By MARKO DJURICA / REUTERS
Toronto Star Published on Sun Dec 01 2013
BOGOVADJA, SERBIA—With winter approaching, hundreds of asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East are living in a forest in Serbia without access to basic amenities, a sign of the Balkan state’s failure to tackle a rising tide of migration.
A few have tents, while others have taken over woodland shacks. Many have only clothing to cover themselves at night and log fires for heat and cooking.
All have legally sought asylum, but the country’s two asylum centres — which hold 250 people — are full. With around 300 living rough so far, rights groups have expressed growing alarm and say the problem will only worsen as more arrive.
“This needs to be addressed now,” said Nils Muiznieks, human rights commissioner at the Council of Europe. “Winter is coming and somebody could become seriously ill or die in the cold.”
The number of people seeking asylum in Serbia has shot up from 52 in 2008 to almost 4,000 this year.
The turmoil of the Arab Spring has fed a rise in the numbers, notably from Syria, where a civil war has killed more than 100,000 people.
“This is a humanitarian crisis,” said Rados Djurovic, head of the Asylum Protection Centre in Belgrade. “Most of them have sought asylum — and the state is obliged to provide them with accommodation.”
“No one can tell me Serbia doesn’t have the capacity right now to find 200, 300 beds, in a barracks or a school.”
In the village of Bogovadja, some 60 kilometres south of the capital Belgrade, there are now as many asylum seekers as villagers, some 170 inside the asylum centre and even more living in what they refer to as “the jungle.”
They each receive one meal per day at the centre.
“We can’t sleep at night, it’s very cold,” said Ziad Hussein, a 22-year-old student who said he was from the Syrian city of Homs. “We don’t have money to eat and in the camp they give us one meal a day. We don’t die in Syria, we die here.”
Syrians made up the single largest group of asylum seekers in Serbia in the first half of this year, the vast majority fleeing by foot into Turkey, then Greece, where migrants have become increasingly unwelcome amid an unprecedented recession.
From Greece many now head north into Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic with which Athens has poor ties and police cooperation is weak. From Macedonia they cross into Serbia, usually by night.
If caught, most immediately request asylum, which should guarantee them temporary accommodation and identification papers until their case is processed.
The issue, however, is a hot potato for political parties.
Government attempts to build a third asylum centre, funded by the European Union, have stalled.
One location was earmarked, but residents protested “and the government gave up,” Djurovic said.
Serbia, which drove nearly a million ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo in the late 1990s and is still recovering from isolation over that war and the earlier Bosnian conflict, rarely grants asylum.
But processing a request can take anywhere from five months to a year, far longer than in EU countries.
Serbia’s Commissariat for Refugees and Migration, which deals with asylum seekers on behalf of the government, said attempts to find private housing for those living in the forest had failed.
“The local authorities threatened those who wanted to make their homes available for asylum seekers, so we got no responses,” said spokeswoman Jelena Maric told Reuters.
“This is a great shame on Serbia. The EU will probably criticize us for this, and they have every right to do so. We’ve been trying to open an asylum centre for two years.”
Serbia expects to begin talks in January on joining the EU, though it is unlikely to become a member before 2020.
Djurovic warned that without a long-term strategy, the problem would only worsen with the growing number of migrants.
“Serbia is the last lighthouse on that route to (Europe’s borderless) Schengen zone, the last wall between them and the long-held dream of Europe.”