BELGRADE Faced with deteriorating conditions in refugee camps, a group of migrants in Serbia said on Wednesday they would continue a forlorn protest march to demand improved accommodation and secure their passage to Western Europe.
A group of several hundred migrants, mostly men fleeing poverty in Afghanistan and Pakistan, set out to walk the 200 kilometres to the Hungarian border on Tuesday, hoping there to enter the European Union's no-passport Schengen zone.
After a night under heavy autumn rain, around half the 300 who set out decided to return to Belgrade, while the remainder hunkered down under police guard at a petrol station outside the town of Indjija, some 50 kilometres north of Belgrade.
Bedraggled migrants complained that Serbia's refugee camps, which have space for just 4,500 people, were becoming unliveable for the 7,000 migrants trapped in the country after Hungary all but sealed its border.
"We applied (to stay), but all camps are full," said Ahmad, an Afghan from Kabul, explaining the decision to abandon attempts to find lodgings in Serbia and leave for the border.
"We were sleeping in parks and under bridges, there's lack of sanitation, food, everything."
Migrant numbers are sharply down from last year, when hundreds of thousands of people escaping war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond swept through south-east Europe, but a backlog of migrants with nowhere to go is building in Serbia.
Patrols have been stepped up along Serbia's southern and eastern borders, but new arrivals still trickle in. On Wednesday, the Interior Ministry said police had found 71 illegal migrants in the eastern town of Zajecar and arrested two suspected smugglers.
The sight of migrants bedding down in makeshift camps near Belgrade's central station has become a common one in recent months, and conditions are likely to worsen with the onset of cooler autumn weather.
In Indjija early on Wednesday, aid workers distributed blankets to the migrants and a local baker provided pastries and sandwiches.
Although the migrants demanded to be bussed to the Hungarian border, Ivan Gerginov, Serbia's deputy Commissioner for Refugees, told Tanjug news agency authorities would not provide any assistance.
(Writing by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Thomas Escritt and Catherine Evans)