Frozen: No Christ­mas cheer for mi­grants on Bel­grade streets

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

BEL­GRADE: In­side an aban­doned Bel­grade ware­house, its walls black­ened with smoke, sev­eral dozen young­sters hud­dle to­gether un­der blan­kets in a bid to fend off the freez­ing tem­per­a­tures as the Serbian win­ter sets in. Most have left home and fam­ily in Pak­istan and Afghanistan to seek safety or work in Europe, but have found them­selves caught in state­less limbo as suc­ces­sive Euro­pean na­tions have slammed shut their doors.

“We are wait­ing for Christ­mas Day. Maybe they will open the bor­ders,” says Waseem Afridi, a 23-year-old Pak­istani stuck in this frigid cul-de­sac on the path to the Euro­pean Union. About 1,000 mi­grants are sleep­ing rough in down­town Bel­grade, the UN refugee agency says, many set­tling in the ware­house squeezed be­tween the cen­tral rail­way sta­tion and a lux­ury apart­ment construction site on the Sava river bank.

Dur­ing the night they brave tem­per­a­tures fall­ing be­low zero de­grees Cel­sius (32 de­grees Fahren­heit). “It is get­ting colder ev­ery day,” says Afridi who comes from Pak­istan’s tribal ar­eas bor­der­ing Afghanistan. The acrid air in­side the ware­house ir­ri­tates eyes and throat. For heat, the mi­grants burn what­ever they can find. The lucky ones put car­pets on the glacial con­crete, while oth­ers use card­board. Those who get up from their blan­kets, tired-look­ing, try to warm up with a hot tea and eat some bread. Those first up head to­wards two fum­ing bar­rels filled with heated water to wash up.

7,000-euro jour­ney

The young men, some of whom are still teenagers, refuse to go to one of the 13 of­fi­cial re­cep­tion cen­ters which ac­com­mo­date some 5,300 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to the Serbian refugee agency. Ser­bia lies on the so-called Balkan route that has been taken by hun­dreds of thou­sands of mi­grants from the Mid­dle East, Asia and Africa since 2015. The route was ef­fec­tively shut down in March, but mi­grants have con­tin­ued to cross the re­gion in smaller num­bers, of­ten brought there by traf­fick­ers.

Mo­hamed Dar­wich, from eastern Afghanistan, said he does not want to go to a re­cep­tion cen­tre be­cause the au­thor­i­ties “will send us back to Bul­garia where again we will have to pay money” to smug­glers. Dar­wich, who said he is 17, started his jour­ney a year ago. It cost him 7,000 eu­ros ($7,380) ob­tained from the sale of his fam­ily’s land. Oth­ers fi­nance their jour­ney by sell­ing livestock or shops.

Some have tried to cross il­le­gally into Croa­tia or Hun­gary, which un­like Ser­bia are EU mem­ber states. “They caught us near the bor­der. They beat us and sent us back,” claims Ih­san Ul­lah, a 15-year-old Afghan. Ul­lah says Serbs treat them bet­ter. His de­sired des­ti­na­tion is Lon­don where he has an un­cle who has fi­nanced his odyssey.

‘We are stuck here’

It is not pos­si­ble to ver­ify whether their sto­ries that could en­able them to ob­tain refugee sta­tus are true. Afridi says that in Pak­istan he took part in po­lio vac­ci­na­tion cam­paigns that dis­pleased the Tale­ban. Hashim Zia-Ulhaq, trav­el­ling with his two younger broth­ers from eastern Afghanistan, claims that back home he was ac­cused of hav­ing worked for a road construction com­pany co­op­er­at­ing with West­ern­ers.

In any event the 25-year-old feels he had no other choice but to leave. “If I had a so­lu­tion to my prob­lems, would I have left my wife, my fouryear-old son, my mother and my father?” Un­like Afridi he is not count­ing on Christ­mas good­will. “Europe is not what it used to be. They were not treat­ing refugees like this,” he says.

“The attacks in France and Bel­gium made things worse .... We are stuck here.” Wrapped in a blan­ket, Mo­hamed Khan, a 23-year-old Pak­istani stu­dent speak­ing per­fect English, is angry. “Euro­peans can say that they are for hu­man rights. But, where are hu­man rights when it is mi­nus five, mi­nus seven, mi­nus 10” de­grees Cel­sius? Khan asked. He re­fuses to ex­plain why he left Pe­shawar in north­west­ern Pak­istan. “No­body leaves his coun­try with­out a rea­son,” he sim­ply says.


BEL­GRADE: Mo­hamed Dar­wich, a 17-year old mi­grant from Afghanistan, poses in a makeshift shel­ter at an aban­doned ware­house.

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