Belgrade, Serbia – A year after images of refugees surviving in harsh conditions in Belgrade triggered worldwide indignation, the plight of people crossing the Western Balkans remains critical.
While data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) shows a decrease in the number of refugees registered in Serbia – from approximately 7,900 in March 2017 to 4,448 as of December 10 – Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reports that hundreds of people are still stranded.
“Almost 500 people are sleeping rough between Belgrade and border areas,” said Andrea Contenta, a humanitarian adviser for MSF, noting that “freezing temperatures will expose them to huge risks”.
Citizens from Afghanistan account for more than half of the refugees registered in government-run centres, followed by Pakistanis, Iraqis and Syrians. But last year, a growing influx of Cubans became stuck in Serbia amid enhanced border controls, including two walls built by the Hungarian government.
Travelling by plane to Russia, where they can enter without a visa, citizens of the Caribbean island continue their trip to Montenegro, Macedonia or Serbia. In these former-Yugoslav republics, they can still receive a 30- to 90-day tourist visa upon arrival, a vestige of old diplomatic ties.
Once in Belgrade, Cubans hope to cross into nearby European Union countries and eventually reach Western Europe. But their dreams have been dashed by the same razor wire and police patrols that have transformed Serbia into “a huge buffer zone for Europe, where refugee rights are usually ignored”, said Rados Durovic, director of the local NGO Asylum Protection Center.
Data from the Belgrade Center for Human Rights shows that 92 Cubans expressed the will to seek asylum in Serbia in 2016. A total of 168 were hosted in some of the 18 government reception centres as of January 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration. Over the year, that number fell to just over a dozen, according to UNHCR.
Al Jazeera spoke with several Cuban refugees about their journeys.
During an interview with a TV channel in 2016, I expressed some criticism towards the government. I thought it was normal. I love Cuba but I wanted to share my feelings on the conditions of people of African descent like me. After this, somebody came looking for me. I received some threats and had to hide.
Given difficulties to reach the US, especially for a single mother with a kid, I decided to look for safety in Europe. My mother and my older sister came with me, together with my son
When we reached Serbia, it was freezing cold. We needed a place to stay and a government officer sent us to Dimitrovgrad, a small city close to the border with Bulgaria, where a new camp was being opened.
It was like being in the middle of nowhere, but we thought that soon we would move to a better place. Little Matteo and Michael familiarised with the many Syrian and Iraqi children there, and this made it easier for them. For us, adjusting to this new life where nobody could speak Spanish was a challenge.
Months after, we decided to move to a camp closer to the border with Hungary. Every day the Hungarian police allow 10 people to enter their territory. When our turn came, the police put us in a huge container with hundreds of people, inside an area surrounded by fences.
There, they will assess our claim: If they accept us, then we will finally access the EU. I am so afraid that at times I cannot sleep at night.
What brought me here? The need to build a new life. I was born and raised in Havana’s old city, where I had a business, my room and my motorbike. But there were problems. My parents are in Florida, and I hoped to reach them. Entering the US had become too difficult, so I sold my motorbike and bought a ticket to Montenegro.
From Podgorica, I took a train to Belgrade. The first few months were the hardest: I didn’t have a place to stay and I joined thousands of people sleeping in barracks along the Sava river. Most were Afghans, accustomed to such cold. For me, it was unbearable. I started getting sick.
At that point, I asked my father for help. He sent me money and for one month I could pay for a room in a guesthouse. Once the money ran out, I was back on the streets. That’s when I decided to apply for asylum in Serbia. As a Jehovah’s Witness, I started attending a local church group. Even if we could hardly understand each other, they made me feel welcome, and this convinced me to stay.
For the last five months, I’ve been at the Krnjaca refugee centre, on the outskirts of Belgrade.
I’m the only Cuban in the camp, and life is not easy. Moreover, Serbian culture is different, as were my expectations. But thanks to a psychologist, I was able to overcome this stress and think of a positive future.
I am a transgender; that’s why I escaped from Cuba. The country is changing rapidly, but there’s still a widespread macho culture, and discrimination is everywhere. As a trans person, you’re harassed when you walk in the streets and are stopped by police if you go out at night. You cannot live a normal life, have a normal job … Sometimes prostitution becomes your only choice.
I couldn’t resign myself to this. I wanted to be myself and live freely. Just like many others, I had hoped for reaching the US. The so-called “wet feet, dry feet” policy, which allowed Cubans that set foot on American soil to pursue residency, was repealed by the Obama administration last January. Right afterwards, Trump strengthened controls at the Mexican border, and prices asked by “coyotes” – the smugglers – got higher.
When I arrived in Serbia, I tried to “play the game”, what many young refugees call the attempt of illegally crossing borders. Croatian police caught me. I still have signs of their beatings.
Serbia doesn’t seem to be the best place for a trans person, and neither is the camp of Principovac where I am staying right now. Afghan and Pakistani guests look at me as if I was an alien. But I have a friend, a lady from Somalia. She looks at me and asks, “Are you a man or a woman?” I stare back at her, and we both start laughing.
To be perfectly honest, this situation is suffocating. I know that countries in Western Europe can give me real protection and help me with hormone therapy. I desperately need to leave Serbia.