Fleeing nearly four decades of continuous war and a recent resurgence in terrorist violence and U.S. airstrikes at home, many refugees from Afghanistan remain stranded in Serbia with little hope of ever being granted asylum in the EU.
Emerging from the darkness of an abandoned warehouse in Belgrade’s “new Berlin” nightlife district into the ugly light of day, my eyes sting and lungs burn. I feel like rubber bands have been wrapped around my brain. I have inhaled so much smoke and so many toxic chemicals inside the warehouse that I suddenly feel an unnatural heaviness hit me. There’s an uncomfortable pressure in my head. A dry itch settles in at the back of my throat. It takes 12 hours for it to go away.
There are currently 1,000 refugees staying in the dilapidated warehouses behind Belgrade’s main train station in the neighborhood of Savamala, according to the latest information available from the UNCHR. Nearly all of the refugees in the freezing railway depot are fleeing the escalating conflict in Afghanistan. It’s been so cold in the warehouses that there have been numerous cases of severe frostbite. Refugees burn any kind of wood, scrapped railway sleepers, and even materials containing plastics in an attempt to stay warm and stay alive. These fires are what create the toxic smoke. As you approach the warehouses from behind Belgrade’s railway station, you can already feel it in your eyes, nose, lungs and brain. Most of the refugees from Afghanistan have been living in the warehouses in Savamala for several months, inhaling the toxic smoke each day, breathing it in as they sleep.
There are an estimated 7,000 refugees in Serbia, according to a newly released country report published by the Asylum Information Database. About two weeks ago, Serbian authorities opened a new 450-bed asylum center in Obrenovac, 20 km from central Belgrade. But many refugees sleeping in the freezing warehouses are wary of moving into the government centers. Smugglers operating out of the Savamala train depot are said to have spread rumors that if refugees move into an official center, they’ll be locked up and detained in Serbia indefinitely, or deported back to Bulgaria or Macedonia. And since the end of November, 634 refugees have been pushed back from Serbia to Macedonia. Smugglers are aware of the profits they stand to make from refugees desperate to enter the EU. They reportedly keep refugees under their control through occasional threats of violence, fear and by lying about Serbia’s asylum procedures. Most of all, they promise them eventual passage into Hungary or Croatia. Few of them stand a chance of ever getting in. Save the Children reports that in the last two months, 1,200 refugees have been illegally pushed back to Serbia from Croatia and Hungary despite having already crossed their borders.
The inside of the long warehouses is pitch black. The only illumination comes from a few scattered flames burning toxic flammable things in barrels. Inky smoke almost cancels out the pale flames. Walking through I feel like a voyeur. A French film crew with very expensive camera equipment is getting some footage. The floors are scattered with garbage, stray wooden planks and exhausted, poisoned pubescent boys, many of them covered in a thin layer of black soot. Everyone is coughing. Some sit and stare and rock back and forth. An estimated 100 new refugees continue to arrive in Serbia each day.
Contrary to much of the imagery published in the media early on in the migration crisis, the majority of people who’ve made it to Serbia are men. The new Asylum Information Database report says that 71 percent are men. Stanford anthropologist Liisa H. Malkii has said that visual representations of refugees tend to be dominated by “portrayals of a single woman or child refugee.” She suggests that this “visual prominence of women and children as the embodiments of refugeeness …has to do with the institutional expectation of a certain kind of helplessness as a refugee characteristic.”
Salman, a 14-year-old from Kabul, tells me that he’d been staying behind the train station for four months. The entire journey to Serbia from Kabul took him nine months to complete. From Afghanistan he traveled to Iran, then on through Turkey, then to Bulgaria where he says police officers and “the mafia” made him pay bribes along the way. He described “walking through the jungle” and finally arriving in Serbia, what he’d hoped would be his final country before reaching the EU. But Salman said he had made three attempts to cross the Hungarian border. Each time he was refused and forcibly sent back to Serbia. One day, he said, he hoped to reach England. Salman shows me his room which is packed with other young teens sleeping under blackened blankets. One of Salman’s cousins plays music from Afghanistan for me on a cheap phone. I imagine everyone I talk to has spoken with plenty of people like me. I also imagine that people like me are all taking the same photos.
I ask Salman about Kabul. He tells me about running from the Taliban and about witnessing regular bombings throughout his life.
I’m reminded of the first day of the War on Terror, which officially began with the U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan. The war started before Salman was even born — on October 7th, 2001. I vaguely remember watching George W. Bush’s special televised address that day.
“Now the Taliban will pay a price,” Bush said then. “Today we focus on Afghanistan, but the battle is broader. We will not falter. We will not fail. Peace and freedom will prevail.”
But peace and freedom did not prevail. A new Pentagon report reveals that 20 terrorist groups, including ISIS, are now operating in Afghanistan. It notes that “the Taliban and other insurgents have gained territory over the past two years,” and now control almost 40 percent of the country. At no time since before the 2001 American invasion of Afghanistan have the Taliban controlled more territory in the country. And terrorist groups were responsible for 11,000 civilian casualties in 2015.
In January, Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said that Helmand Province, the largest in the country, was in grave danger of falling completely under Taliban control. The United Nations said Sunday that last week’s U.S. airstrikes on positions in southern Afghanistan likely killed at least 18 civilians.
Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, has built a vast network of new terrorist training camps — including one 30-square miles in size, the largest training facility the Pentagon has seen since September 11th — a troubling sign that the group could be preparing to return to its successful pre-September 11th plan of exporting terrorism from Afghanistan.
The escalating violence in Afghanistan will naturally create more push factors for those seeking refuge from war. Anticipating this, the EU signed a controversial agreement with the Afghan government in October 2016. EU member states can now deport an unlimited number of Afghan asylum seekers and the government in Afghanistan is under obligation to receive them upon their return. The EU allegedly threatened to withhold aid from Afghanistan if the government did not comply. Given that Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world and highly dependent on foreign aid, which accounts for 40 percent of its GDP, the government had little choice but to agree to the EU’s plan. But the new agreement has many experts concerned, given the country’s deteriorating security situation, the “economic catastrophe” triggered by the mass withdrawal of US troops in 2014, ongoing political instability, terrible corruption (Afghanistan is now ranked among the three most corrupt countries in the world) and the aforementioned flourishing of an array of terrorist groups.
Back at the warehouses behind the train station in Savamala, refugees fleeing a country that has experienced nearly 40 years of intense conflict — invaded first by the Soviet Union and then by the United States and its allies — wait to receive their next set of orders from smugglers and for spring.