“I have been here for five days already, outside and without a roof over my head. I can’t sleep, it’s too cold, and I have to be awake in case they [police] call my number.”
Ahmed, 21, was one of hundreds of single Afghan men stuck in the small border town of Dimitrovgrad on the Serbia-Bulgaria border. Like the other 200 to 250 mainly Afghans there when I visited last week, he told me they had been stuck for as long as a week waiting for the mandatory registration by Serbian authorities that gives a paper allowing onward travel across Serbia to Croatia, and on to Western Europe. Before arriving in Serbia, Ahmed had been in Iran, Turkey, and Bulgaria.
Housing at the makeshift registration facility in Dimitrovgrad consists of eight containers that can accommodate only about 80 people. The rest are forced to endure harsh and cold weather in the open, with inadequate humanitarian aid efforts provided by the Serbian state. Volunteers who try to fill the gaps face obstacles erected by the authorities. While I was there, volunteers were forced to remove a cooking stall where they prepared hot soup and tea for freezing asylum seekers – authorities claimed it was for health and food safety reasons.
Asylum seekers, volunteers, and local groups told me the registration process is undermined by corruption.
Mohammed, 22, said, “The police ask for money in return for swift processing. They ask 25 euros, but I don’t have any money and I have been here for seven days waiting for my turn. Some came yesterday, paid the police, and have left.” I heard similar accounts from other Afghan asylum seekers.
In April, Human Rights Watch documented extortion and police abuse of asylum seekers and migrants in Serbia as well as flawed registration procedures. I did not hear witness accounts of physical abuse on my visit to Dimitrovgrad, but otherwise things appear to have improved very little.
Serbia has obligations under international law, and as an European Union candidate country, to provide humane reception conditions for asylum seekers. It should work to fulfill those obligations and support – not hinder – those stepping up to do the job that the state is failing to do. It should also ensure that asylum seekers’ prompt access to registration is not dependent on them paying bribes.