Belgrade center as an El Dorado for smugglers of refugees

Author/source: SEEbiz / Deutsche Welle 
Published on: 28.01.2017. - 22:28:52 

BELGRADE - Refugees have heard about the park across the Belgrade bus station while still in Istanbul or Sofia – that is where the smugglers are always present. The price of their services grows with despair. Many people who are stranded in Serbia see them as the only lifeline.

For the price of two or three hundred euros, a smuggler leads them to the border, to places where it is allegedly easiest to cross. There, he cuts Hungary's fence using pincers or, in the case of Croatia, only points toward the meadow and says, “That way.” Every day hundreds of refugees try to reach the European Union, a promised land, in this way. Almost all are caught and returned to Serbia, where crowded collective centers, inside which the hope is slowly dying, await them - if they are lucky. If not, they are forced to use a run-down warehouse behind the railway station, verminous limbo between the icy wind from the river Sava and the campfire smoke they sleep in.

Shirzad Safi (17) felt it all on his skin. Afghan boy sits at a table in the “Info Park” premises, an organization that has a good reputation among migrants because it helps them find their way, find accommodation or transport to the refugee camp. In front of him is a portion of something, warm but still in a can, you can make out the pasta and tomato sauce. The young man is tired and dirty, showing a hole made by a dog’s teeth on the leg of his worn trousers. Hungarian police is said to have more creative ways to humiliate and chase off refugees than Croatian and Bulgarian. In all three countries, according to the testimonies of dozens of refugees we interviewed, the police is beating, molesting them, robbing them of their phones and money and, finally, throwing them back to Serbia.

“I was in a group with children”, Shirzad says to “Info Park” employees about his short stay in Hungary.

“When they caught us, they forced us to sit in snow, barefoot. For six hours. They were throwing snowballs at us and spraying us with cold water, they set the dogs on us.” In the end, the police opened the gate of the border wall, and sent them back to Serbia. And there he is again, in Belgrade, only a hundred meters from the park in front of the Faculty of Economics and kebab shop which migrants already hear about in Istanbul or Sofia as a place in front of which smugglers gather. Many are willing to give their last money for the faint hope that they will not be deceived by a smuggler, and that they will arrive where they are going.

Sultan, Emerald, Moussa, Hassan... these are the names - probably pseudonyms - of the ‘big fish’ from smuggling network refugees knew of. While the route was more easily passed, they just sat in the park, while migrants gathered around them. And, everyone knew them, even the world media wrote about them - especially Sultan - but they were able to continue their work uninterrupted. They are not among those 2,000 people arrested on suspicion of smuggling. Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic bragged several times that it makes Serbia an European record holder. Verdicts are, however, rare and often issued only against local helpers.

“It is obvious that in Serbia the big game is being tolerated,” says Gordan Paunovic who runs “Info Park”.

In recent years, he met with hundreds of refugees whom smugglers were hiding in apartments and hostels, sometimes blackmailing, beating and keeping under house arrest until they paid more.

“Yes, they arrested thousands of people, but who? Drivers, helpers, ‘small fish’ in parks. Smugglers are seen as someone who is helping Serbia be rid of refugees and are therefore tolerated.”

The numbers confirm this: while according to some reports, about two hundred people illegally enter Serbia each day, the total number of migrants in the country for months now is estimated to be seven or eight thousand. Which means that some of them are leaving as well.

It only takes a little persistence and hopping in the Belgrade winter even for an untrained eye to notice suspicious guys. They look like they come from Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they are well trained, with solid shoes and phones on both ears, some in cars. The difference between them and unfortunate refugees with torn shoes and ripped backpacks cannot be overlooked. One young man tells us they asked for 2,000 euros, which allegedly buys a ticket to Austria. It is a small experiment from the theory of capitalism - the more difficult the route is, and the bigger the despair, the prices are higher. Supply and demand.

“The trend in recent months is that migrants who are on their way toward the West are beginning to deal with smuggling. They have already tried to cross the border so many times that they know all the basic tricks,” says Paunovic.

“This is a new story that is happening past the large smuggling networks. It is no longer the trend for someone in Kabul, for example, to pay 10,000 euros to reach Frankfurt with an all inclusive offer. These are the kids who are trying to move around the places where refugees gather, to infiltrate, and seek new clients. They work for considerably lower sums of money.”

Stories that some smugglers still have strong ties with corrupt police officers across the Balkans have never been proven. And smuggling tricks are like magic tricks - once you learn them, they seem trivial. Prior to that, almost lucid. For example, a mass transport in vans and trucks is not working for some time now. Border officials are awake when they see a truck, because no one wants dozens of bodies of suffocated people to be discovered in their country. But, tank trucks did the work for a long time: migrants enter the oil or fuel oil, with their head being above it only enough for them to be able to breathe. Since the Hungarian police realized this, the controls became more strict. In recent days, trucks are waiting for hours to enter Croatia. Or an even older trick - hanging beneath a railway wagon that goes across the border. This, too, is difficult to achieve these days.

“If people are mentally exhausted after waiting for three or four months, you can imagine what will happen after a year,” said Paunovic, “especially if they remain in abandoned warehouses and camps which one migrant described as a Zoo - I have a bed and food, but nothing else, like an animal in a cage. I think that people will, once the weather gets warmer, turn to even more desperate acts.”

“Smugglers are doing all kinds of things to refugees who do not have money to pay for the journey, or they just do it because they can,” confirmed Jelena Hrnjak from nongovernmental organization “Atina”, which has been helping victims of human trafficking for years.

“Refugees are unprotected, they often do not have the documents, they are here illegally, in fear of being caught by the police or the army, afraid to seek asylum here which can later prevent them from seeking it elsewhere. It draws them deeper into helplessness.”

But, they are stranded in Serbia and do not see any other way than to take risks. Almost all left the war behind, the Taliban or head-cutters of the Islamic State, they crossed Iranian debris and Middle Eastern deserts, survived the night waves of the Aegean Sea. Recently, three of them were killed in a car that was speeding on the highway from Nis to Belgrade, driven by fear that the police patrol will notice them. The smuggler had crammed 15 refugees into the car. Refugees are ready to do almost anything for the hope of a better life.

“Our organization has had two cases of people who have sold their kidneys in Lebanon to pay the smugglers,” says Jelena Hrnjak.

She met boys who did not have the money to pay smugglers and were raped or photographed naked in order for those photographs to be distributed to child pornography networks.

“Or smugglers forced them to commit various crimes - for example, to smuggle people - as children cannot be prosecuted. The women testified that they pay for the journey with sex,” she says.

This shows why the smuggling networks are so flexible, and how as soon as the free pass through the Balkans was closed, they once again sprung up like mushrooms after the rain. These are, in fact, criminal gangs engaged in anything that will make profits at a given moment - organ trafficking, child pornography, and even drugs or weapons. Very few things are as profitable as smuggling and exploitation of persons. Smugglers are once again enjoying prosperous times.


For NGO Atina, text translated by Marija Pantelic


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