like that.”

Within three days of arriving in Istanbul she was connected. Smugglers could get her to Greece and then hitch her to the region’s well-established smuggling routes – but at a price.

The Balkans have long been haunted by smugglers. Guns. Opiates. Women. Cigarettes. All negotiate the region’s mountainous terrain and complex ethnic fissures, entering the Balkans by land or sea.

Some smugglers are linked to Balkan mafia. Others are simple lowbrow profiteers.

Small boats ferry irregular migrants to Greece from Istanbul or further down Turkey’s western coast, or, alternatively, up the Bosporus and along the Black Sea coast to Bulgaria or Romania.

Others attempt to enter the Balkans by foot, walking for days through mountains and forests into Bulgaria or Greece, looking north to Hungary.

“Most people entering Bulgaria share the same story. They hire a smuggler in Istanbul or Edirne (northern Turkey) and are part of a group of a dozen or 20 people,” says Boris Cheshrikov, of the United Nation’s refugee office in Sofia, Bulgaria.

“The smugglers will not cross the border with the group, leaving them in the vicinity of the border and instructing them to walk in a certain direction.”

All of the migrants have western Europe on their mind. But many endure violence as they trek. Earlier this month, a group of Syrians were severely beaten in the southern Serbian town of Bujanovac by a mob of Roma, a bungled robbery.

Another two Syrians were hit by a train just outside the same town after having walked into Serbia from Macedonia along the railway tracks.

“It was a tragedy,” says Sheikh Ulvi Fejzullalu, the imam of a mosque in Bujanovac, who oversaw the burial of the men. “At this mosque we made certain that our congregation attended the burial. They are human beings and deserve respect.”

Serbian police have subjected migrants to “violent assaults, threats, insults, and extortion, denial of the required special protection for unaccompanied children, and summary returns to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Bulgarian border agents are believed to have similarly “pushed back” asylum seekers. In one high-profile case, two Yazidi men, fleeing ISIL in Iraq, froze to death after a beating by Bulgarian authorities broke their legs as they attempted to enter the country illegally.

Others talk of abuse at the hands of smugglers. They are jammed into freight lorries and driven across Greek and Bulgarian borders, snaking their way north.

“[In Athens] the smugglers took us to a room with maybe 50 people,” says 25-year-old Abdul Nasser, from Mogadishu, Somalia, resting at the reception centre in Tutin after weeks traversing Albania and Montenegro with an organised criminal gang. “They beat all of us again and again, making us call our families to send money.”

After arriving in Greece on foot, Janet moved on to a home stay with other migrants in Athens. After a month of waiting, she walked 10 days into Albania, paying smugglers US$1,500 (Dh5,500).

“We had bottles of water,” she says. “We drank from streams, too.”

It was there she began to travel with a better-organised smuggling racket, moving by van and lorry and aiming for the porous Sandzak, a zone divided between Serbia and Montenegro.

Last Friday, Serbian police broke up a gang who were working that same west Balkan smuggling route, arresting 16 smugglers.

And at the beginning of the month, in another case suggestive of an organised operation, a man was caught driving a rental van stacked with migrants in Bujanovac. He had picked up the migrants near the Macedonian border.

According to a municipal figure, the 37-year-old ethnic Serb admitted to having been instructed to drive the migrants to Hungary but refused to reveal who had hired him for the job. He was released within a week.

For such syndicates – working across entrenched ethnic animosities between Croats, Serbs and Albanians – people smuggling is “low risk and high profit”, according to Interpol.

“We have different jobs. Some people drive them, some people pick them up, some people arrange times and drivers,” says a Turkish scout who stalks Istanbul’s streets, searching for migrants to link up to his gang, an organised Turkish criminal group.

Migrants are then shuttled on to Greece or Bulgaria, where a different, yet linked, network takes over. Each step of the way, the migrants pay.

But the European Union’s external borders are formidably policed, with seismic detectors able to notice movement some seven kilometres into Turkey, along with thermal imaging technology.

Everyone takes a cut as the money rises up the various layers of different networks, with the kingpins shady and very powerful. In Turkey, the once omnipotent military establishment and its intelligence services have repeatedly been implicated in transnational crime syndicates.

“We can get cargo lorries, cars with hidden compartments. Three to twenty thousand and you’re into western Europe,” says the Turkish scout. “Depends on what you need.”

And the need is surging. The wars in Syria and Iraq continue to send a flood of people into neighbouring countries.

One family from the Syrian city of Aleppo, walking exhausted and dehydrated just north of Presevo town, had just made it across into Serbia. They offered 300 euros (Dh1,200) to be driven to Subotica in the north, near the Hungarian frontier.

“We lost everything,” said the father, Mohammed, his infant child cradled in his arms. “It took us 11 days to get here, from Skopje [Macedonia’s capital].”

Janet, having reached Albania, was shuttled north in vans through Montenegro – a route along the Adriatic coast dotted with casinos and a hub of Albanian criminality – eventually reaching Serbia.

She registered as an asylum seeker and sought shelter in the Tutin reception centre.

“I hope I will be in Hungary in a week,” she says. “When I get to Switzerland, God willing I can help my husband and son get there.”

A few days later she was in a house near Belgrade, heading towards Subotica with smugglers.

“Tomorrow,” she said, via Facebook messenger, “I will be in Hungary.”

And then, on Tuesday, a single word message: “Budapest.”