Blog Post

Vanishing Act: The Disappearance of Refugee Aid in Belgrade

A surreal feeling washed over me as I entered the white building behind the city's main bus station for the first time. An abandoned, windowless place hidden in plain sight. Belgrade was all gray outside with winter fast approaching. I exhaled and it was the first day cold enough to see my breath. Inside the crumbling building, scarves stretching across window frames drenched the walls and faces of its inhabitants in a warm pink haze.

Migrant Amir Ali leads me through the building he lives in.

Migrants attempt to keep warm, despite near-freezing temperatures, under blankets given to them by local aid organizations.

After showing me around the building, Amir Ali translated for me the stories of fellow migrants.

In the months that they've been stuck in Serbia, waiting for the borders to open, over 1,000 migrants* have made a home for themselves in parks, parking lots, or in this structure, which many refer to as "the barracks."

According to the United Nations refugee agency, some 6,400 migrants are in Serbia, with 150 more arriving each day. While the majority live in camps, others, like those pictured here, weren't able to stay in camps because families tend to receive priority status -- a policy that makes these men some of the most vulnerable people along the Balkan Route.

Fabric is all that covers the missing window in this room.

Young migrants share a cigarette, a rare commodity in the barracks.

Although all unaccompanied minors are meant to be registered at camps, oftentimes they end up traveling and staying with these older men for protection or guidance. These migrants are mainly coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria. Those who could not afford to hire smugglers have arrived by foot. Exposure to the elements is only a fraction of their nightmare. Imprisonment, violence, sexual abuse, disease, and illness plague these men and children at every stage of their journey.

"If you pass from Turkey to Bulgaria, how they beat you is... impossible. With a stick, they bang you in the head," says Jon Ahmed, a refugee from Afghanistan. Then he pulls out his phone to show a picture of his friend's injury from their most recent attempt across the border. "We've been in Hungary two months ago, and the guys again they send us back here to Serbia. They send the dogs."

Jon Ahmed shows a photo of his friend after being attacked by a dog and assaulted by Hungarian police.

Though he arrived in Belgrade without family or friends, Ahmed, like many others, has found necessary community here. He shares a small room with others from Afghanistan, none of whom knew each other before leaving their home country.

He explains, "we help each other. I am 'The Big,' so if I say clean the house to everyone, they will clean the house. Like the father, like the big brother. Doing all together, no fighting, no bad things."

In sleeping, cooking, and cleaning together like any other family unit, these men are able to create structure and purpose in their daily lives. It's essential to have some work, no matter how small, to stave off thoughts of the growing uncertainty that surrounds them.

The abandoned white house directly next to the larger structure where most migrants sleep.

Before I arrived in Serbia, I knew of only two kinds of migrant motion here. The first was the fast-paced flooding of refugees through this country on their way to Western Europe. The second was the sudden halt of people when the EU shut its borders in spring of 2016. When I landed in Belgrade, I stepped into the crippling stagnancy that inevitably followed these closures. A total lack of movement defines the experiences of migrants here. Their makeshift housing location is directly adjacent to Belgrade's main transportation hub. The irony of this is not lost on any of them.

Belgrade's central distribution point for men and unaccompanied minors was a hut that stood in the colloquially named "Afghan Park" for the last two years. It was run by the refugee aid organization Info Park and served three meals every day to hundreds of migrants. However, at the end of October, the hut was shut down by municipal authorities.

It wasn't long until refugee aid organizations throughout the country were informed of the government's new proposal to place all migrants in camps. An official notice further explained that this would deem their distribution practices unacceptable. In a recent article, Balkan Insight reports "the Ministry of Labour and Employment on November 4th issued an open letter to all NGOs active in the field, banning them from distributing food and clothes to migrants outside legal camps, especially on the territory of Belgrade."

Though some praised the relocation plan, others, like Miodrag Ćakić, Chief Field Officer at Info Park, understood the new measures as the final push to officially remove these migrants from the public eye.

Teenage boys run to a blanket distribution in October, before the distributions were made illegal.

800 homeless migrants line up for a blanket distribution in October, before the distributions were made illegal.

"The Info Park hut was located near the bus station. So people arriving in Belgrade, the first sight they would see was a huge line of migrants waiting for food," Ćakić explains. "Now that’s not the case anymore. We still have the same problems, and the problems are even bigger, but as far as the public is concerned the problem is non-existent because it can’t be seen in the places people usually frequent."

Whatever the intent, the immediate result of suspending legal refugee aid in Belgrade is a dramatic escalation of fear and desperation among its migrant population.

As Ćakić tells me, "the crisis, especially in Belgrade, has reached its peak. Actually, it's at its peak right now. Every day the situation is getting worse and worse."

Migrants cook dinner inside the barracks after food distribution was made illegal.

Between 4 and 6 in the morning on November 10, 300 police officers, Gendarme, and members of the Special Anti-Terrorism Unit surrounded the barracks. While they wore helmets and other military gear, they did not exert physical force as the migrants responded peacefully, if not fearfully. Some people did run from the barracks, and one man fell from a roof trying to escape. He was treated for a broken leg at a Belgrade hospital. According to a report from Are You Syrious?, 109 people were put on buses and taken to Preševo Camp, in the south of Serbia, to be processed and, hopefully, taken care of for the remainder of their time in Serbia.

However, for many, the promise of life in a camp is not particularly promising. Many fear deportation to Bulgaria or Macedonia, and subsequently facing violence from police when they get there. Others say that, despite being considered the best camp in Serbia, Preševo "is a prison, not a camp." One young man even told me "I would rather die or go back to Pakistan than live [there]."

Their fears must be valid if they're willing to remain in these abysmal conditions. Life in the barracks is grim. Trash and human excrement are piled high in the gutters between the buildings. Smoke from fires built for warmth fill their lungs each night, often to the point of sickness. Body lice and scabies spread rapidly through this population, as no one can access showers. And, since legal distributions ceased, fights have even broken out over the scarcity of basic human necessities.

A group of migrants holds back one man from a fight. A sign of growing desperation in the barracks.

On November 11, a large group of migrants marched from Belgrade to the Croatian border in an attempt to cross safely into the EU, or, at the very least, have their voices heard. A few media outlets took notice. Otherwise, this march, like similar ones that preceded it, was futile. Many migrants were forced to return to Belgrade for medical care due to the cold; others turned back on their own after failing to make it across the border.

One thing that that every migrant has in common with the Serbian government is their wish to freely cross into Croatia or Hungary. Serbia can't control the EU's border policies, so it is left to deal with the fallout of this crisis (and with far less resources than much of Europe). Migrants have no say in their own destinies, so they are left to wait in fear, unable to sleep and unable to move forward.

Every time I visit the park or barracks, multiple migrants ask when the border will open. My answer is always the same: "I don't know. I have no power. I'm sorry." When I chatted recently with Jon Ahmed, the Afghan refugee, he responded: "You have power. You have power." I looked down shaking my head, but he didn't allow me to resign myself to hopelessness. "You have your story," he told me. "Your camera: That's your big power."

Young migrants converse in the barracks at night.

*Migrant(s) refers to all refugees, displaced peoples, and/or asylum-seekers who have fled their home countries.

Christiana Botic is a documentary photographer and filmmaker as well as a 2016-2017 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow. She is spending 9 months in Serbia and Croatia exploring the complex relationship between geography and identity in the region through still and moving images. "This project was born out of my desire to understand the place where my father emigrated from, as well as my family's history of migration throughout former-Yugoslavia, Botic explains. "It has grown into a more expansive look at how the movement of peoples impacts the modern cultural landscapes of this region. Before beginning this adventure, I was working as a freelance filmmaker, photographer, and writer (in addition to a handful of ever-humbling jobs) in New Orleans." Follow along @christianabotic on Instagram.

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