With the increasing militarization of national borders along the so called “Balkan route”, Serbia has become one of the main transit countries for people on the move towards Western and Northern Europe. However, what was once a “Balkan Road” is now turning into a hazardous “Balkan Prison” .
After Hungary started building massive border fences in the fall of 2015 and after Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia announced the closure of their frontiers in March 2016, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, defined the Balkan route as “closed”. He declared that “irregular flows of migrants along western Balkans route have come to an end” .
Today, the systematic fortification of borders is still continuing across South-Eastern Europe, increasingly exacerbating the situation for people on the move. The southern borders of Hungary and Slovenia are completely fenced off now. The same applies to the Turkish-Bulgarian border, part of the Bulgarian-Greek border, the Greek-Macedonian and parts of the Serbian-Bulgarian border (see map).
Yet, as our experiences show, this policy of closed borders does not reduce migration flows, nor does it close the route. Instead, people on the move are forced to seek more and more dangerous paths towards Central Europe. Since there remain very few, if any, legal possibilities to cross the border, many people see themselves forced to go “to the game”. This is the expression commonly used for trying to cross the border alone or with the help of a smuggler, often including long walks in the dark, hiding in lorries or clinging to freight trains. In these “games”, chances for success are dim, and in some cases they end deadly: Just recently two tragic incidents happened around Šid train station: in the night of November 20/21 a six-year-old girl was hit by a train and died when she was travelling with her family and in the night of September 9/10, a young Algerian man lost his life when accidentally touching an overhead cable, trying to hide in a train.
The situation in Serbia
By November 30, UNHCR counted 4,326 refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants residing in Serbia, mainly from Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia and Iran .
However, since many people are not officially registered, the real numbers are probably much higher. According to UNHCR figures, 51% of the people residing in Serbia are men, 34% children and 15% women. A peak of 7,900 people in March this year was followed by a decrease in arrival numbers, but since October 2017 more people are entering Serbia again. At the end of November 2017 the majority of them (3,969) lived in governmental camps. With winter approaching, it is the intention of the government to shelter everyone in one of the 18 “official centers”. For people who are living outside these camps, this means being in danger of forceful transfers into the official, often closed, centers, as was exemplified recently when 112 men and boys, who were sleeping rough in and near Šid, were transferred to Preševo Reception Centre in the very South of the country. People often fear that staying in one of the government camps will put them at risk of being deported or deprive them of the right to free movement. In the case of closed camps, such as Preševo, these fears are not unjustified as people are not allowed to leave the camp and push-backs to Macedonia are taking place on a regular basis . Furthermore, inhabitants describe the conditions in the camps as “overcrowded, loud, little food, little space, diseases and no privacy.” Furthermore, it is mandatory to register and fill in an asylum document in order to be allowed inside the official camps. This is something many refugees will avoid at all costs, since they are afraid it will diminish their prospects of continuing their journey towards their main destination: Middle and Northern Europe. Dreaming of better working and living conditions there, only few want to stay in Serbia. The chances of obtaining asylum in Serbia are in any case dim: Until now, only 14 persons have been granted asylum in a positive first-instance decisions by the Asylum Office in 2017, compared to 497 registered intentions just in the month of December 2017 .
After the eviction and demolition of the “Barracks” near the Belgrade train station in May 2017, which until then had been the most important hotspot outside official camps, people on the move have concentrated also mainly in three areas in Northern Serbia, namely abandoned buildings and fields in and around Šid, Subotica and Sombor. These are the areas in which most of the reports in the database were collected.
 Médecins sans frontières (03.10.2017): GAMES OF VIOLENCE, unaccompanied children and young people repeatedly abused by EU member state border authorities; http://www.msf.org/sites/msf.org/files/serbia-games-of-violence-3.10.17.pdf
 The Guardian (09.03.2016): Balkan countries shut borders as attention turns to new refugee routes; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/09/balkans-refugee-route-closed-say-european-leaders
 UNHCR (30.11.2017): Serbia Inter Agency Operational Update November 2017;
 Belgrade Center of Human Rights, Human Rights Watch quoted by Middle East Eye (18.01.2017): Refugee winter crisis: Serbia accused of illegal mass deportations; http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/serbia-accused-mass-illegal-deportations-refugees-1622114455
 UNHCR (15.01.2018): Serbia Update 25.12.2017-14.01.2018;