Increasing numbers of refugees and migrants are travelling through the western Balkans to the European Union in search of safety and protection. But the Balkans route is far from safe, and refugees who attempt to seek asylum in Serbia or Macedonia face severe obstacles, Amnesty International said in a report on July 7.
“Those making this perilous journey are met with both violence and indifference by the authorities, adding to the hardship,” Amnesty International said, and called for safe and regular routes into Europe, and for the respect and protection of refugees’ and migrants’ rights.
With few safe and legal routes into the EU, many of the thousands of refugees and migrants who have travelled the western Balkans route to Hungary find themselves trapped outside the borders of the EU in Serbia and Macedonia, without any legal protection or status, the report said.
Refugees face considerable obstacles in accessing asylum in any country along their journey. Refugees and migrants alike are at constant risk of exploitation, arbitrary detention and ill-treatment along their journey.
In 2014, more than 42 000 people entered Hungary irregularly from Serbia.
More than half were refugees and migrants who had crossed the border into Hungary from Serbia, having travelled along the western Balkans Route from Greece, the vast majority through Macedonia. Their numbers are increasing: by June 22 2015, 60 620 refugees and migrants had been apprehended entering Hungary irregularly, 60 089 of them crossing into Hungary from Serbia, the Amnesty International report said.
The Balkans route is certainly not safe. At Macedonia’s border with Greece, and at Serbia’s border with Macedonia, refugees are routinely subjected to unlawful push-backs and ill-treatment by Border Police. They may be arbitrarily detained by the authorities. Their irregular status also makes them vulnerable to financial exploitation by law enforcement officers, who misuse their authority to demand bribes.
In addition to human rights violations at the hands of the authorities, refugees and migrants are vulnerable to exploitation by smugglers who, in the absence of safe and regular routes, make their irregular journeys possible.
Smugglers can fail to live up to their promises, raise the agreed fee or abandon people in remote areas. Refugees and migrants are also vulnerable to attack and robbery by armed groups, but because of the harsh treatment that some receive at the hands of the authorities, they fear reporting such attacks to the police, the report said.
Refugees who attempt to seek asylum in Serbia or Macedonia face severe obstacles. Despite the increase in the numbers of registered asylum-seekers, the number of refugees granted international protection in both countries remains pitifully small. In 2014, 10 asylum seekers were granted refugee status in Macedonia; and in Serbia, only one applicant was provided with asylum, while five were granted subsidiary protection.
The fact that most refugees view Serbia and Macedonia as transit countries on their journey to the EU, does not absolve these countries of their obligations to develop effective asylum systems, which would provide refugees with access to international protection.
Amnesty International said that as its report was going to print, Hungary had announced a series of measures intending to restrict access to asylum in the country both physically – through the construction of a fence – and through the introduction of legislation that would facilitate the denial of asylum to asylum seekers who had transited through a “safe third country” – i.e. Serbia.
Given the obstacles to accessing asylum in Serbia and the risk of chain refoulement to Macedonia and on to Greece, Hungary should ensure that it continues to offer access to asylum to refugees entering Hungary irregularly from Serbia.
Amnesty International urged European governments to offer refugees safe and regular routes to access protection, and ensure that refugees have effective access to asylum at the EU’s external land borders. It proposed a series of measures towards the creation of an “equitable, rights compliant”, migration management system in the EU.