No-Man’s Land: Life on the Serbia-Hungary Border

A peacetime no-man’s land is opening up in the Western Balkans, populated by refugees and asylum seekers who suffer the consequences of the joint failures of Serbia, Hungary, and the EU. 

One well-trodden route travelled by refugees towards central Europe takes them through Macedonia to Serbia and towards Hungary, where they then hope to make it to Northern Europe. The journey is life-threatening and punctuated by moments of risk and uncertainty: the deadly Aegean Sea crossing, exploitation by the border police, illegal detention and interference from non-state actors such as smugglers, thieves, and resentful locals. In 2014, more than 43,360 refugees and migrants travelled one of a number of routes through the Western Balkans – a geopolitical area defined by some EU member states as those countries of the former Yugoslavia and Albania who aspire to full EU membership – compared to just 6,390 in 2012. The Serbian-Hungarian border crossing has become the third most popular route into the EU for irregular migrants and asylum-seekers, after Greece and Italy, according to the EU Border Agency, Frontex.

This route through the so-called Western Balkans is crossed by a great number of refugees fleeing the ravages of war and widespread persecution in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea. These refugees have escaped conflict zones and other immediate threats to their lives by selling their belongings, leaving their homes, and undertaking perilous journeys to illegally cross borders and seek protection.

As anti-immigration discourse across the EU serves only to dehumanise those claiming asylum, more and more are being turned away at the borders fearing what Prime Minister of the United Kingdom ignominiously declared a “swarm” of economic migrants. The changes in EU border and asylum policy to placate the rising anti-immigration ideologues within EU nations is leaving thousands of refugees without any recourse to international protection who have already ventured on life-threatening journeys in search of safety.

In the Western Balkans, refugees already face severe hardships in obtaining protection under asylum laws. Hungary’s anti-migration fence, a planned 4-meter-high, 109-mile-long fence along the border with Serbia, has already caused panic amongst refugees in what is known as the ‘jungle’, the area near Subotica in Serbia, near the Hungarian border, which houses a number of informal refugee camps. Unprotected and vulnerable to push-back (forced return to the other side of the border they last crossed) by the border police, illegal detention and abuse from smugglers is rife.

Migrants in Belgrade, Serbia. Photo credit: Mondo/ Goran Sivački
Migrants in Belgrade, Serbia. Photo credit: Mondo/ Goran Sivački

According to Radoš Đurović, director of the Asylum Protection Centre, 55,000 people claimed asylum upon entering Serbia this year, compared to the 16,500 asylum cases registered the previous year. Despite the fact that provisions for protecting refugees have been embedded in the Serbian constitution since 1835, the Serbian state authorities have so far failed to provide basic shelter or humanitarian aid to the increasing number of individuals travelling the Western Balkans route. Instead, asylum claimants in Serbia are being forced to seek shelter in bus or train stations and parks in central Belgrade, in woods and abandoned factories in the Subotica region, on the streets and parks of the Presevo region near the border with Macedonia, and in Kanjiza near the Hungarian border.

In the Krnjaca Centre for Refugees in Padinska Skela near Belgrade, asylum seekers from Syria and Afghanistan share accommodations with Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia who arrived there 20 years ago and have yet to be resettled. The Krnjaca Centre consists largely of rundown huts, and authorities have been promising to move residents into state-owned apartments by the end of 2015. In 1996, when Serbia was faced with a high number of refugees displaced by the Yugoslav wars, there were 700 asylum facilities. Now, only 15 remain, including Krnjaca. Currently, only 5 of the remaining asylum centres in Serbia provide shelter to migrants.

Serbia and the Western Balkans

The term ‘refugee-status’ first gained currency in the former Yugoslav countries after the Balkan wars in the 1990s, when a large number of people were internally displaced and many crossed the newly-demarcated borders to seek refuge. Since emerging as new political entities, the countries that make up the Western Balkan have all adopted the EU Refugee Convention and developed national asylum laws, in most cases under EU pressure.

These countries are not only struggling to comply with EU immigration policies and develop national asylum laws but are now are also faced with a large influx of refugees. In Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) after the civil war, it was the UNHCR that took on the role of deciding on matters related to asylum claims, only transferring that power back to the government of BiH in 2003. Over a decade later, the country is struggling to implement asylum laws. It is still the case that only half of the country has adopted naturalization processes for asylum seekers, while the other has no laws related to it.

The obligation to protect refugees is also set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the right to seek asylum originates in the Refugee Convention of 1951, which clearly describes how a refugee is defined, their rights, and the legal obligations of states towards them. Not only are Macedonian and Serbian authorities failing to comply with the Refugee Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but they are also failing to implement their own national laws to protect refugees or to provide safe passage to move through their territories. In Macedonia, refugees are faced with dangers owing to non-functioning asylum laws and scant state protection against violent gangs and smugglers. Furthermore, refugees are confined to arbitrary detention in over-crowded detention centres or suffer illegal detention by police, where they are forced to testify against the smugglers who secured their journey across the border.

A total of 29.037 persons expressed the intention to seek asylum in Serbia in July. Photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection/ Flickr
A total of 29.037 persons expressed the intention to seek asylum in Serbia in July. Photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection/ Flickr

Under Serbian Asylum Law, after crossing the border illegally into Serbia, the asylum seeker can express an intention to seek asylum at the border. This intention, properly expressed, makes their stay in Serbia ‘legal’ and grants them rights under law to shelter, freedom of movement, healthcare, education and identity documents. Unfortunately, this process is controlled by the Serbian Border Police who have been known to mistreat refugees and refuse to register their claims unless paid a substantial amount of money.

In many instances, refugees are likely to be pushed back to the Macedonian border without any safeguards. In other cases, when refugees have finally been successful in applying for asylum, they have been given only 72 hours to register at a specific asylum centre, sometimes in some remote village and therefore extremely hard to travel to on time. As such, the failure on the part of the Serbian government to determine an individual’s need for international protection makes Serbia an unlikely destination for refugees to pursue their asylum claims, who prefer to continue their journey into Hungary and the EU, though there they may face further hardships and encroachment on their rights.

In the near future, migrants in Serbia will be further imperiled by the anti-migration wall being constructed in Hungary, as it will drive them towards more dangerous routes, such as swimming the Tisza River, which has already caused the death of one migrant. Furthermore, opportunities for human smugglers will increase with the difficulty of crossing into Hungary, allowing them to charge more money and also placing migrants in a more vulnerable position.

Yet there are things more damaging than non-functional asylum systems, such as political scapegoating, hostile influence of local interest groups, and in some cases irresponsible media reports about refugee groups. In Serbia, as elsewhere, this plays an important part in fostering negative stereotypes about asylum populations both in residence and in transit, leading to unfounded fears and prejudices by the local people towards them. Recently a poster showed up on the streets of Belgrade, stating that the Islamic State is sending half a million migrants to Europe. Another poster in the town of Bogovađa, home to an asylum centre, claimed that “asylum seekers are robbing monasteries, breaking our vacation homes, stealing livestock, attacking inhabitants.”


This is not to place blame squarely with the Serbian authorities. EU policy towards Serbia has had a direct effect on Serbian people’s perception about asylum seekers. The EU has been threatening Western Balkan countries, especially Serbia, whose accession to the EU is in the negotiation stages, with suspension from visa-free travel if they do not tackle irregular migration from their borders to EU Schengen countries. An EU Commission recently recommended that Western Balkan countries streamline asylum procedures by “establishing an accelerated procedure that enables the swift processing of applications at peak times or for citizens of particular countries”. A similar accelerated procedure was implemented by the UK Border Agency under the title “Fast Track Asylum System” and was declared unlawful by the High Court of Justice as it created significant injustices in the procedure of claiming asylum. In the Western Balkans, only Croatia is currently using an accelerated system under its asylum laws.

NGOs and the New Iron Curtain

A number of international humanitarian organizations and local NGOs working in the region have released data, analyses, and documentary evidence on the refugee crisis in the Western Balkans. They hope to push states to take action in amending their asylum laws dealing with corruption, human rights violations, and crime in the region, as well as for the EU to change its current policy on irregular migration and refugee law.

Organizations such as the Asylum Protection Centre (APC), led by the aforementioned Radoš Đurović in Belgrade, have been providing assistance to asylum seekers in five asylum camps in Belgrade and Subotica. APC provides legal and psychosocial assistance and language classes to migrants, as well as daily humanitarian aid to asylum-seekers who have no recourse to shelter. APC’s media advocacy projects attempt to counter instances of scapegoating, xenophobia, and defamation, and help to foster a more positive image of those in search of asylum. In response to the recent crisis, APC has received a large number of volunteers to help in their work. Besides the work undertaken by APC, the Red Cross is playing an active role in providing humanitarian aid through a temporary reception center for asylum seekers in the Presevo region of Serbia.

Current EU policy on asylum and migration laid out for the Western Balkans is in dire need of re-evaluation. How important are issues such as reforming asylum laws, halting police abuse, and curbing criminal activities that endanger the lives of asylum seekers for Western Balkan countries aiming for EU accession?

Does the EU intend to place sanctions on prospective member states which are in breach of EU asylum laws? Hungary has indefinitely suspended the implementation of a key EU asylum law –  that of the Dublin Regulation, which requires asylum claims by migrants be processed in the European Union country in which they first arrive. After Hungary’s announcement that it would build its anti-migration fence, Natasha Bertaud, the spokeswoman for the EU’s commissioner on immigration voiced concern:

 “We have only recently taken down walls in Europe; we should not be putting them up,” she said.

Despite the pithy analogy, her statement contradicts the current anti-immigration policies adopted and supported by EU which serve only to entrench greater injustices than mere bricks and mortar could enforce.

" A woman is walking in front of a vandalized anti immigration billboard reading “If you come to Hungary, you have to respect our laws!” in Budapest, Hungary, on June 15, 2015. Hungary’s central-right government has launched a controversial billboard campaign against immigration while UNHCR introduced its counter campaign highlighting successful refugee stories." Photo Credit: AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky
” A woman is walking in front of a vandalized anti immigration billboard reading ‘If you come to Hungary, you have to respect our laws!’ in Budapest, Hungary, on June 15, 2015. Hungary’s central-right government has launched a controversial billboard campaign against immigration while UNHCR introduced its counter campaign highlighting successful refugee stories.” Photo Credit: AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky

In other parts of the world, the story is not always the same. India and Bangladesh have recently sealed a deal to exchange long-disputed border territories. The walls – both literal and figurative – are being dismantled, compared to the fall of a South Asian Berlin Wall. This deal ends a number of border disputes between the two nations which have lasted for 70 years, leaving 50,000 people stateless and stranded without any citizenship rights.

Yet under the current leadership of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán it seems unlikely that Hungary and Serbia could come to a similar agreement, independent of EU migration policy, which could manage the border disputes without the need for an expansive fence. For Đurović, even the planned wall would not be a deterrent, remarking that

“All these walls and obstacles would not stop the movement [of those seek asylum] and their attempts to reach EU, bearing in mind they are running away from war and persecution and staying [in host countries] without alternative, it will only contribute to their further vulnerability and threats to their lives.”

Hungary’s planned construction of a border fence will leave the large influx of refugees reaching Serbia on a daily basis in a state of legal limbo, and leave countless others stranded in ‘jungles’ between the Macedonian border with Serbia and the Serbian border with Macedonia.

A peacetime no-man’s land is opening up in the Western Balkans, populated by refugees and asylum seekers who suffer the consequences of the joint failures of Serbia, Hungary, and the EU, who continue to avoid their responsibilities to provide aid, protection, and assistance to those fleeing persecution.

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Abeera Arif Bashir

Abeera Arif Bashir was born in Lahore, Pakistan. She trained as a lawyer in Rawalpindi before moving to London to pursue her postgraduate studies in refugee law. She has gained varied professional and academic experience in matters related to Refugee Rights, Equality and Human Rights and regularly visits asylum claimants held at UK detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood, Campsfield House, Colnbrook, and Harmondsworth. Her recent research interests have led her to examine and explore the experience of refugees in the Western Balkans.