On May 7th, the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees held a meeting with independent volunteer organizations and residents to announce that the barracks camp, located behind the Belgrade bus stop, would be evacuated and shut down in twenty days to make way for the controversial Belgrade Waterfront construction project. The migrants that remained staged a hunger strike on Tuesday. By Thursday, all 1,200 migrants, primarily from Afghanistan, had been removed from the area and sent to government-run refugee camps in Krnjaca, Sombor, and Sjenica, despite being told they had twenty days to leave.
While the Commissariat promised local media that everything would be done with transparency, a private pesticide company entered the barracks unannounced on Wednesday, May 10th. A video taken by a volunteer showed men in gas masks spraying the inside of the barracks which still held people inside as well as many personal belongings such as tents, clothes, and kitchen utensils.
The decision to shut down the camp was met with derision by both the migrants and the volunteer organizations—the latter which took to Facebook to criticize the decision after being ignored by local media.
“…The anxiety and uncertainty of the residents of the barracks could not be any greater. Since yesterday, buses are being loaded with people who, with no other choice, are being taken to mass refugee camps. Even a boy told us last night that, after being taken to the police station, he was forced to blindly sign the asylum request… Both the Serbian government and our governments in Europe refuse to listen to the refugees who have been trapped since the Balkan Route was closed more than a year ago…” – No Name Kitchen Belgrade
There was panic and confusion as the first buses arrived to relocate the migrants. Many were not sure where to register on the lists that had been distributed around the camp and would determine their next destination. In an update on their Facebook page, SolidariTea described, “We felt responsible for boys that help us run the tea project and worried for their future. There is a camp specifically for unaccompanied minors (under 16), but this information did not seem to reach them. Many young boys were boarding the buses to large camps where their minor status may be overlooked and their asylum claim jeopardized. These young boys are also continually at risk of abuse and human trafficking as they become lost within the system…”
SolidariTea explained that some of the major problems many migrants had with registering were not knowing their age and not having documents to prove their date of birth. “The commissariat have the power to make a judgment of age based on appearance. Without papers, no one can argue otherwise. Laughably, as we speak, post-it notes are being given out as ‘tickets’ for the bus to the minor camp…”
The Serbian Commissariat for Refugees claimed in the Sunday meeting that violence and crime among the refugees was a factor in the decision to close the camp down. These ranged from petty theft to more extreme incidents such as fights and stabbings. They state records have been kept of the more violent incidents through medical records that were made when the victims’ injuries were treated.
While there is anger towards the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees, many migrants at the camp have blamed Eagle Hills, a Middle Eastern development firm responsible for building the Belgrade Waterfront. They believe if it wasn’t for the project, they would be allowed to stay at the barracks without issue.
Robert Altermoser, an independent photojournalist who has spent four weeks at the camp, believes that the Belgrade Waterfront construction is being used as an excuse to remove the migrants from public view.
“In my opinion,” says Altermoser, “one of the biggest reasons they want to close the barracks is because summer is coming up and they’re concerned about the look of Belgrade. In the summer, a lot of people come through the bus station [which is near the camp] and they’ll most likely see many of the migrants.”
Altermoser explains that migrants are not confined to the camp and many walk around the local park and pitch tents in a nearby parking lot. “They’re [the Serbians] afraid of the situation… it looks weird to see so many migrants everywhere, but if you know these people, they’re no problem. 90% are completely normal young men here and maybe 10% are shit. That’s the case for most places.”
As of late, tensions have been rising among Serbians over the migrant situation. Many Serbians believe their government doesn’t have enough resources for their own citizens, let alone refugee migrants. They’ve also accused the migrants of crimes. The relocation of migrants has been occurring in other parts of the country, most recently in Sid where locals claimed they had safety concerns.
However, a small group of Serbians have shown support for the migrants. Last week, a counter protest against anti-migrant protestors was organized by the student organization SKOJ (League of Communist Youth of Yugoslavia) in front of the Economy University in downtown Belgrade. Students gathered together with the migrants holding up signs showing solidarity towards the migrants. One of the speakers at the event stated that the accusations of violence against the migrants was propaganda.
“…If one migrant attacked someone, your logic concludes that all migrants are responsible? What if one Serb raped another Serb? Do we conclude that all Serbians are rapists?”
So why do so many of the migrants choose to stay at the camp despite the poor conditions and political tensions? For most, it’s their best option. Many are afraid to go anywhere else and consider Serbia relatively safe compared to other places. They say they have faced violence at the hands of local authorities in Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria. Many also believe that registering for asylum in Serbia diminishes their chances of legally entering the EU.
The barracks also provide a point of contact with smugglers who can assist them in crossing the border, which has proven difficult recently due to policy changes in some EU countries such as Croatia. Hungary currently allows only ten people through on weekdays. Many migrants initially planned to go elsewhere after reaching Serbia but are now trapped in the country.
Written and Photographed by Milos Markicevic