As the journey over land to Western Europe becomes ever harder, a growing number of refugees are staying on in Serbia, unable to make it into the European Union.
OBRENOVAC, Serbia — The cold, polluted haze hangs over Obrenovac, blocking out the sky in a depressing blanket of white. A group of men has gathered, huddled together. They wear the obvious signs of the unfortunate — hand-me-down clothing and broken, muddy shoes. The men are ethnic Pashtuns from the Afghan-Pakistan border region. They are the newest arrivals at this refugee camp.
It's two degrees Celsius, and one Pakistani migrant says he hasn't been given enough clothes to wear. Another is hoping for a blanket. They've only just arrived from Belgrade, where they experienced the horrid squalor of living in an abandoned warehouse, but don't think the amenities they've found here are up to standard either. An employee of the newly formed Republic of Serbia Commissariat for Refugees and Migration listens on, slowly dragging on his cigarette. He is a Serb Kozak — a nationalist who refuses to converse in English, though he does speak it. He doesn't seem all that impressed. Nor does a local labourer, who is digging a ditch nearby. He can hear their complaints as he smashes the earth, turning the dark, wet, sticky ground with his shovel. It unleashes a foul odor; adding to the already bleak scenario.
This used to be a military barracks for the former Yugoslavia. Complete with dated, drab concrete buildings, sharp corners and wooded surroundings, it has seen many manifestations. Most recently, it was a reception centre for Serbians who had been made homeless by flooding in 2014. It was once again abandoned after that, but reopened on January 16 to house these new residents.
Yet those dispossessed by floods knew they would have places to go to soon enough. These people have no idea.
"They've made it so far, literally to the door of Europe, to have it shut in their faces. It is a frustrating situation certainly, for them and us. The fact is they don't want to be here. Serbia was never their destination, Germany was," says Ivan Miskovic, spokesman for the Commissariate.
The UNHCR estimates 7,700 asylum seekers are registered in Serbia, scattered through 17 official camps. Unofficially, the number of registered and unregistered asylum seekers could be twice as high. 600 of them live here; all of them are men. 295 of them are under the age of 18. Abdullah is one of the minors. He's only 15 and made the journey from Afghanistan's Logar Province by himself. He's been trying to reach Austria but can't find a way to cross the border into Hungary.
- Abdullah, Afghan refugee
Officially, Budapest allows only a trickle of refugees across the border each day, and most complain that the border guards don't even allow that.
Inside the barracks, away from the cold mud, the smell of fresh paint fills the building. The deafening screech of a power saw echoes off the concrete walls. Workmen are busy installing new doors, plastering up holes and nailing in architrave with military-like efficiency. A couple of refugees look on, staring absently at the ongoing work. There is really little else to do here.
Inside the rooms, asylum seekers now sleep as soldiers once did, row upon row. They have bunk beds, brand new mattresses and blankets. In the hallway, the chow line is also reminiscent of the building's military past, though one suspects the donated food is a touch better than army slop.
Serbia may not like the situation it has been saddled with, as Western Europe increasingly tries to stem the flow of refugees, but it appears to be digging in for the long haul. There is a certain resignation here to the likelihood that the barracks will not empty any time soon. The European Union, of which Serbia is not part, has donated funds to help support the cost of hosting so many new people. But Belgrade is not just looking to Brussels for cash, it's looking for a solution. Because Serbia is not part of the EU, it is not part of the repatriation deal with Kabul, signed in October last year, that enables rejected asylum seekers to be forcibly sent home.
According to the EU, in 2015, 213,000 Afghans arrived in Europe, with 176,900 claiming asylum that year. Up to 60 per cent of those asylum requests have been denied.
Meanwhile, Islamabad signed a deal with the EU in 2009 which allows the European Bloc to deport Pakistanis who have entered clandestinely. Less than 20 percent of Pakistan's citizens, whether they enter clandestinely or declare themselves upon arrival, are given refugee status in Europe.
Whether Serbia will try to broker a similar deal is what many here want to know.
"Are they going to come up with a deal for remission with Afghanistan or Pakistan, like the one the EU has? Or are borders going to open?" Miskovic said. "We are waiting for a unique, unified European solution, and so far we don't have such an answer."
A young Afghan, Karim, also wants to know what is happening. The stress and worry of living in limbo is taking its toll. The young man stands out from most other refugees around him. He is fresh faced, wearing crisp, clean clothes and has gone to the effort of getting a sharp, new haircut. He is well-spoken and speaks three languages, including English. He's even trying to learn Serbian and French as well.
He and his fellow refugees share only two things in common: their ethnicity and the journey they have each made to get here. Aside, from that, he admits, they have no similarities.
Nonetheless, they are all here, together. The 19-year-old has been in Serbia for two months. He travelled from Kabul with his 17-year-old brother, leaving the rest of his family behind. His father had encouraged him to seek a life of safety, away from the constant carnage of Afghanistan; a life where he hopes to resume his university studies in computer programming.
"I've missed about 6 months of class now, so I hope to get to Switzerland soon so I can make up the classes," he says.
Karim admits it has been difficult to endure life as a refugee. He says he has never lived like this before. He misses his family and regrets leaving home. Still, he says, his father tells him never to return. The Taliban is making gains every day and the violence is getting worse. Very few refugees want to apply for asylum in Serbia, and as Karim says, "even my Serbian friends tell me don't do it," but as stalled life stretches on, Karim is considering it. The young man is coming to realise that something, might just be better than nothing.