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Press Release

Refugees at risk of exploitation in the Balkans

As EU leaders gather for Western Balkan Summit, NGO coalition reminds them of needs of refugees stranded along Balkan route



The EU-Western Balkans summit will take place in Sofia, Bulgaria, on 17 May 2018. EU Heads of State are convening with their counterparts from the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Kosovo) to further strengthen the EU-Western Balkans relationship and discuss cooperation in several areas, including migration and security.

In response to increased arrivals of refugees and migrants to both the Western Balkans and the EU in recent years, the issue of border control has gained prominence. This has resulted in more investments and cooperation agreements between the EU and Western Balkan countries.

At the same time, refugees and migrants, including vulnerable groups such as children, continue to face serious risks while crossing borders in the Western Balkans and in the EU. These risks include violence, repeated pushbacks and collective expulsions.


International Rescue Committee’s Balkans Country Director, Gordana Ivkovic Grujic, said:

“Refugees are facing multiple risks. They are stranded along the Balkan route with limited legal options to move on. As a result, they are susceptible to exploitation by both smugglers and traffickers. Refugees don’t fit the typical profile of a trafficking victim and because of this, they often fall through the cracks. They are at risk, whichever way they turn.”

Danish Refugee Council’s country director in Serbia, Marina Cremonese, said:

The closure of the so called Western Balkan route resulted in the prolonged stay of thousands of persons in the region, almost third of them children, dealing with deteriorating psychological conditions and exposed to risks of smuggling, trafficking and SGBV. Further long-term efforts are needed to continue the invaluable assistance by the Governments and civil sector, focusing on proper access to protection, education, healthcare including mental healthcare, social services. “

Oxfam’s Advocacy Officer, Jovana Arsenijević, said:

“Asylum seekers, especially women and children, risk sexual abuse and trafficking as they flee conflict at home and seek a safe haven in Europe. The Western Balkan states and the EU must work together to protect the people who are crossing borders, and to make sure everyone can exercise their right to seek asylum and to be safe from harm. “

Save the Children’s Programme Director, Balkans Migrations and Displacement Hub, Jelena Besedic, said:

“Children are the most exposed to beatings and ill-treatment both by smugglers and border guards. Families with young children are forced to walk for days and sleep outside in devastating conditions. Pushbacks across borders are widespread. It’s time for both EU and Western Balkan countries to stop transferring responsibility for asylum-seekers and put protection of people, and especially children, first.”


Stories from the field:

Danish Refugee Council:

Photos: https://wetransfer.com/downloads/b38a4484ced1ca62dae861bceec2c9e020180511111539/17b7e1acacb89c82778acd9bd77ecda220180511111539/59fca6

  • Lukman Family, 13 members (Iraq) participating in transition center workshops.

The Kurdish family Lukman started their journey in 2016 from the city Zakho in Iraq. They arrived in Serbia from Bulgaria and were so far hosted in two government lead centres, waiting their turn to cross to Hungarian transit zone. In January 2018, the thirteenth member of the family was born in Sombor Transit Center in Serbia. While they spend their days in uncertainty, hoping to join their relatives in Germany, Hamed Lukman tends to keep himself occupied participating in various activities in the transit center, such as the sewing workshops and assisting center management.  Hamed and his wife, Sharvin, try to adapt the conditions in the center as close as it gets to home and their children participate in educational and recreational activities provided by the organisations within the center.

  • Babakarkhil Family, 8 members (Afghanistan) receiving access to the Serbian national health-care system.

The Babakarkhil family arrived in Krnjaca Asylum Center in Belgrade, Serbia in December 2016 and has been there since. Their clandestine journey started 2 years ago and took them through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and eventually, Serbia. One of the six children, little Ali (7 years old), suffers from cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus. He was operated on in Afghanistan. While accommodated in Krnjaca Asylum Center, Ali and his family have access to the Serbian national health-care system. Ali is regularly attending educational and recreational activities within the Child Friendly Space in the center and is regularly monitored by medical and child protection teams. He was provided with necessary wheelchair, as well as needed medications.


Refugee Aid Serbia (partner organization of Oxfam in Serbia):

  • 24-year-old Iranian and his friend playing a push-back game with the Hungarian border police.

“Seven days ago, my friend, whom I met in Bujanovac, Serbia, and I tried to play a “game” to get across the border to Hungary. Late at night one young guy who works with smugglers guided us to a hole in the fence and helped us across to Hungary. We planned to walk during the night and sleep during the day but Hungarian police caught us after about 10 kilometres. They behaved very rudely to us. First, they searched us – they threw out everything in our backpacks and searched our mobiles and wallets. Then they asked us to tell them where exactly we had entered into Hungary so that they could drive us to the exact same spot. When we explained where, they handcuffed us and put us in a police van. While we had the handcuffs on, a police officer slapped me in the face several times. Another police officer kicked my friend on his legs. Before we left Hungary, they returned all our belongings to us. My friend returned to Bujanovac and I decided to go to Belgrade. Now I want to try a “game” to Bosnia. I have heard that the police is good there.”

Save the Children:

Photos: https://www.dropbox.com/s/ks8ix1rgma01er0/Refugees%20and%20Migrants%20in%20Serbia_photos_Save%20the%20Children.zip?dl=0

  • Hadi* (15, Afghanistan) and his two friends, also minors, got into a back of a cargo truck in Serbia, hoping to reach Italy.

“When we were around 100 kilometers into Slovenian territory, the driver started suspecting that someone’s in the vehicle and called the police. Not long after the call, seven officers arrived. They opened the back door, found me, because I was hiding under the boxes in the front, and roughly pulled me out. The officers asked if I was alone, and I said I was. They searched a bit but didn’t find others. Five of them started hitting me, firstly with their fists, and then with their elbows. Other two officers – one was a woman, and other one was a bit older man – insisted that they stopped hitting me, but the group of five disregarded it. After I fell on the ground, they continued kicking me. I was angry, and I cried, because I wanted to confront them and stand for myself, but I couldn’t. After that they drove me to the border with Croatia, and handed me over to the Croatian police, who then transferred me to the border with Serbia, opened the door and said – now go back to Serbia.”

  • Erez*, father of 10, travelled with his family from Iraq to Serbia with smugglers. This Kurdish family crossed Bulgaria mostly on foot.

“In Bulgaria, we connected with a smuggler to cross to Serbia. It was winter, and the snow was very high. He took us through remote areas and forests, and then he left us in a middle of nowhere. Three days we wandered around, alone, and then we came across Serbian police patrol. They took us to a police station, gave us water and some food, and then they accompanied us back to the border. We begged them not to send us back to the forest and snow, but they said we have to go. My youngest child was 2 years old. We walked through snow back to Bulgaria… After 4 months in a refugee centre in Bulgaria, we found another smuggler and crossed to Serbia again, this time successfully.”

  • After spending 5 months in a refugee centre in Serbia, Aziza (15, Afghanistan), her father and sister (17) tried to continue the journey by crossing the border with Croatia.

“We crossed the border on our own. Not long after that, the Croatian police intercepted us and sent us back. We returned to Belgrade. My father was exhausted from the journey, so he fell in the street, hitting his head heavily. He had to be taken to the ambulance where they sutured his wound. Five days after that, we tried crossing again. Father fainted in the forest. We left to find the police. They called the ambulance. We were immediately sent back to Serbia, so we returned to Belgrade on our own. Father was kept in an ambulance until he recovered, and then sent back to Serbia the day after.”

  • Yezidi family from Iraq, travelling with three children (12, 13, 14) tried to cross the Serbian-Romanian border in a group of 30 people.

“We were caught by the Romanian police patrol. They were rough and rude, pushing us around, taking away money and phones. From us they took around 2,000 EUR, from one man from Iran they took 800 EUR. One woman from the group fell when they pushed her, and hurt her eye. After they took our possessions, they pushed us back to Serbia.”

  • Family from Iran travelling with two children (9 and 16) arrived in Belgrade by plane and continued instantly to the border with Romania.

“Romanian police seized the whole group, 12 of us. They beat men, took away the passports. And pushed us back to Serbia. In a Serbian village we were caught by the Serbian police patrol, which refused to register us, but issued cancellations of the stay documents instead. We returned to Belgrade, looking for a way to be registered.”

  • Kurdish family from Iraq is travelling with a child (4) and a 9 months’ pregnant woman from Iraq who joined them for a company. They all arrived in Romania from Turkey, on a boat, and spent 5 months in closed facilities to which they refer as the prison.

“When Romanian police was releasing us from the prison, they asked us if we want to seek asylum. We confirmed, but they issued cancelation of stay instead. We had to leave Romania in 25 days, so we went to Hungary. We crossed successfully, but we were seized by the Hungarian police and expelled to Serbia.”

  • Two boys from Afghanistan have been roaming through Western Balkans for over a year, trying to reach Western Europe.

“In Bulgaria, our group was intercepted by police patrol near the border with Turkey. We started running, but they opened fire at us. I believe they didn’t mind killing us. Then the reinforcement arrived with dogs, releasing them. Some people got bitten. Policemen, 6 of them, approached each person from the group, one by one, and beat us with their hands and batons, without asking were there any minors, and there were 10 of us. Then they pushed us back to Turkey.

“In Croatia, two policemen caught our group of 12 people, amongst whom 4 were minors. They didn’t ask us if we were children. They beat us using their hands, foot, batons.”

Joint NGO Policy Statement: https://oxf.am/2G6Twby

As more and more refugees and migrants arrive into the Western Balkans, the issue of border control is increasingly discussed. On 17 May 2018, the EU-Western Balkans summit in Sofia is a chance for Heads of State to discuss cooperation in several areas, including migration and security.

We want to remind leaders that refugees and migrants, particularly women and children, face serious risks while crossing borders, including sexual violence and human trafficking. Protecting borders should not come at the expense of protecting people.

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 29 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue-uk.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.