BOGOVADJA, Serbia (Reuters) - With winter approaching, hundreds of asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East are living in a forest in Serbia without access to basic amenities, a sign of the Balkan state’s failure to tackle a rising tide of migration.
A few have tents, while others have taken over woodland shacks. Many have only clothing to cover themselves at night and log fires for heat and cooking. Reuters reporters found one man living in an electricity sub-station.
All have legally sought asylum but the country’s two asylum centres are full. With around 300 living rough so far, rights groups have expressed growing alarm and say the problem will only worsen as more arrive.
“This needs to be addressed now,” Nils Muiznieks, Human Rights Commissioner at the Council of Europe, told Reuters following a recent visit.
“Winter is coming and somebody could become seriously ill or die in the cold.”
As the European Union squeezes traditional migration routes via the Mediterranean, migrants are increasingly trying their luck through the countries of the former Yugoslavia to reach Serbia’s northern neighbour Hungary in Europe’s borderless Schengen zone.
The turmoil of the Arab Spring has fed a rise in numbers, notably from Syria more than two years into a civil war that has killed over 100,000 people.
The number of people seeking asylum in Serbia has shot up from 52 in 2008 to almost 4,000 so far this year.
But the Serbian government has been slow to respond and has run into resistance from local communities to housing those who are caught trying to cross borders illegally and request asylum. Serbia’s two asylum centres hold around 250.
Serbia is for many migrants the last stop on the long road from Turkey to the Schengen zone, making the problem particularly acute.
In neighbouring Bulgaria, authorities have turned to stricter detention centres to handle the overflow from its asylum camps. In Macedonia, migrants have complained of beatings by police and mafia gangs, and of being turfed back over the border rather than processed according to the law.
“This is a humanitarian crisis,” said Rados Djurovic, head of the Asylum Protection Centre in Belgrade. “Most of them have sought asylum … and the state is obliged to provide them with accommodation.”
“No one can tell me Serbia doesn’t have the capacity right now to find 200, 300 beds, in a barracks or a school.”
In the village of Bogovadja, some 60 km (40 miles) south of the capital Belgrade, there are now as many asylum seekers as villagers, some 170 inside the asylum centre and even more living in what they refer to as “the jungle”.
They each receive one meal per day at the centre, when long queues form.
Temperatures will soon drop below zero as winter sets in.
“We can’t sleep at night, it’s very cold,” said Ziad Hussein, a 22-year-old student who said he was from the Syrian city of Homs. “We don’t have money to eat and in the camp they give us one meal a day. We don’t die in Syria, we die here,” he said, speaking in English.
Syrians made up the single largest group of asylum seekers in Serbia in the first half of this year, the vast majority fleeing by foot into Turkey, then Greece, where migrants have become increasingly unwelcome amid an unprecedented recession.
From Greece many now head north into Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic with which Athens has poor ties and police cooperation is weak. From Macedonia they cross into Serbia, usually by night.
If caught, most immediately request asylum, which should guarantee them temporary accommodation and identification papers until their case is processed.
The issue, however, is a hot potato for political parties.
Attempts by the Serbian government to build a third asylum centre, funded by the European Union, have stalled.
One location was earmarked, but local residents protested when word leaked to the press “and the government gave up,” Djurovic said.
Serbia, which drove nearly a million ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo in the late 1990s and is still recovering from isolation over that war and the earlier Bosnian conflict, rarely grants asylum.
But processing a request can take anywhere between five and 12 months, far longer than in countries inside the EU.
Serbia’s Commissariat for Refugees and Migration, which deals with asylum seekers on behalf of the government, said attempts to find private housing for those living in the forest had failed.
“The local authorities threatened those who wanted to make their homes available for asylum seekers so we got no responses,” spokeswoman Jelena Maric told Reuters.
“This is a great shame on Serbia,” Maric said. “The EU will probably criticise us for this, and they have every right to do so. We’ve been trying to open an asylum centre for two years.”
Serbia expects to begin talks in January on joining the EU, though it is unlikely to become a member before 2020.
Maric said the Commissariat hoped to find temporary accommodation within weeks, but declined to say where, possibly for fear of triggering local opposition. A spokesman for the Serbian government said it was waiting for a proposal from the Commissariat, which he said would likely be adopted.
Djurovic, of the Asylum Protection Centre, however, warned that without a long-term strategy, the problem would only worsen with the growing number of migrants.
“Serbia is the last lighthouse on that route to the Schengen zone, the last wall between them and the long-held dream of Europe,” he said.
“With 200-250 spaces, Serbia can’t cope. That number doesn’t match the figures of how many people sought asylum last year, let alone the estimates of how many there will be in the future.”
Additional reporting by Ivana Sekularac; editing by Philippa Fletcher