Stranded in Serbia, migrants endure an odyssey of violence

Migrants charge their mobile phones in a restaurant near the central bus station in Belgrade earlier this month. (AFP)
Updated 01 April 2017

Stranded in Serbia, migrants endure an odyssey of violence

BELGRADE: Driven back by police batons and snarling dogs, or beaten and robbed by the smugglers they relied on, migrants caught in Serbia have regularly been victims of violence as they struggle to reach Europe.
About 8,000 migrants have been trapped in the country since the EU closed its borders, hoping to block the so-called Balkans route taken by hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
But migrants continue to cross the region in smaller numbers — a few hundred a day — often with the help of traffickers.
“I could not imagine that European police could be so violent,” Najim Khan, a 21-year-old mason from Pakistan, said in a Belgrade park.
The claims from migrants as well as aid groups are dismissed by the authorities: Croatia says there is “no proof” of abuses, Hungary says it acts “with respect to human dignity,” and Bulgaria says it has looked into every claim “but they were never confirmed.”
Khan, who arrived from Bulgaria a few weeks ago, says that one evening, the police burst into the squat where he was staying in Sofia.
“They beat us, took us to a police station and then to a closed center. They beat us again during transfers,” he said.
Once in Serbia, he tried to reach the EU despite the increased patrols at Hungary’s border, but his group was quickly spotted by the Hungarian police.
“They made us lie on our stomachs, in a line. They ran on our backs, laughing. They were throwing beers in our faces,” Khan said.
“They took our cellphones and broke them. They did not take our money.” In early March, medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) denounced the violence against migrants, calling it a “ritual of brutality... designed to stop people from trying to cross again.”
“The militarization of the EU borders has led to a staggering increase in violence, especially along the Balkans,” said Andrea Contenta of MSF, which has set up a clinic in Belgrade.
“More than half of our patients have experienced violent events during their journey.”
Rados Djurovic, of the Asylum Protection Center in Serbia, said migrants “complain mostly about violence suffered in Hungary, where they were bitten by dogs, hit brutally, causing broken bones.”
Many also complained about abuse in Croatia, but the situation was better in Serbia, where the police have been given clear instructions, according to an aid worker who declined to be named.
Contenta added that although smugglers were responsible for some of the assaults, “the vast majority of our patients reported alleged violence perpetrated by state authorities, mainly by EU member states such as Hungary, Bulgaria and Croatia.”
Attal Shafihullah, a 16-year-old Afghan, said he had experienced both.
One night Shafihullah and three comrades were intercepted by the Bulgarian police as they tried to leave Serbia.
“Sometimes they let you go,” he said. “Other times not.”
This time, the officers beat them, he said.
“Maybe they wanted money,” said Shafihullah, whose face bears the scars of burns suffered when his home went up in flames in Afghanistan.
But he is certain that financial motivations were behind the blows of smugglers he met a few weeks later, as they told the migrants to have money sent to them from back home.
“They wanted to make an example, to show that it is a serious business,” Shafihullah said.
In a Belgrade reception center, 14-year-old Qayum Mohammadi remembered vomiting after being sprayed with tear gas when the bus carrying him and other migrants crashed into a wall while trying to outrun a Bulgarian patrol.
Some weeks later, in Hungary, officers made him lie on the ground before sending him back to Serbia, added the teenager with a budding moustache.
“They told me to put my hands on the ground, and then walked on them... they hit my thighs with a baton” before sending him back to Serbia, he said.
Rights group say the EU border closures have only made the Balkans route more dangerous, now that such attempts are illegal.
Medecins sans Frontieres has registered more than 70 migrant deaths between Greece and Hungary since last year.
The causes of death include hypothermia, drowning, traffic accidents — and suicides.


UK’s Johnson to visit European capitals seeking Brexit breakthrough

Updated 18 August 2019

UK’s Johnson to visit European capitals seeking Brexit breakthrough

  • Johnson will travel for talks with German Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron
  • Johnson is expected to push for the EU to reopen negotiations over the terms of Brexit

LONDON: UK's Boris Johnson will visit European capitals this week on his first overseas trip as prime minister, as his government said Sunday it had ordered the scrapping of the decades-old law enforcing its EU membership.

Johnson will travel to Berlin on Wednesday for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and on to Paris Thursday for discussions with French President Emmanuel Macron, Downing Street confirmed on Sunday, amid growing fears of a no-deal Brexit in two and a half months.

The meetings, ahead of a two-day G7 summit starting Saturday in the southern French resort of Biarritz, are his first diplomatic forays abroad since replacing predecessor Theresa May last month.

Johnson is expected to push for the EU to reopen negotiations over the terms of Brexit or warn that it faces the prospect of Britain's disorderly departure on October 31 -- the date it is due to leave.

European leaders have repeatedly rejected reopening an accord agreed by May last year but then rejected by British lawmakers on three occasions, despite Johnson's threats that the country will leave then without an agreement.

In an apparent show of intent, London announced Sunday that it had ordered the repeal of the European Communities Act, which took Britain into the forerunner to the EU 46 years ago and gives Brussels law supremacy.

The order, signed by Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay on Friday, is set to take effect on October 31.

"This is a landmark moment in taking back control of our laws from Brussels," Barclay said in a statement.

"This is a clear signal to the people of this country that there is no turning back -- we are leaving the EU as promised on October 31, whatever the circumstances -- delivering on the instructions given to us in 2016."

The moves come as Johnson faces increasing pressure to immediately recall MPs from their summer holidays so that parliament can debate Brexit.

More than 100 lawmakers, who are not due to return until September 3, have demanded in a letter that he reconvene the 650-seat House of Commons and let them sit permanently until October 31.

"Our country is on the brink of an economic crisis, as we career towards a no-deal Brexit," said the letter, signed by MPs and opposition party leaders who want to halt a no-deal departure.

"We face a national emergency, and parliament must be recalled now."

Parliament is set to break up again shortly after it returns, with the main parties holding their annual conferences during the September break.

Main opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wants to call a vote of no confidence in Johnson's government after parliament returns.

He hopes to take over as a temporary prime minister, seek an extension to Britain's EU departure date to stop a no-deal Brexit, and then call a general election.

"What we need is a government that is prepared to negotiate with the European Union so we don't have a crash-out on the 31st," Corbyn said Saturday.

"This government clearly doesn't want to do that."

Britain could face food, fuel and medicine shortages and chaos at its ports in a no-deal Brexit, The Sunday Times newspaper reported, citing a leaked government planning document.

There would likely be some form of hard border imposed on the island of Ireland, the document implied.

Rather than worst-case scenarios, the leaked document, compiled this month by the Cabinet Office ministry, spells out the likely ramifications of a no-deal Brexit, the broadsheet claimed.

The document said logjams could affect fuel distribution, while up to 85 percent of trucks using the main ports to continental Europe might not be ready for French customs.

The availability of fresh food would be diminished and prices would go up, the newspaper said.