An Unreported Crisis: The Human Cost of Neglecting Refugees in the Balkans

By Orson Gard

Since 2015, hundreds of thousands of refugees have sought asylum in Europe. Fleeing devastating wars, the so-called ‘European refugee crisis’ has been widely reported in our media, yet not for the right reasons. Media outlets have framed this phenomenon as a uniquely ‘European’ crisis, neglecting the suffering of those who are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance. Also, by selectively choosing what to report, media outlets have focussed almost exclusively on the challenges faced by EU member states. The situation in other corners of Europe has gone largely unreported, with the majority of people being largely unaware of the plight of refugees beyond the headlines of our national newspapers.

Prior to 2016, a major path into the EU known as the ‘Balkan Route’ enabled many thousands of refugees to avoid treacherous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea. Non-EU Balkan countries such as Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania served as transitory states, permitting refugees to pass through to countries within the Schengen Area, primarily Croatia and Hungary. However, in 2016, this route was cut when Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia closed its borders to Serbia and Hungary erected a fence along its southern border, a morbid symbol of Europe’s disdain for refugees. Yet this did not completely stem the flow of refugees through the Balkans, it merely shifted the problem to non-EU states who are less equipped to deal with the complexities of a humanitarian operation.

The Röszke makeshift refugee camp, seen from the Hungarian side of the Serbia-Hungary border. © UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

As a consequence of the border closures, a number of informal settlements have developed in Serbia. Unable to move forward, refugees were forced to subsist in squalid conditions with little or no humanitarian assistance. A recent UNHCR update (March 2019) observed that up to 570 refugees were living outside official camps, primarily in Belgrade City or close to the northern border, presumably to attempt dangerous border crossings. Indeed, there has been a recent uptick in expulsions from neighbouring countries to Serbia, with 717 refugees being forcibly removed, 59% citing mistreatment by border officials. Throughout the crisis, numerous reports of violence and poor treatment have been made against Hungarian and Croatian border authorities. A recent report has criticised Hungary for deliberately depriving asylum seekers of food and basic necessities, a clear violation of international human rights law. Despite continued efforts by human rights organisations to raise awareness and push the EU to act, refugees continue to experience abuse and neglect at EU borders.

Such mistreatment is having a devastating impact on refugees who have already endured unimaginable hardship. The prevalence of mental disorders is a worrying symptom of this, with many refugees suffering from depression, anxiety, PTSD and, in serious cases, acute psychosis. Although efforts are being made by the UNHCR and its partners in this area, progress is slow and access to psychological support for refugees remains woefully inadequate. A life in transit also has grave social implications, especially for children. With many families living in informal settlements, access to education is negligible, limiting the potential for future integration and enforcing the cycle of poverty that too many refugees become trapped in. Given their status, refugees are especially vulnerable to health problems, social exclusion and poverty. Yet it is their status as asylum seekers that perpetuates this, as the term seems to deem them a population unworthy of receiving adequate support.This is a clear violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention and should therefore be investigated as such by the international community.

Refugees and migrants carry a railway sleeper behind the train station in Belgrade. © UNHCR/Daniel Etter

With the absence of large-scale funding from governments and international NGOs, many small-scale organisations have emerged to fill the gap. Last year, I worked with an organisation called Collective Aidwhich provided up to 1000 meals per day to refugees in the Obrenovac Transit Centre. After I left, they opened a nearby centre – the Azadi Community Centre – to give refugees an escape from the mundanity of camp life through education, creative expression and cultural exchange. Other organisations, such as Help Refugeesand Médecins Sans Frontières, are also providing vital support for refugees, with MSF medical centres providing healthcare and advice to hundreds of vulnerable people.

Despite the best efforts of such organisations and the countless volunteers who keep them going, many refugees are still in need of support. These organisations can only continue their work so long as they receive enough funds and recruit enough volunteers. But such an informal response to a crisis of this magnitude should never act as a substitute for systemic change. Governments and their partners must step up to protect the dignity of refugees. Crucially, the EU must pressure its member states, particularly Hungary and Croatia, to end the violent abuse of refugees and to abide by international law. Aid work on the ground must be matched with political pressure at home in order to ensure that human rights are upheld for all. With the flow of refugees showing no signs of abating, it is incumbent upon us to act.








  7. Minca C Umek D & Šantić D (2018) Managing the ‘refugee crisis’ along the Balkan Route: field notes from Serbia. In: C. Menjivar M. Ruiz & I. Ness (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Migration Crises. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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