People smugglers are reportedly not tough to spot in Serbia, doing little to hide. They hang out in the parks and bars near the Belgrade train station and sell journeys through the Balkans to the northern portion of Europe. As PRI states, some can be seen flirting with bar tenders and taking shots while responding to calls on a number of different cellphones. Some are spotted in intense conversations with customers who are keen to use their services as travel agents, who are constantly doing business.
— Sam Dagher (@samdagher) March 30, 2016
Often their conversations involve mentions of their planned routes. Mainly mentioned terms are “Hungarian border,” or “Croatian border,” as the locations they intend to travel through the reach northern Europe. Families emerge and enter the meeting spot with dampened clothes after journeys to reach Belgrade.
It’s reported that last year alone, over 800,000 mainly Syrian refugees took boats from Turkey to the Greek Islands and then made the long journey up to southeastern Europe where they reached Germany and Sweden. The dangerous trek has been referred to as “the Balkan Route.”
However, on March 9, 2015, the Greece-Macedonia border was sealed off with razor wire and is now heavily guarded by police and military. Donald Tusk, European Council President announced that the Balkan path was closed to irregular migration. However, the closure, as he has become aware, has not stopped refugees discovering ways to enter Europe.
— Sirpa Nordlund (@senordlund) September 3, 2015
The publication notes that an average of 100 to 200 refugees enter Serbia daily and there are more than 6,300 who are stranded across the southeastern European country, as the United Nations relays. The route is now controlled by “transnational smuggling gangs that operate from Kabul to Berlin.”
One young man who has preferred to withhold his name in the story, states that he traveled thousands of miles through Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as Iran where he was forced to dodge soldiers and bullets. He made it to the Hungarian border but was rejected and sent back to Serbia. The 26-year-old shares that he now waits it out in a muddy stretch of land that has become known as “Afghan park,” and shares that the smugglers are evident all around.
“You can see the smugglers everywhere; everyone knows who they are,” he says. “There’s at least 20 just from Afghanistan. They charge 1,500 euros to go to Austria”
He has a family to support and it is too dangerous to return home.
“I started to get calls from the Taliban threatening to kill me. I asked the embassies for visas but they told me it would take two years — I can’t keep myself there for that long.”
The young man sleeps in an abandoned warehouse that sits along the river Danube. Twice a day he goes to a park where charity workers serve food to a lengthy line of those seeking asylum.
The publication shares about a shelter that is doing its part to assist the migrants.
” [H]umanitarian group Miksaliste — Serbian for ‘mixing place’ — is buzzing with activity. Its shelves are stocked with winter clothes, doctors attend to the sick and mothers rest with their kids. Children’s drawings adorn the walls. One picture depicts life in Afghanistan: Bullets fly in all directions from guns, tanks and helicopters. One figure standing beside the gunfire seems to be trying to tune it all out.”
Many of the young refugees are becoming caught up in the shady business of the smugglers, as stated by Albert Grain, a volunteer coordinator for the shelter.
“We all know who the smugglers are and many of the footmen are not above 20 years old. A lot of them ran out of money for their journey, so they work for a couple of months instead of paying for their next bit of travel. That’s very common. Since the border’s closed, the gangs built an empire here.”
Many minors are sent by their parents unaccompanied in hopes that they will find a better life, yet this presents an opportunity of a side business for the smugglers, as they engage in trafficking the minors and also extorting their families.
Where there is money to be made, the smugglers will make exceptions and due to the strict European border policies, minors and refugees of all ages are left stranded and left at the mercy of the smugglers.
[Feature Image by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]