At the Gates of Europe

Walking North down Nemanjina Street, past the ruins of the Yugoslav Ministry of Defence building, a noxious scent fills the air, each nauseating inhalation more excruciating than the last. The toxic fires billow into the cold Serbian air, here, in Belgrade, where over a thousand refugees are currently enduring conditions no man in his right mind should never willingly live in. Migrants err like shadows between the city’s main bus and rail station and the Belgrade Waterfront, the controversial housing development which has made waves in recent debate.

Due to a hardening of immigration legislation and heavy border reinforcements, the Balkan route for migrants wishing to gain entry to Europe is currently at a standstill. Whether attempts are made on foot or in the ram-packed lorries of profit-driven smugglers, those desperate to reach Western Europe face sub-zero temperatures and infamously brutal police forces, mostly to no avail; their arduous march has now reached a glacial halt.

Serbia is no stranger to high influxes of refugees, the Yugoslav War having brought hundreds of thousands of individuals streaming though in the 1990s, but tensions between locals and migrants run high nonetheless. With no heat, a single, meagre source of clean water to and finite sustenance to share between such a number of people, every day is a battle for survival in what is informally referred to amongst migrants as ‘the Squat’. To save themselves from frostbite in temperatures known to fall below -15C at night, people burn railway sleepers and flammable products taken out of bins, providing them heat at the cost of toxic fumes. Akin to that of coal miners at the turn of the century, many have skin stained black from the poisonous smoke.

The so-called Squat has become something of purgatory at the gates of Europe; although government funding has allowed the construction of makeshift camps providing water, sanitation, and recreation, many refugees refuse to go there, choosing rather to risk everything to cross the border into the European Union. The lucrative business of human trafficking is thriving in Belgrade. Smugglers loiter in bars around the central train station, charging fees of two thousand euros upwards, bearing in mind that the risk is rarely worth the prize: at the Hungarian border, the fate faced by refugees is hardly an improvement. Many migrants bare the mental and physical wounds inflicted upon them by hard-lined anti-immigration police, who, with their dogs and their truncheons, inflict retribution on people’s will for a better existence.

The complexity and variety of reasons leading to such an exodus are nearby impossible to comprehend in the face of such hardships. Having grasped a mere inkling of their day-to-day struggles, one wonders how the hellish conditions here in Belgrade could possibly be worse than that which these people flee. One could venture that this is the very heart of the migrant conundrum, as the question for many is not about having an idyllic life, but a choice between a rock and a cold place.

As border restrictions in to Europe tighten, refugees, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan squat in disused warehouses in the centre of Belgrade. Many opting not to move to state run camps because of fear of deportation back to Bulgaria or Macedonia. They burn rubbish and railway sleepers to keep warm and keep away hypothermia, though this does create a thick black toxic smoke.
Belgrade, Serbia. 24/01/17.

A Pakistani refugee at the age of 14 from the Peshawar region covers his face with a blue scarf to protect him from toxic smoke inhalation.
Belgrade, Serbia. 25/01/17.

With no sanitation activist groups have erected basic toilets so the refugees can have some privacy. It stands in contrast to the locally controversial “Belgrade Waterfront” property development funded by investors from the UAE.
Belgrade, Serbia. 26/01/17

Ahmad fled Kabul Province in Afghanistan as Taliban were searching for his two brothers as they were aiding the American Military with translation. He hopes to meet them in the future in France. As there is no source of running warm water many heat it up on the toxic fires created to keep warm in the sub-zero Serbian winter.
Belgrade, Serbia. 26/01/2017.

Refugees receive aid from Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders for many conditions ranging from general health to smoke inhalation. Recently they have reported an increase in frostbite. This particular case was caused when making the journey to the Croatian Border, and when better he will make a second attempt.
Belgrade, Serbia. 26/01/2017.

The squalid conditions where the refugees call their home, some have been there several months.
Belgrade, Serbia. 25/01/2017.

Matiullah, 16 just arrived in the Belgrade squat with some friends. It has been a long arduous journey via foot and smuggler though Macedonia, leaving Nangarhar Province in Eastern Afghanistan 8 months ago.