Marko Drobnjakovic / AP Photo

In a Belgrade park, refugees wait out Europe’s confusion

Hundreds of asylum seekers squat in Serbian capital, waiting for clarity on borders and money to continue their journeys

BELGRADE, Serbia — The volunteers working at the information booth set up in the unofficial refugee camp next to the central bus station have started to hear a strange question from a few of the hundreds of asylum seekers passing through each day.

“How do we go back home?”

So far, there have only been a few cases of refugees turning back down the long and difficult road they traveled to Europe, seeking refuge from conflict, war and desperate situations in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere.

Last week, an Iraqi man, injured and worn out from his travels, asked the Iraqi embassy to assist him on his return home.

But the unusual question is a growing trend that Gordan Paunovic, the coordinator of the InfoPark assistance center here, said is indicative of the refugees' mounting confusion and frustration over Europe’s flip-flopping on how to handle the people arriving on the continent by the thousands every day.

“They are so confused by the endless border crossing changes and not knowing what is going to happen next,” Paunovic said. “They are exhausted, and some of them think that maybe all this is too hard and not worth it. It’s sad.”

Another disheartening trend Paunovic said he and the other volunteers have noticed among the refugees that have come through here in the past week is increasing pessimism.  

Whereas the first wave of migrants stopping in Belgrade seemed almost enthusiastic about their journey toward Germany, Finland or other Western European countries, today’s current wave seems more desperate, he said.

Refugees sleep on a bench at a park in Belgrade, Serbia on Aug. 28, 2015.
Marko Drobnjakovic / AP Photo

“There was a real energy among the first wave of migrants, and you could really feel it in the air. It was sort of a rush for all of us,” he said. “But they were Syrians or Iraqis, who spoke English, had money, dressed like Westerners and were well educated. They were more self-sufficient.”

In the last week, the makeup of refugees in Belgrade’s makeshift refugee reception center changed, according to volunteers who spent time in the park helping asylum seekers since the beginning of the summer.

“They are visibly poorer and in need of more help,” said Jasmina Selmanovic, a volunteer coordinator in the park. “You can tell by their clothes and what seems to be a lack of education that they are now those coming that are from a lower socio-economic class. Before, almost all of them could speak English or another foreign language. Now, hardly any of them can, and we’ve had to bring in more translators.”

In June, the park was packed with as many as 500 refugees stopping on their way north to the Hungarian border. Today, that number has decreased to about 300 a day, with only about half of that spending the night on the dusty earth before moving on to Croatia.

The most critical question asked by all the refugees is where to go next. But for some who have run out of money during their journey, leaving the park hinges on help from family or friends back home.

Mohammed Assad, a 31-year-old math and science teacher from Al-Hasakah, Syria, arrived early Monday to the park with his group of 15 family members: his two brothers and their wives, and the nine children between them. The youngest child, a boy, was just six months old.

“God has blessed us!” he said about the family’s large brood.

As he spoke in Arabic through a translator, Assad shooed away the toddlers playing at his feet in the park’s worn earth. After a summer of thousands of feet tramping through the park, there was barely any grass left. That didn’t bother the children, who spread out to play with donated stuffed animals and toy cars as their parents reorganized the family’s few belongings into backpacks

“The baby is of course the most difficult for us in this situation,” Assad said.

The family's journey stalled in Belgrade because they had run out of money. Since leaving Syria, Assad said he’s spent 12,000 euros (about $13,350) to get from Turkey, across to Greece, up through Macedonia and now Serbia. It’s an exorbitant amount for the elementary school math teacher, who hasn’t been able to teach in three years, due to Syria’s bloody civil war.

Assad said most of the money went to smugglers, who can charge as much as $2,000 per person for the perilous trip across the Mediterranean in a motorized rubber raft. Refugees also pay for each leg of the journey — whether it’s the bus from the Greek port of Piraeus to the Macedonia border or the bus ticket to Croatia.

The bus ticket to the Croatian border costs 10 euros, but Assad was flat broke. When he arrived in Belgrade on Monday, he called a relative in Germany to ask him to wire more money via Western Union. Until it arrives, the family will stay in the park, where volunteers helped them with food, water, blankets and medical care.

When Hungary closed its border with Serbia on Sept. 15, chaos ensued and thousands were left stranded. Most rerouted through Croatia, which initially held out a welcoming hand. But within three days, as many as 30,000 crossed into Croatia, a country of about 4 million.

Croatia began putting the refugees on buses and trains north to Slovenia, which angered officials in Ljubljana. Zagreb quickly closed all its border crossings with Serbia except for one on Sept. 18, and began busing migrants toward its northern border with Hungary.

Meanwhile, refugees continued to make their way to Serbia, through what is now known as the Balkan corridor from Greece. An estimated 4,500 asylum seekers continue to pass along this now well-worn path each day, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Thousands of those migrants arrive in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, and to this dusty park adjacent to the main bus station. For months, this has been ground zero for the refugees coming through here, either by bus from the Macedonian border or by transportation arranged by a smuggler, who carried them across from Bulgaria.

Volunteers are as confused about the constantly changing border situation as the refugees. On Tuesday, the InfoPark’s information board outside its small, wooden hut advised going to Croatia “as soon as you can.”

“As long as there’s a possibility to get through there, they should go immediately,” Selmanovic said. “No one knows what will happen tomorrow.”

A young Afghan man from Kabul, Ihsanullah, was left broke after his journey to Europe. The 22-year-old had been in Belgrade for four days. From a refugee legal aid center up the street from Belgrade’s main train station, Ihsanullah was checking his Facebook account to see if his father had managed to raise enough money to wire him some help.

“Where is Croatia?” he asked, when questioned if that border would be his next destination. Like many Afghans, Ihsanullah goes only by one name. He didn’t understand English and spoke broken Urdu while a refugee from Pakistan translated.

Ihsanullah had been traveling for five months. His group of five — all young, unemployed men from Kabul — had no intention of returning to their war-torn country now. After the wire transfer comes in, they will move on to a more prosperous and welcoming European country.

“We wait. Then go to Germany,” Ihsanullah said.

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