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Refugees driven into the hands of traffickers
FEAR is driving thousands of people into the hands of traffickers.
They are desperate to escape war, poverty and oppression, but are afraid Europe will shut the gates to safety at any moment.
In the controlled chaos of a transit centre in south Serbia, on the border with Macedonia, their faces show the strain, even if they know the worst is over.
Four thousand people passed through the centre last Sunday as the migrant wave shows no signs of letting up, despite the -5°C temperatures at night.
They are part of the 45,000 migrants who made the same journey in the last two weeks, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
One Afghan teenager, on his way to family in Germany, told of being shot at while crossing the border into Iran. Another youngster spoke of being beaten with sticks in Turkey.
Rushad’s bright smile and easy manner don’t betray the gruelling month-long journey he has made to reach southern Europe.
The 15-year-old Afghan is one of the multitudes who passed through the Serbian town of Presevo on the border with Macedonia.
“The traffickers were very harsh with us,” he said, speaking in English.
“If you don’t help or do what they say they beat with sticks. My brother was beaten,” he told the Sunday World this week.
He said the sea was rough when they crossed the Aegean from Turkey to one of the Greek islands and that 45 people were packed into a boat for 20. Yet Rushad’s nightmare journey could have been even worse.
An anti-trafficking agency in the Serbian capital of Belgrade said they have collected reports of youngsters being forced to sell sex to continue their journey west.
“There has been talk of coercion of refugees being forced to take boats at night and when the seas are rough,” said Jelena Hrnjak, from the anti-trafficking agency Atina.
“People are being exploited as they travel. Groups of young people travel together and if one gets separated there can be problems.”
She explained that they have spoken to thousands of migrants and several young people told similar stories of sexual exploitation in Turkey when they didn’t have enough money to continue their journey.
The refugees at Presevo’s transit camp have already made their way across Turkey and the Aegean Sea and travelled north through Greece and Macedonia.
They are registered at the camp by the government and given a 72-hour visa.
Most people don’t hang around and are anxious to get back on the road as soon as they get their paperwork. The refugees can take a bus or train to the border with Croatia, but at the gates of the camp local Serbian taxi drivers tout for business.
The taxi drivers are known to tell scare stories to refugees to play on their fears in a bid to pick fares for the 600-kilometre journey to the border crossing.
Hundreds of buses queue up in a 10-kilometre-long line ready to take a new group north on the next step of the journey.
After a seven-hour road or train journey north, the migrants then have to wait near Croatia until a special train is used for them to continue the journey westwards.
The next step is entering Croatia, where the migrants are processed at a tightly controlled camp near the town of Slavonski Brod.
This week a relieved Mustapha (right), from Syria, told how he had been on a boat that capsized between the Turkish coast and Kos, the same stretch of sea where three-year-old Aylan Kurdi died earlier this year, bringing the international spotlight on the refugee crisis.
“Everyone was OK, but on the boat beside us one woman and six children died,” he told the Sunday World.
He travelled with family members, including one who said through an interpreter: “The governments have to find a way for people to travel without taking this dangerous journey.”
But Europe’s politicians are planning new ways to slow the flood of people heading west in search of a future.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed that one of the Paris attackers, Ahmad al-Mohammad, is suspected of having passed along this route on his way to Belgium.
The EU Commission now wants to set up a 1,500-strong frontier guard that would have the power to operate in any member state.
France and Germany are backing the plan, which could take at least two more years before it is up and running.
In the meantime, the front-line states such as Greece, Croatia, Hungary and Italy are facing legal action from Brussels for not registering refugees properly as they pass through.
Turkey have also cut a €3billion deal with the European Union to help pay for the two million refugees already on its soil.
In the holiday town near Izmir, well-known to Irish tourists, the police are now cracking down on migrants trying to reach Greece, according to reports.
Taxi drivers have been told they will have their licences suspended if they are caught bringing refugees to the beaches where the traffickers launch their boats for Kos.
Instead, refugees are packed into vans and they are becoming more vulnerable to the traffickers connected to organised crime.
The current wave of refugees are poorer than those who travelled earlier in the year and have less money for the traffickers.
It means they are forced to travel ‘off peak’ in winter and make the treacherous sea-crossing in worsening weather.
At the transit camps in Presevo and Slavonski Brod volunteers offer comforts such as tea and soup, funded by various charities, including Ireland’s Trócaire.
It helps the migrants maintain a sense of dignity, but the people looking for a new life in the west are determined to make it despite the hardships and obstacles.
Asked about the future for his country Rushad replied: “I’m never going back to Afghanistan.”
One of Trócaire’s Christmas gifts this year is the Gift of Support for Refugees (€65), which will provide food, shelter and community support for refugees in the Middle East.
Gifts can be bought online at www.trociare.org, by calling 1850 408 408, in Veritas stores, selected Easons stores and Trócaire centres in Maynooth, Dublin, Cork and Belfast.