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Refugee reality: If the face doesn't fit, you're not coming in

Balkan states now only process Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis. 'The Greek police would not let us pass because we were black,' one migrant said
Sarki is from Ghana and has travelled for months to reach Turkey. He says that nothing will stop him from finding a better life in Europe (MEE / Aleksandar Pavlovic)

SID, Serbia – At the rail station in Sid, hundreds of refugees huddle in makeshift accommodation as they wait for trains to carry them into Croatia. But over the last few weeks, not all have been able to board. Thanks to a ruling by Balkan states to accept only Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, your country of origin now determines your future and, at worst, the colour of your skin destroys it. 

The sudden decision by Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia last week means that those who have fled other countries, such as Pakistan, Nigeria and Somalia, are now stranded in the Balkans, unable to go forward but unwilling to go back. Those from Morocco, Iran and Tunisia have also been caught up, although some are reportedly managing to sneak through as Syrians and Iraqis. 

Europe has for months warned that it could shut its borders to the bulk of refugees and migrants seeking a new home, taking particular aim at those deemed economic migrants, but no one expected this is how it would end.

The UN and human rights groups have lashed out at the restrictions but they look likely to stay in place for the foreseeable future with commentators in the Balkans saying such a large decision could only have been taken with at least tacit cooperation, if not outright support, from the EU. 

Sarki left Ghana to find a better life in Europe. What he found on the Greek border was discrimination. 

After arriving in Greece, Sarki and his friends made their way north to the Macedonian border by bus. They were unable to pass for three straight days and described the conditions as "extremely difficult".

"They told us when we arrived in Greece that they may close the border but we had travelled so far that we had to keep going," he said. "Our friends who were light skinned said they were Syrian and got through, but the Greek police said they would not let us pass because we were black." 

"But we have never caused any problems for Europe. It is the Islamic State [IS] that carried out the attack in Paris [on 13 November], but people from there are getting in no problem. They are just waving them through. We’re stuck and no one is helping us.”

Aid groups have been overwhelmed, leaving people either spending days in cramped temporary shelters, or sleeping out in the open in freezing temperatures pleading in vain for local police to let them pass.

Things are so bad on the Greece-Macedonia border that a group of migrants last week sewed their mouths shut in protest, vowing to not speak or eat until they were allowed to pass.

Frequent clashes have also broken out with police. Last Thursday, more than 200 charged the barbed wire barrier on the Greece-Macedonia border. Five people got through but they were soon caught and returned to the Greek side.

Over the weekend, fresh scuffles erupted and 40 people, including almost 20 police officers, were injured. Estimates vary but there are now believed to be between 800 to 1,200 people stuck in no-man's-land waiting to cross.

Macedonia has also become the latest European state to start building a large border fence to keep people out.

Sarki and his friends say they were among the lucky ones. Using the cover of night they managed to sneak through illegally, and found a way across into Serbia on their own. Once there, they walked north for days to make it to the Croatia border in hopes of reaching Slovenia and then Germany or Belgium, but in Sid the colour of their skin stopped them once again. 

"Those with lighter skin are getting through, but some of us have tried to sneak into the crowd and were spotted straight away," said Sarki. 

“Do they have black people in Afghanistan? We think maybe if we go at night we will try to pass for black people from there,” he added, while contemplating how best to try and evade the new rules. 

A migrant from Ghana who has been prevented from crossing from Serbia into Croatia (MEE / Aleksandar Pavlovic)

After three days of sleeping in Serbian government-run accommodation, set up as a temporary measure designed to house migrants for a few hours rather than days, the group decided to try to cross illegally for a second time. They set off in the pouring rain, in freezing temperatures, with no torches or maps and in the full knowledge that several mine fields lay between them and their next stop.

They likely will not be the only ones. 

Jimoh from Nigeria had just spent three nights in Sid with his fiancee. He said the conditions were extremely hard for women with no separate accommodation for couples, little hot water and below-freezing temperatures.

"No, there is no war in Nigeria anymore, but the situation is difficult and it is not always safe,” said Jimoh, who would only give his first name. "My reasons for leaving are a very long story, which I cannot tell a journalist, but if I could people would understand that it is not just Syrians who should be allowed [into Europe]."

The pair wanted to make it to Hungary where Jimoh said his brother had secured asylum a few years ago, but they were scared and unsure about what to do next. The migrants who have been left behind are now facing a stark choice - get sent back to a camp in Serbia or Macedonia to claim asylum, which very few want to do, try to make the crossing illegally, or pack up and go home.

With police beefing up border-monitoring, the whole Hungarian border totally covered with barbed wire and the Hungarian police arresting and imprisoning anyone deemed to have entered illegally, the onward journey is perilous. Smugglers exist but their routes too have been limited and while they once operated almost in the open in some parts of Serbia, their presence has become less obvious.

Vladimir, who works at the Serbian commission for refugees, said that after the decision to block entry to some nationals, he witnessed hundreds of people suddenly being shipped back and largely sent to Serbia’s small network of asylum centres, where people receive shelter and basic services courtesy of the state.

"Our centres are all open, the people can come and go as they wish, so I don’t know what will happen to them," he said.

Last week, some 300 Moroccan nationals were detained in Sid while trying to make it into Croatia. They were first transported to government-run border centres before being shipped to a larger asylum centre near Belgrade. Within 24 hours, the group had vanished, presumably aiming to try their luck another way.

Faced with these challenges, many have opted to fake their nationality.

A young man in the Sid centre said he had come from Pakistan before quickly claiming to be from Afghanistan. He said he didn’t have a passport but had obtained his Serbian asylum papers that named him as an Afghani.

Two men who say they are from Afghanistan heat their hands on a stove in Sid (MEE / Aleksandar Pavlovic)

Moroccans, Iranians, Tunisians and Palestinians have all claimed to come from Syria. Volunteers on the ground told MEE that Tunisians, who can travel to Serbia visa-free, are in particular believed to be flying to Belgrade before trying to make it to onward destinations such as Germany under a false pretext.

According to local media reports, some foreign diplomats have been selling visas to wealthy migrants from Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Jordan for between $3,000 and $5,000, although officials firmly deny this.

The contrast between those who can and cannot make it through is made all the starker by the relative efficiency with which governments in Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia – known as part of the West Balkan migration route - are now ferrying people north.

While in Serbia there are delays and reports of people having to wait more than 12 hours to receive the right documents on the borders, those deemed to have the “right” nationality are for the most part being registered by police before being sent on their way.

The documents give them a certain level of protection including the right to use public transport, sleep in hotels and seek medical treatment.

Scenes, which shocked the world in September and October, of thousands of men, women and children trudging along train tracks on foot or trying to bypass anonymous fields on the Serbia-Croatia border are no more. 

Mohammed, 21, who says he came from Hasakah province in north-eastern Syria with a group of friends, said the journey was “easy” and only took two days from Turkey, although he said he was “very grateful” the experience was almost over and that he could not wait to start a new life in Germany.

A Syrian man who did not want to give his name in Sid (MEE / Aleksandar Pavlovic)

The journey remains perilous - with people still falling prey to smugglers and other abuses - but the majority of those deemed to have the “right” nationality are picked up by special buses on one border and moved straight to another.

In the Serbian capital, where refugees and migrants camped out in the open in the thousands this summer, the parks and tents have been cleared. Earlier this year the majority of refugees and migrants in Serbia – which has seen almost half a million people pass through its borders this year - claimed that they had taken weeks, if not months, to get there. More recently, many say it takes only a matter of days.

The same cannot be said for those suddenly excluded.

“Yes I come to Europe for a better life, which everyone has a right to do," said Sarki. "But my friend [who is travelling with me] is from Somalia. Please tell me why you will not let him in? This is racism pure and simple.”