Serbia ‘denying entry’ to Afghan refugees

Macedonian officials say hundreds stuck in their country as Serbia “only accepting people coming from Syria and Iraq”.

refugees from Afghanistan in Serbia blockage
Afghan refugees have been blocked from entering Serbia from Macedonia since Friday [Boris Grdanoski/AP]

Hundreds of Afghan refugees have been stuck in Macedonia since Serbian authorities started denying them entry three days ago, according to Macedonia’s interior ministry.

Serbia, Slovenia, Austria, Croatia and Macedonia signed on Thursday a joint statement announcing new tightened restrictions on refugees and migrants passing through those countries.

Though the statement did not address whether Afghan refugees would be allowed to continue, it did note that “longer residence in a safe third country” could be grounds for rejecting asylum seekers, citing as an example “Afghan national[s] who for a longer time stayed in Turkey or Iran”.

Dejana Nedeljkovic, Macedonian interior ministry spokesperson, said: “Since February 19, Serbia has only accepted those coming from Syria and Iraq.”

Hundreds of refugees cross Greek border into Macedonia

On Friday, 367 Afghan refugees were blocked from entering Serbia from Macedonia, Nedeljkovic told Al Jazeera, adding that, by contrast, Macedonian authorities have “not differentiated between Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans”.

In November, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov announced that only refugees who could prove citizenship in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan would be allowed passage through the country.

The clampdown on other nationalities resulted in a massive build-up of refugees and migrants on the Greek side of the Idomeni crossing into Macedonia.

Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia quickly implemented similar entry restrictions for refugees and migrants.

Nedeljkovic said that, for Macedonia’s part, “there are 617 people from Afghanistan in Macedonia who are not allowed to enter Serbia”, who are now “at a refugee transit centre” in Macedonia’s Tabanovce.

“We still don’t have an official statement from the Serbian government about why this is the case,” she said, adding that it was unclear if the entry denials indicated a change in Serbian policy. 

At the time of publication, Serbia’s interior ministry had not replied to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.  

READ MORE: ‘Afghan refugees aren’t fleeing by choice’

According to UN refugee agency UNHCR, more than a million refugees and migrants reached European shores by boat last year.

Since the beginning of 2016, more than 101,000 have made the trek across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Of this total, at least 27 percent are from Afghanistan, according to UNHCR.

Tajana Zadravec, operations assistant and volunteer manager at Refugee Aid Serbia, explained that there “has been an increase in refugees from Afghanistan since the beginning of February” at the Miksaliste refugee transit centre in Belgrade.

The border turnbacks raise concerns for Afghan refugees in Serbia, including unaccompanied youth, who are waiting for relatives to arrive from other countries, she told Al Jazeera.

‘Complete despair’ 

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Constance Theisen, the Greece-based humanitarian affairs director for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), confirmed that Afghans were denied passage from Macedonia into Serbia on Friday and Saturday.

Humanitarian organisations and activist groups have expressed concern about the apparent border restrictions.

The Macedonian spokeswoman denied rumours that Afghan refugees have been denied entry at the Idomeni crossing on the border with Greece.

READ MORE: Macedonia border closures leave refugees with no hope 

Yet, Are You Syrious?, a group of activists who provide information to refugees on the trail, said there were reports of Afghan refugees being turned away by Macedonian authorities in Idomeni.

According to the group, more than 4,000 refugees and migrants who were unable to cross into Macedonia are camping at a petrol station near the border. Hundreds more are in nearby impromptu camps.

“There is a complete state of despair over there,” Milena Zajovic Milka of Are You Serious? told Al Jazeera. “Many refugees are calling us for help, but there’s nothing we can do.”

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Milka said that on Saturday: “There were a lot of rumours in Idomeni about Afghans not being allowed to pass, but Macedonian police actually did let some of them in the country.

“Today, they have stopped accepting Afghan people completely, allegedly as a response to the Serbian decision to stop accepting Afghan refugees.”

Milka said that, if permanent, the restrictions for Afghans would result in a large increase to an already immense build-up of asylum seekers in Greece.

“That would certainly lead to a humanitarian crisis, but it would also mean more people resorting to extremely dangerous [and] illegal ways to proceed towards Germany,” she said, adding that smuggler networks in Hungary and across the Balkans are “already very strong”.

MSF’s Theisen said that the apparent closures could result in a worsening humanitarian situation in Idomeni and elsewhere.

“There are days when 5,000 people arrive on the [Greek] islands, and that means that two or three days later there are a lot of people in Idomeni.”

‘A lot of patients’

Thiesen said that the humanitarian situation in Idomeni was already bad, adding: “There are already a lot of people with medical needs.”

Referring to people who have entered Macedonia illegally, she said: “We have a lot of patients who have been severely beaten by the Macedonian police and many cases of people having bite wounds from police dogs.”

In a statement published in January, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that sealed borders across the Balkans had turned Greece into a “warehouse” for asylum seekers and migrants, few of whom intend to stay in that country.

“It’s deeply troubling to hear EU leaders discuss plans to trap people in Greece by sealing the country’s northern border while people continue to risk their lives to reach Europe, and thousands more are suffering in Greece,” said Eva Cossé, Greece specialist at HRW.

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_ 

Source: Al Jazeera