The border closures in the Western Balkans this year have left people on the move even more vulnerable than before. The measures have not stopped people from seeking a life in safety and dignity, but has forced them to resort to more dangerous options, such as turning to smugglers, a new report shows.
Following the border shutdowns, aiming to close the Western Balkans route from Greece to Central Europe, thousands of refugees and other migrants are now in legal limbo and often end up in degrading living conditions.
These men, women and children have already endured considerable hardship: they have witnessed the loss of loved ones, experienced multiple displacements, and now find themselves stranded at transit points, exposed to appalling abuse and lacking much needed assistance.
Often faced with unlawful push-backs and denial of their fundamental rights, they are not receiving sufficient care and support from authorities. This is particularly true for women and children, who make up over half of the people moving through the region.
Neglect of the right to seek asylum
With our partners, we have collected first-hand testimonies in Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which testify to unlawful push-backs of people across borders, the outright neglect of the right to seek asylum and ill-treatment at the hands of security forces.
Many reports across the two Balkan countries have shown that the reception systems, which provide people on the move with both accommodation and support to demand asylum, fall way below international standards and have often proven insufficient to meet people’s basic needs. As a consequence, even those migrants who would have stayed in the region try to move on to other parts of Europe.
In their desperation, exacerbated by the impossibility to seek safe and legal routes, children, women, and men are increasingly turning to smugglers as their only available option to reach a hopefully safe place.
A 27-year old Afghan woman, who has arrived from Bulgaria with her family, tells of her dreadful journey at the hand of smugglers:
“We were starving for days, without water, wet and exhausted […]. We paid to be driven to Serbia, and that is when [the smugglers] separated us […]. We arrived in Serbia but it is hard, because my husband and youngest children are not with me. We did not sleep for nights, we prayed for them just to be alive.”
In order to pay for the journey ahead, or to simply survive, many have been lured into exploitative networks, forced into prostitution or subjected to abduction.
A 17-year-old Syrian girl describes the horrific threats faced by women on their journey to Serbia:
“In Macedonia, we tried to make contact with the smugglers, but as we did not have enough money, they suggested taking us to Serbia in exchange for sex with women in our group. We were terrified because they were armed”.
The Balkan countries have also failed children who are fleeing conflict and poverty on their own. Not receiving from authorities the protection to which they are entitled, many unaccompanied migrant children go missing from reception centers, which exposes them to the risk of ill-treatment and trafficking.
Europe must fulfill its obligations
We and our partners are working in the region to assist people on the move. We have been focusing on providing information about the legal options available, including the right to seek asylum. However, the overall context of border closures has made it extremely difficult to reach out to those most in need.
To fulfill their obligations towards vulnerable people, we are calling on Europe and the Balkan countries to come up with a coordinated approach that places at its core the respect and promotion of people’s rights and their dignity.
This includes dignified accommodation and reception that is up to international standards, accessible asylum systems, and adequate support to victims of violence and other vulnerable persons, particularly women and unaccompanied children.