SUBOTICA — At regular intervals, thick smoke emerges from the fire and interrupts the sleepy atmosphere. Eyelids open and words are exchanged to forget, if only briefly, the weariness that fills the brickyard. This abandoned factory in the Serbian town of Subotica is shared by Afghans, Pakistanis and Syrians traveling through the Balkans, and is used as a resting place before entering the Schengen Area, represented by the 26 European countries that have abolished passport and any other type of border control at their common borders.
On this day, about 30 Syrians and Iraqis are trying to warm up around a fire alongside 20 Afghans. People check their flashlights while awaiting a text from the smuggler. "Taxis are waiting for us on the other side of the border, and we are going to Austria," says Nabil, a 46-year-old Syrian man, adding that the passing and the drive will cost around $1,500 per person.
Predrag Sarac knows the scenario by heart. He is responsible for security along the 174.6 kilometers of the Serbian-Hungarian border, and his mission is to reduce the number of illegal crossings. His area is the third entry door for illegal arrivals in the Schengen Area (there were an estimated 37,000 illegal crossings in 2014), after the central zone of the Mediterranean Sea (174,000 illegal crossings last year) and the Western Mediterranean Sea (50,000 illegal crossings last year).
As executive director of Frontex, the European agency monitoring external borders, Fabrice Leggeri is worried because illegal entries into the European Union increased by 250% in the first two months of 2015 compared to the first two months of 2014. And he says that "a significant influx" is coming from the Balkans. Sarac explains why. "We are on Passageway 10, the shortest way between the Thessaloniki region and Austria. Migrants arrive here from Greece, hidden in trains and in cargo wagons, but they also arrive by car or by foot. And then, Kosovars add up."
In Kosovo, more than half of the working-age population is unemployed. It took more than five months to form a government, between July and November 2014. The dire situation has led many in this small country, which became independent in 2008, to flee to the West. Of 1.7 million residents, some 130,000 to 140,000 have left, says Ilir Deda, the country's opposition deputy.
The belief that Europe needed laborers and that customs officials would let migrants enter the territory increased the emigration frenzy at the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015. At first, this travel was possible because of the free movement agreement signed between the EU and Serbia in 2013, and also thanks to cheap transportation. It costs only 21 euros ($23) to take a bus for the 700 kilometers from the Kosovo capital of Pristina to Subotica in Serbia.
Serbian border, Horgoš — Photo: Meelosh
"This flight started in the summer of 2014," Sarac explains. "First, we caught Roma. Then, since November, very poor people, before seeing middle-class people arrive. We could catch families with children as well as groups of men alone, aged from 18 to 30 years old. We are still very attentive, but it looks like the wave has passed."
Syrians, Afghans and Pakistanis make up three-quarters of the people caught on the Serbian or Hungarian side of the border, the Frontex numbers show. Between March 1 and March 12 alone, Sarac's teams intercepted 536 people from those countries compared with just 33 Kosovars. At the peak of the exodus, the numbers had been more balanced, forcing customs officers to adapt and choose different modi operandi. Syrians and Afghans, who usually cross the border by foot, are now being dropped off by taxis just 300 meters away from Kosovar passengers heading to Hungary.
Nuri Sejdiu, 39, is an unemployed tiler who left Kosovo on Dec. 11, 2014, with his wife and their three children, aged 2, 10 and 12 years old. "I borrowed 1,000 euros ($1,080)," he says. "We took a bus to Subotica. For 250 euros per person, a taxi dropped us off on the side of the road and smugglers guided us by groups of 50 people. Once we arrived in Hungary, customs officers arrested us and locked us up for two nights in a center." He still can't believe that he and his family were then freed to resume their journey, even if he's had to return to Kosovo since then.
On the Serbian side of the border, he was safe. "A Kosovar can move around in Serbia," Sarac explains. "We can only catch the ones who admit they want to cross the border." As part of an agreement for normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU forced Serbia to give Kosovars freedom of movement. And that is believed to be partly responsible for the wave of arrivals in the West. And it could also explain why it took a very long time to react.
"We had to wait until the international community started worrying about the increase in requests for asylum from Kosovars before anything happened," one local observer says. Adds Serbian Interior Secretary Nebojsa Stefanovic, "I re-deployed 100 police officers to other places on the border and rallied 50 police forces. Additionally, 20 German police officers patrol with us and let us use their equipment,” he adds. Germany is the favorite destination for people coming from the Balkans.
Since the stream of Kosovars has dried up, but the number of other migrants has grown so dramatically, there is some question of whether the traditional Balkan path will be closed altogether, which would force migrants toward Romania. On this day, Zoran Vorkapic, a young customs officer, patrols with two Germans. “Here, there was some activity,” he says, pointing towards the trodden grass. On the previous night, 16 Afghans were arrested. This also means that the 30 Syrians from the brickyard walked through here and might already be long gone.
"The taxi to Vienna is a madness, because Hungary is a dangerous step," observes
a migrant named Mohamed. "We have to leave really quickly, before they take our prints and send us back here when we will ask for asylum somewhere else." The Syrians have experienced several difficult adventures. In Macedonia, they were attacked by an armed group.
“To reach the brickyard, we traveled 20 days from Turkey," Nabil says. "We took the bus when we could, but we also followed rails and used the GPS on our telephones to find them." The worst was "walking for 30 hours without drinking, eating or sleeping," Nabil says. "We were soaked, freezing, exhausted. We were like robots. But if we had stopped, we would have caught a cold. And then the police could have sent us back to Greece. This already happened to me in Macedonia."
Even if their path is shorter, the Kosovars also experienced difficulty. When Nuri Sejdiu was freed in Hungary, he spent the last of his savings on train tickets to Berlin and accidently traveled to Slovakia. At the border, his family was arrested and detained for two months. He volunteered to return to Kosovo and has to live there, ashamed of his failure. And he doesn’t know how he will repay his 1,000-euro debt.