While residents of Serbia’s capital enjoyed Friday’s Orthodox New Year celebrations in warm homes with family and friends, more than a thousand migrants struggled outside with bitterly cold winter conditions.
With temperatures set to fall below freezing and snow on the way, some migrants who have fallen through the safety net are surviving on a single meal a day.
Many desperate people from faraway countries are sheltering in Belgrade’s parks and abandoned buildings, struggling to survive freezing cold and wet conditions.
After the closure of the so-called Balkan route to European Union member states, thousands of migrants — mostly young men from Afghanistan and Pakistan — became trapped in Serbia, waiting for the border to reopen.
According to Frontex data, over 740,000 illegal border crossings took place on the Western Balkans route in 2015 alone.
During this period many migrants tried various ways to cross both the Croatian and Hungarian borders — thereby entering the EU and gaining asylum — but many have failed, finding themselves stuck in non-EU Serbia, a small country of just over seven million people.
There are currently around 5,600 migrants in special centers across the country, according to Serbia’s Commissariat for Refugees and Migration.
However, there are estimated to be still over a thousand migrants on the streets of Belgrade, refusing to seek asylum in Serbia — something which would end their dream of entering the EU.
Anadolu Agency spoke to 28-year-old Pakistani national Alamsar who said he had been in Serbia for six months.
Staying in the parking lot of the University of Belgrade, trying to shelter from the rain and snow, he described the desperate condition he found himself in.
“This is very cold, even freezing; we have a different problem every day,” Alamsar said, adding that he and his friends had covered the open side of the parking lot with an old blanket to block the biting wind.
‘People come, take our photos, and go’
Migrants at an aid center established by the Doctors Without Borders organization in Serbia said they were given food once a day but had to wait hours to meet their cleaning needs.
“We do not have a shelter in Belgrade. There is a place nearby, but the conditions are very bad. That place is not for humans.
“People, journalists come, take pictures and go back to their warm homes but we stay in the deadly cold,” he said.
“We have a lot of trouble: we have neither food nor shoes to wear in the freezing cold. We have nothing. We want Europe to make room for us,” Azi added.
On Friday, the UNCHR said it was stepping up assistance to asylum-seekers as harsh winter conditions swept across Europe.
However, Azi said: “The UNCHR and other organizations are highlighting human rights; are our conditions suitable for human rights?”
Migrants in Belgrade staying in abandoned buildings near the city’s railway station are struggling to survive by lighting campfires in areas surrounded by boxes covered with cardboard to protect them from cold.
The makeshift shelters see people sitting, laying and sleeping on a muddy floor, covered in a blanket. The shelter is full of dark smoke from the people’s campfires. Some seem utterly shaken by the freezing cold of a Serbian winter.
“There are more than 500 people coming here every day. We have a meal a day and are trying to keep warm with blankets,” says 32-year-old Manhur from Pakistan.
Most of the migrants are planning to go to Italy as they believe it is the fastest EU country to issue asylum.
In a statement, Serbia’s Refugee and Immigration Commissioner said any asylum seeker requesting assistance would be helped – even if they did not have documentation.
The Serbian government has said it will treat migrants humanely, but added Serbia could not become a “parking space” for migrants.
The Commissariat for Refugees and Migration released a statement on Friday saying it had divided their employees into three shifts to provide 24-hour cover to inform migrants on the street about accommodation in official asylum centers.
But with further cold weather forecast, it seems those trying to find shelter on Belgrade’s streets face a long, hard winter.