Refugee and migrant children injured in illegal border push-backs across Balkans
Average 30 cases a day of unlawful and clandestine push-backs into Serbia
“The police beat us, took our clothes and boots and then pushed us back.”
Aalem, Afghanistan, 12.
The EU-Turkey deal has spelled a deadlier land route for refugees crossing the Balkans, with children experiencing harsh weather conditions, dog bites and violent treatment by both police and smugglers as they cross mountains and forests in sub-zero temperatures.
In the last two months, 1,600 cases of illegal push-backs from Hungary and Croatia have been alleged by refugees and migrants, who’ve been forced - often violently - back into Serbia, despite already crossing its border.  An average 30 cases a day of unlawful and clandestine push-backs highlights a disregard for the human right to an individual assessment of the need for international protection.  Save the Children estimates that there are up to 100 newly arriving refugees and migrants in Serbia every day, and is supporting the government to refurbish safe spaces and support services which prioritise lone children. About 46% of refugee and migrant arrivals in Serbia are children and 20% of these children are unaccompanied and travelling alone, some as young as eight and nine years old.
Teenage boys at Miksaliste (the 24/7 refugee Aid Hub in Belgrade where Save the Children and many charities are working), who have been returned from the borders, report police brutality as a regular occurrence along the Balkans land route.
A 12 year old from Afghanistan told Save the Children: “During the trip I had many problems especially in the woods. The Bulgarian police beat us, took our money, asked us why we came to Europe. We also had problems with the Mafia.”
One Iraqi family, who arrived at Miksaliste early morning, had crossed the mountains on the Bulgarian border in the snow the previous night, carrying their 8-year-old daughter. The mother needed urgent medical attention on arrival. They fled Iraq when their house was bombed and the children could no longer attend school because of ISIS.
Jelena Besedic, Save the Children’s Advocacy Manager in Serbia said: “In truth the refugee crisis has not abated. It’s simply a more dangerous route, especially for children. The EU-Turkey deal has given smugglers a firmer grip on a hugely profitable business, incorporating increasingly dangerous tactics to circumvent authorities. We are seeing injuries such as dog bites and people wounded by brutal treatment as they are pushed back.”
Refugees and migrants are being forced further underground, often using people smugglers, and increasingly out of the reach of aid agencies’ efforts to provide basic and life-saving humanitarian assistance.
More than 1,000 people are still sleeping rough in the centre of Belgrade, and with up to 100 additional people a day to cater for, shelter capacity has become overstretched. Even when space becomes available in asylum centres, migrants and refugees are anxious to move, fearing that they will be detained in centres indefinitely, or deported illegally.
Save the Children outreach teams have met unaccompanied children, one as young as eight years old, too frightened to get on the bus to the new reception centres. This vicious circle is exacerbated by the smugglers who work on a system of fear and myth, operating in the abandoned warehouse behind Belgrade’s train station. Misinformation about the asylum system is spread by smugglers, who prefer migrants to be accessible to their profitable network.
This week, Serbian authorities made additional temporary space available to get people off the snowy streets and into shelter, but it is still far from enough to meet the needs of people who are sleeping rough. Charities and local health services are responding to cases of frostbite and respiratory illnesses caused by freezing people lighting fires of rubbish to keep warm in the windowless, wet warehouses. Distributions of food, warm clothes and shoes have been strongly discouraged by the authorities outside official shelters alleging they serve as a pull factor to stay in squats and abandoned buildings.
Save the Children is calling for the EU to urgently help by increasing funding for emergency shelters and for the Serbian authorities to support provision of life-saving assistance for those waiting to be relocated to official shelters. In the longer term, safe and legal routes for migration must be made available, including family reunification, resettlement, humanitarian visas, private sponsorship, all of which constitute the best way to combat smuggling along the route, which is an increasingly fatal last resort. Unaccompanied children remain the most vulnerable, so Save the Children continues to identify and prioritise helping these children.
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Notes to editors:
Asylum centres: This week, the authorities have opened a new centre, 20km away from Belgrade, in Obrenovac. There are only about 450 available spaces (according to the Government) but there are more than 1,000 people still sleeping rough (including many children). Some of the official centres are not fit for winter conditions.
New arrivals: Numbers sleeping rough has increased despite the freezing weather. Save the Children estimates up to 100 people are still arriving daily, including the 30 daily alleged push backs. On top of the approximately 1,000 people still sleeping rough in the abandoned warehouse behind Belgrade train station. 6,200 refugees and migrants are currently stranded across Serbia. 10 people a working day are leaving because they are legally allowed to cross into Hungary.
Push-backs: Since November 30th 2016: UNHCR report documenting 1,324 push backs from Hungary to Serbia, 317 from Croatia to Serbia and we also estimate that 634 from Serbia to FRYOM (Macedonia).
Charity restrictions: The government in Serbia has requested all humanitarian agencies not to provide any assistance to those outside official centres (limiting access to them by NGOs) because it allegedly creates a pull factor for Belgrade and diminishes the willingness of refugees and migrants to register and move to official centres. Many have no gloves or proper shoes and cases of frostbite have been reported. Hygiene is also shockingly poor, with improvised toilets and spots for waste disposal located near where the refugees and migrants sleep, eat and spend their time.
Unaccompanied children still sleeping rough: Save the Children has met children as young as eight years old sleeping in the abandoned warehouse alone because they are scared to register for access to the official shelters. They are either waiting to hear if the asylum centre is an open or a locked detention centre (because they've experience of being locked up in previous countries en route) or they are waiting for the smugglers to alert them to the next opportunity to cross into Hungary (often misinformed by smugglers they will not be able to continue if they reallocate in the centres). A 13-year-old has waited for 3 months in the toxic warehouse with no word. Only 10 people every working day are allowed to cross the Hungarian border legally, which is why the majority rely on smugglers to continue.
About 46% of refugee and migrant arrivals are children and 20% of these children are unaccompanied, travelling alone.
Our data (using December 2016 figures) shows that more than 75% of unaccompanied minors come from Afghanistan, around 10% from Syria, and Iraq, Pakistan, and other countries. These percentages can vary slightly (lately we had a surge of Iraqis). 98-99% of unaccompanied children are boys and 1-2% are particularly vulnerable girls.
Save the Children in Serbia:
Save the children has supported the Serbian government by helping to refurbish shelters for unaccompanied minors (the capacity of shelters for lone children has now increased by 65% but remains woefully insufficient).
The charity is also paying the salaries of 65 new social workers to help create a safety net, whereby outreach workers can identify lone children, refer them to social workers and get them into shelters faster.
Save the Children also works in some of the camps and outside in urban areas to assist children with registration or seeking asylum (accompanying them to the police station to register for a space in the asylum centres, helping with translation and legal advice) but also providing lifesaving essential items when needed.
In Miksaliste, together with other charities, Save the Children runs a 24/7 drop-in centre for new arrivals to provide immediate life-saving assistance for those waiting to be registered and accommodated in official shelters. The service includes a youth space and child friendly corner, providing psychosocial support through creative activities, which helps children overcome difficult experiences.
UNHCR in Serbia: latest joint agency meeting: 1,300 alleged push backs from Hungary reported plus 300 from Croatia into Serbia since 30th November 2016.
1,600 push-backs since 30 November 2016 = 54 days = 29.6 cases a day.
Save the Children Serbia estimates that up to 100 people continue to arrive in Serbia every day. This includes the average 30 a day illegally pushed back from borders and excludes those that can legally cross into Hungary (10 people allowed to cross to Hungary every working day).
UNHCR and Save the Children Serbia estimates for Jan 2017.