REFUGEES SPURN HELP­ING HAND

Thou­sands balk at Ser­bian asy­lum cen­ters, want­ing to set­tle in other Euro­pean na­tions

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Zor­ica Lon­car

In re­cent months, Ser­bian au­thor­i­ties have tried to pro­vide shel­ter, food and med­i­cal care to thou­sands of refugees from the Mid­dle East, Asia and Africa camp­ing within its bor­ders.

The new­com­ers don’t want any of it.

This coun­try is be­com­ing the Calais of the Balkans, a ref­er­ence to the north­ern French city where refugees live in limbo while await­ing ei­ther de­por­ta­tion, asy­lum or the con­tin­u­a­tion of their jour­neys in hope of land­ing in a more wel­com­ing Euro­pean coun­try.

“I tried to leave Serbia 17 times,” said Jawad Afzali, 17, an Afghan who has lived for the past six months with 1,500 other Afghan, Iraqi and Pak­istani mi­grants in aban­doned ware­houses and a tent vil­lage that sprung up be­hind the bus sta­tion.

“Ev­ery time, they bring me back here,” he said. “Two days ago, I tried to en­ter Croa­tia. Now I’m here again.”

“Ev­ery time, they bring me back here. Two days ago, I tried to en­ter Croa­tia. Now I’m here again.” Jawad Afzali, 17, an Afghan in Serbia

“We don’t sleep at night be­cause we don’t know when po­lice will come and take us away.” Fur­man Ali, 25, of Pak­istan

Afzali is one of 7,000 refugees stuck in Serbia since the Euro­pean mi­grant cri­sis erupted two years ago in this eco­nom­i­cally strug­gling coun­try. His plight un­der­scores the clash be­tween pol­icy and re­al­ity for the mi­grants.

Bul­garia, Hun­gary and other Euro­pean Union mem­bers that bor­der Serbia, which is not part of the 28- na­tion al­liance, have closed their bor­ders to refugees seek­ing to es­cape war and eco­nomic stag­na­tion in Syria and else­where. They want to move to Ger­many, Britain and other wealthy Euro­pean coun­tries in the north.

Some of those coun­tries adamantly refuse to take them. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion said last week that it would file suit against Poland, Hun­gary and the Czech Repub­lic for fail­ing to take their share of refugees as part of a plan in 2015 to dis­trib­ute 160,000 mi­grants stuck in limbo in Italy and Greece across the Euro­pean Union. Other coun­tries such as Swe­den and Ger­many are tight­en­ing re­stric­tions for asy­lum and in­creas­ing de­por­ta­tions.

More mi­grants con­tinue to ar­rive, mainly to Italy and Greece: 75,000 have made the sea cross­ing since Jan­uary, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions refugee agency.

In Serbia, about 6,000 refugees are in of­fi­cial asy­lum re­cep­tion cen­ters that pro­vide ed­u­ca­tion and other ser­vices, said Ne­nad Ivani­se­vic, the state sec­re­tary at the Ser­bian Min­istry of La­bor, Em­ploy­ment and So­cial Is­sues. He said some refugees aren’t in­ter­ested in go­ing to the cen­ters.

“Serbia is ready to ac­cept a cer­tain num­ber of peo­ple and could of­fer them a full sup­port for their in­te­gra­tion into Ser­bian so­ci­ety, but the refugees don’t want that,” Ivani­se­vic said. He said Serbia seeks more in­ter­na­tional fund­ing for refugee pro­grams, in ad­di­tion to the $ 55 mil­lion the EU has given.

Oth­ers said refugees fear they won’t be able to leave the cen­ters. In most Euro­pean coun­tries, refugees usu­ally must stay in the coun­try where they ini­tially ar­rived. As a re­sult, a com­mon prac­tice since 2015 is for refugees to avoid reg­is­ter­ing or pro­vid­ing fin- ger­prints, so they can reach their de­sired coun­try in Europe and won’t be or­dered to re­turn to the na­tion where they first ar­rived.

That puts mi­grants in a catch- 22, said Kais Ay­oubi of the Real Medicine Foun­da­tion, a U. S.based char­ity that pro­vides health care to refugees in Serbia.

“The sit­u­a­tion here is aw­ful,” Ay­oubi said. Mi­grants lack clean wa­ter, toi­lets or elec­tric­ity — and they burn garbage and tires to keep warm in the win­ter, which harms their lungs, he said. “These peo­ple didn’t want to reg­is­ter with the au­thor­i­ties; there­fore, they don’t get help from the state.”

The po­lit­i­cal cli­mate doesn’t help. In April, Prime Min­is­ter Alek­san­dar Vu­cic won the Ser­bian pres­i­den­tial elec­tion with 55% of the vote. He has pledged not to build a wall or close Serbia’s bor­ders, like Hun­gary, but he re­peat­edly vowed not to let the coun­try be­come a “park­ing lot for il­le­gal im­mi­grants.”

In May, the govern­ment be­gan to empty the aban­doned ware­houses be­hind Belgrade’s bus sta­tion and re­lo­cate refugees to of­fi­cial asy­lum cen­ters across the coun­try. The makeshift camp had be­come a fo­cal point for peo­ple smug­glers and a health haz­ard, so the mi­grants will get bet­ter pro­tec­tion in the cen­ters, the govern­ment said.

Many refugees are con­cerned they will be locked in the cen­ters and un­able to leave.

Fur­man Ali, 25, a Pak­istani who wants to go to Italy, said the fear of be­ing moved, in ad­di­tion to wor­ries of be­ing de­ported, sets ev­ery­one on edge.

“We don’t sleep at night be­cause we don’t know when po­lice will come and take us away,” said Ali, who has been liv­ing in the camp be­hind the bus sta­tion since Jan­uary. “Peo­ple fight ev­ery day. Some­times ev­ery 10 min­utes, some­times for no rea­son.”

MUHAMMED MUHEISEN, AP

A 14- year- old un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nor from Afghanistan show­ers near an old train car in Fe­bru­ary in Belgrade, Serbia, where he and other mi­grants took refuge. Many refugees want to move to Ger­many, Britain or other more pros­per­ous coun­tries.

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