Hundreds stranded at Balkan borders as authorities reject those who cannot prove Syrian, Afghan or Iraqi citizenship.
Belgrade, Serbia – On a cold winter day, a dozen Afghan men who fled the ongoing bloodshed in their homeland gathered around a portable heater at the Miksaliste refugee transit centre in Serbia’s capital.
Another group hit a volleyball back and forth to pass the time, while children drew with chalk on the asphalt. Others lined up at a table and waited for a cup of hot coffee, smoking cigarettes and discussing where else in Europe they intended to travel.
But even once out of the war-ravaged country, Afghan refugees – like others from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere – continue to face violence, danger and exploitation on the path to Europe.
Tajana Zadravec, operations assistant and volunteer manager at Refugee Aid Serbia, said a growing number of the more than 200 refugees who pass through Miksaliste each week have told her tales of being beaten, detained, and forced to pay bribes by Bulgarian police.
“The groups that are coming during the last couple of weeks are coming from Bulgaria – they are in much worse shape than people coming from Macedonia, not just physically but emotionally,” she told Al Jazeera.
“They got beaten, their documents and money [were] stolen, and they had different kinds of injuries that sometimes even our medical help can’t help them [with], so they’re going straight to the hospital.”
Bulgaria’s Ministry of Interior did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for a comment on the allegations, or how many refugees and migrants remained in detention centres.
In a statement published on Friday, Amnesty International called on Bulgaria to address accusations of shootings, beatings, and extortion by police with a “thorough and independent investigation”.
“They took all my money and my phone,” he told Al Jazeera. “I couldn’t speak to my family for weeks. One of my friends hid his telephone [from Bulgarian police] and let me call my dad.”
Yusef told his father he was in a hotel in Sofia and on his way to Belgium. “He was crying because he had been so worried about me. I couldn’t tell him where I was. It would frighten him so much he’d have a heart attack.”
The Afghan refugee, whose father sent him on his way to Europe after Taliban fighters showed up at his house and demanded that he join the armed group, said he never imagined being “beaten up and having my money stolen” once in Europe, especially by Bulgarian authorities.
“I wanted to go to Belgium to continue my studies and live a normal life, but I wouldn’t have come if I knew this was going to happen.”
Yusef said that he planned on waiting here for his cousin and friends to be released from Bulgarian detention centres before he continued travelling. “They are my good friends,” he said. “Hopefully they arrive today or tomorrow.”
His friend Muhammad, 20, remembered being beaten up by a Bulgarian officer. “He came and hit me in the head with a lamp several times for not making eye contact with him,” he told Al Jazeera, pointing to a large lump on the back of his skull.
Last month, the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights and Oxfam, an international charity, published a report detailing alleged abuses against refugees and migrants by Bulgarian police.
Based on several interviewees’ testimony, the report concludes that there is a “consistent picture of alleged violations” in Bulgaria.
Based on more than 100 interviews with refugees and migrants, the testimonies “tell of extortion, robbery, physical violence, threats of deportation and police dog attacks”.
In one instance, a group of around 10 refugees were beaten and had their belongings, including money, confiscated by officers after witnessing “a police officer holding a gun to a refugee’s forehead, while others lay on the ground, apparently unconscious”.
The reports of widespread abuse come at a time when UK Prime Minister David Cameron has praised Bulgaria for restricting the flow of refugees into Europe.
During a visit to Bulgaria’s border with Turkey last week, Cameron urged other European Union member countries to adopt similar anti-refugee measures.
“They have got a sea border that they protect, they have got a land border with Turkey that they protect and I think there are real lessons to be learned here about [how] if you give it the priority you can get it done,” Cameron said.
The British PM said that “it is important that Europe has strong external borders and here in Bulgaria you can see a prime minister and a government that is absolutely committed to that”.
Inside a tent used as a kindergarten for refugee children at Miksaliste, childrens’ drawings and messages paint a grim picture of the violence that “strong external borders” meant for them.
In broken English, one sketch reads: “Bulgarian police keep dogs for their safety, but in real they’re themselves dogs.”
“Bulgaria and Iran bad. Police shoot us on border,” another says, simply.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Habib, 21, recalled “being treated very badly” by Bulgarian officers.
After leaving his university studies and fleeing Afghanistan a year ago, Habib stopped in Iran for several months before continuing to Turkey and finally entering Europe by land via Bulgaria.
Once in Bulgaria, however, he was detained by police – first for a month in a closed detention centre and later in an open centre for three weeks.
“The Bulgarian officers took our money and our phones. They interrogated us over and over and accused us of actually being from Pakistan,” he said.
In one instance, he recalled that an officer at the camp “kept calling me Taliban because I have a beard”.
“He kept calling me Mullah Omar and pushing me,” he said, referring to the former Taliban leader in Afghanistan. “They used dogs to intimidate and attack us. I saw a four-year-old girl get bitten by a police dog. She was just playing by herself when it happened.”
Lydia Gall, a Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that her organisation “can confirm that we have heard similar allegations”.
Gall said that Bulgarian police have a long record of “violent behaviour” and human rights abuses against refugees and migrants passing through the country.
In March, HRW documented Bulgaria’s practice of “pushbacks” on the border, in which officers force refugees and migrants back into Turkish territory – often by employing violence.
“In the past, Bulgarian authorities have given us a flat denial,” Gall told Al Jazeera. “That means there is no investigation and there is certainly no accountability. That sends a message that these abuses are OK and that there will be no consequences for them.”
She added: “The new allegations are consistent with our previous findings of abuses against refugees and migrants in Bulgaria.”
Back in Miksaliste, Habib said: “I wouldn’t have come at all if I knew about Bulgaria. I want to meet my family in Germany, but I wouldn’t have gone and left Afghanistan if I knew I had to go through that.”