Resilience in the Face of Exclusion: Refugees and Migrants on the Closed “Balkan Route”

By Kathryn Metz, Outreach Coordinator at the Center for Slavic and East European Studies

What is left of the so-called Balkan Route? The path taken by hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees in the summer of 2015 has been effectively closed off with border fences and increased police presence along the borders of Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia.

In 2015, the Western Balkan countries viewed themselves as a transit zone; the path that migrants took as they attempted to enter the European Union. However, with the closure of borders in 2016, tens of thousands have been trapped on the fringes of the European Union in the Balkans for over a year, and the possibilities for reaching Western Europe are increasingly limited.

Source “Outsourcing Migration Management: The Role of the Western Balkans in the European Refugee Crisis” Migration Information Source p. 2

In Serbia alone, over 4,000 people are still stranded. They primarily come from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan and are now at the mercy of slow asylum procedures administered by Hungary, or dependent on smugglers to facilitate irregular border crossings.

I spent the summer in Serbia interviewing refugees, migrants and aid workers in the country that lies on the borderlands of the Europe Union. I sought to understand who remains on the Balkan Route and how people are still attempting to cross closed borders.

The reality is tragic; although the borders are nearly sealed, refugees and migrants are not abandoning their dream to find a better life in the West, and they are often endangering their lives to do so.

In Serbia, the official channel to apply for asylum to the European Union is conducted at the Hungarian border, in two transit zones in Roszke and Tompa. To reach one of these transit camps, one must add his/her name to a list, which is controlled by the Hungarian authorities. Until their number is called, they must wait in a Serbian reception center.

Men playing cards inside the Krnjaca Reception Center.

This wait-time can exceed 18 months, however, according to a representative from the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migrants, for those who have arrived after January 1, 2017, no one has even been assigned a place on the list. Their waiting is in vain.

An official from the Commissariat claimed that the most common question inside the centers is “when will it be my turn?” – a question that no official in Serbia can answer.


Children playing inside the Bogovadja Reception Center

The Hungarian authorities control the list and they offer entry to 10 asylum seekers a day into the transit camps. While waiting for a decision on their applications, all asylum seekers are detained in closed container camps on the border, a practice that is in clear violation of international and European law.

Aid workers have very limited access to these camps, but a recent report by reveals the inhumane treatment that exists inside. Chances for receiving asylum in Hungary are low, as the Hungarian authorities have  granted protection to only 444 asylum-seekers in 2017, rejecting 2,503 applications. A rejected application results in removal from Hungary, with the only option left being to re-enter Serbia and find an alternative route to the EU.

Although inefficient and unpredictable, waiting for a chance to apply for asylum in Hungary does give some families, women and children hope for receiving international protection. However, because single male migrants are not considered a vulnerable group, they often do not register for the list. Instead, they rely solely on smugglers to cross borders.

A group of Pakistani and Afghan men come together every afternoon for an English lesson in a squat in Sid, Serbia.

Most single men in Serbia are from Afghanistan. They claim that they fled their homes due to insecurity. Many of them report Taliban threats of violence because of their association with “infidels” by working for Western companies or with U.S. or Afghan armies. They saw only one choice for a secure life with a promising future, and that was in Western Europe.

A group of young Afghan Refugees sitting in “Afghan Park” in Belgrade, Serbia

To realize their dreams of stability and security, these men have traveled over 5,000 miles from Central Asia, through Iran, Turkey and Bulgaria, finally to arrive in Serbia. The majority tell stories of imprisonment, beatings, starvation and deception by smugglers at every step of their journey.

In addition to the mistreatment, they have also spent thousands of dollars to reach Serbia. Returning home is unthinkable for 90% of the men I interviewed.

Most men reported attempting to cross the Croatian, Hungarian and/or Romanian borders over 30 times. They claim that they cross the border by foot with a smuggler who navigates and once inside the territory, they wait for another smuggler to come by car and drive them to Austria.

Bags are packed in Belgrade: preparing for a journey to the Croatian border

Often these smugglers never come and the men wait in the forest, or the “jungle” as they call it, for days without food, water, or a connection to the outside world.  Eventually they are discovered by police and pushed-back to Serbia, a violation of both European and international law, as these collective expulsions prevent individuals from applying for asylum. The refugees also divulged countless stories of brutality by border guards.

Nurses visiting Pakistani men who live in the “jungle,” treating their wounds

Many of these men have been stuck in Serbia for almost a year and although they often wear a smile while telling their stories, they state that they are “wasting their lives.” However, most do not consider applying for asylum in Serbia as a viable option due to the lengthy and unreliable application process.

In 2017, Serbia has granted just one person protection, out of 158 applications; and in 2016, they granted only 42 individuals asylum out of 574 requests. While 40 applications were rejected, a large majority of the applicants left the asylum centers before a decision was rendered.

For those refugees who live close to Belgrade, many come to the city and spend their days in “Afghan Park.”

Many of the refugees feel welcome in Serbia — the government has even piloted a program to welcome children into the school system in an attempt to prevent a gap in their educational development – but the refugees still only view it as a transit country on their way to Western Europe.

After speaking to these men, the irony of their situation strikes me; they left intensely insecure homes in hopes of finding security, but in each country they enter they have faced more uncertainty. Life in the European Union is their last hope for living a fulfilled life, but this plan is also risky. Even if they successfully cross the border into the EU, they will likely be returned to Bulgaria once they apply for asylum because of the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that an asylum seeker should be returned to their first point of entry into the EU.

Volunteer groups come daily to a distribution point in Sid with water, generators, and food, giving the men an opportunity to clean themselves and recharge.

With evolving technology on the borders and increased patrols, gaining access to the EU by irregular means is a precarious endeavor, and official channels offer slim recourse for receiving protection. Serbia intends to pass a new asylum law, which aims to expedite decision making, but progress on passing the legislation has been slow. All the while, the refugees remain in limbo.

What was once an attention-grabbing “crisis” is now becoming protracted and stagnant. Yet the people remain, and the question is how long can their resilience last in the face of exclusion?

Graffiti inside an abandoned building in Sid, a Serbian town on the border of Croatia

All photos were taken by author

Blog posts are by private authors and do not express the opinion of or a political endorsement by the Center for Slavic and East European Studies

Between Pittsburgh and Podgorica: Jon Harris’ Intensive Study of BCS

Jon Harris is an MA student at the Center for Slavic and East European Studies. He recieved a 2016 summer FLAS fellowship to learn Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian (BCS). He spent the summer between the University of Pittsburgh’s Summer Language Institute (SLI) and the University of Donja Gorica (UDG) in Podgorica, Montenegro, improving his language skills and experiencing the culture of each place. 

Seven students sitting on a stone embankments with a tower in the bacground

Mount Lovcen

“I participated in an intensive ten-week course at the University of Pittsburgh’s Summer Language Institute (SLI), which is renowned for offering critical and less commonly taught languages. One of the many strengths of this particular program is that language courses are offered in a hybrid format, which allows students to combine six weeks of domestic study at the Pitt campus with an optional four-week study abroad component. As such, my time was split between the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Donja Gorica (UDG) in Podgorica, Montenegro.

The structure of this program was highly beneficial in that I completed one academic year’s worth of language training at Pitt prior to departing for Podgorica. Therefore, when I arrived in Montenegro, I was able to converse with a greater degree of fluency across a wider range of topics. This truly allowed for me to make the most of my time spent abroad.

As a person from the Buckeye State, I had been conditioned to scowl at the sight of black, yellow, and all things pertaining to Pittsburgh. However, after putting aside deep-seated sports rivalries, I began to fall in love with the Steel City. Pittsburgh is nothing if not beautiful; situated in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, there is no shortage of breathtaking vantage points to take in the best views of the city’s forests and rivers.

Stack of different books

BCS textbooks

Despite the urban setting of the University of Pittsburgh, there are plenty of green spaces for recreation and relaxation between classes. The crowning gem of the Pitt campus is, unmistakably, the Cathedral of Learning, a Late Gothic Revival cathedral standing at 535 feet. Every morning for six weeks, I attended classes in the basement of this iconic, towering edifice. Upon entering the threshold of the building, the intellectual atmosphere permeating the Cathedral of Learning becomes instantly palpable, as if one is carrying the torch of an academic tradition larger than him or herself. The Cathedral is also home to the widely known Nationality Rooms in which artifacts from 30 different nationalities are continually on display.

In addition to 180 hours of classroom instruction, SLI provided ample opportunities for language learning in informal social settings. Pizza Tuesdays, Lunch with the Instructors Thursdays, and Film Fridays allotted time for students to practice their respective target languages in a fun, carefree manner. At the end of each week, all SLI students would congregate for Language Happy Hour, a weekly picnic hosted by students and instructors of the various language groups. The South Slavic language group, represented by students of BCS and Bulgarian, prepared traditional food and drink for the event in addition to performing songs and dances.

A bright green boat off of a dock in a lake that is reflecting the surrounding mountains and trees

Black lake in National Park Durmitor

Studying BCS—or any Slavic language, for that matter—in Pittsburgh is particularly beneficial. Owing largely to the legacy of the early U.S. steel industry, the Slavic communities within Pittsburgh are strikingly visible. For the duration of my stay in Pittsburgh, I resided in the picturesque Polish Hill, a thriving neighborhood replete with Polish delis and a Catholic church. I ate ćevapi, somun, and ajvar at the Bosnian markets; I attended an all-Croatian mass at St. Nicholas Catholic Church; and I even heard a sermon in Russian at the Дом молитвы для всех. Upon becoming a member of the Carnegie Public Library, I had a seemingly infinite reserve of BCS grammar textbooks at my disposal. For these reasons, the initial six weeks spent in Pittsburgh prepared me exceedingly well for the transition to Podgorica.

In my experience, academic and otherwise, Montenegro is often overshadowed by her Balkan brothers of Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. When I arrived in Podgorica, the capital of this small, mountainous country, the air bustled with patriotic fervor in both celebration of ten years of national independence and the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Prior to studying abroad in Montenegro, I had never heard anybody, personally, refer to their mother tongue as crnogorski (Montenegrin). The unique Serbo-Croatian dialects spoken in Montenegro were traditionally referred to as Serbian; however, in the wake of national independence, the Montenegrin variant is becoming more and more standardized. As a student of the Balkans, this was exciting to witness firsthand.

For four weeks, I studied BCS with six other students from Pitt at UDG, the largest private university in Montenegro. Because I was the only advanced-level student, UDG provided me with one-on-one tutoring sessions prior to our normal classes. This month-long course emphasized practical BCS, which was particularly useful for navigating daily interactions at restaurants, stores, and on the streets.

Wide green valley

View from Tara Bridge in Zabljak

Language instruction and cultural lessons took place not only within the classroom but also outdoors. Our instructor devised a curriculum that incorporated weekly excursions to the awe-inspiring national parks of Montenegro. We climbed the 461 steps of Mount Lovćen to visit the Mausoleum of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, the final resting place of the most revered Montenegrin writer and national hero. We spent an entire afternoon hiking around the turquoise glacial lakes of National Park Durmitor. Traveling along the Montenegrin Adriatic coast, we visited the exceptionally beautiful towns of Budva, Kotor, Perast, and Tivat. In Virpazar, we beheld the ancient ramparts of the Besac Fortress, which was built by Ottoman Turks at the end of the 15th century. Montenegro truly offers some of the most memorable landscapes in the world, too numerous to list here.

In both Pittsburgh and Podgorica, I dramatically improved my mastery of BCS, acquired new experiences, and made personal and professional connections that will last me a lifetime. I was so impacted by my time spent overseas that I am currently applying for career opportunities in Montenegro. As such, I wholeheartedly recommend Pitt’s SLI program, which offers approximately ten Slavic languages annually, to all future FLAS applicants.”