“Push back”

Leaving Subotica for Novi Sad. Yesterday in Sabotica was a tough day. On our info action we met a Kurdish Iraqi family outside the bus station. I wrote about them in the previous post. Soon a large Syrian group joined us. They arrive in 4 cabs from Sid, a Serbian town near border with Croatia. They all knew each other because they’d spent time in the camp at Sid together. The Syrian group’s stop was a short one, long enough to eat a bit (we went and bought some more food), and find cabs to take them across the border to Hungary. There were two guys in a rented car parked near this ad hoc camp on streetside. They were taking pictures and said they were from UNHCR, but wouldn’t provide any ID. Most of our group of activists got into a car and followed the Syrian group to the border, to make sure that they wouldn’t get shafted by the cab drivers. It’s a very lucrative business right now, and there have been many cases of taxis taking people’s money and leaving them in the middle of nowhere.

I and a photographer followed behind on bus to Hergos. When we arrived we saw our friends at the bus stop with another group of Iraqis. The Syrians in the cabs had passed the border and entered the transit zone in Hungary but our friends hadn’t heard from them after that. The Iraqis waiting at Hergos – 6 men, one of them old and ill, 4 women, 4 children including an infant – had been pushed back by the Serbian police who hadn’t allowed them to cross. and given them papers that basically said they had committed a crime and had to go back to the place where they had entered Serbia from and leave from there. And they had extorted a fine from them.

Everybody is making money from “asylum seekers”: the traffickers, the bus companies, the cab companies, the police, the journalists, even, inadvertently, the small aid organizations which have been forced to move from being volunteer-based organizations to registered NGOs with formal mandate, structure, bank accounts and books all in the space of less than a year. But this is the subject for another post.

We waited there while somebody in our group who worked with MSF called the mayor of town who was his friend, and they eventually went to see if they could convince the border guards to let this family across the border, so they went to talk to border guards. It was late saturday afternoon, getting dark and beginning to rain. We were all standing on the side of the road, in a small town, with a pizza shop on one side and a small store across the street. The Iraqi family were exhausted, all except a young playful girl who responded to our approaches energetically. The woman from across the shop across the street brought the kids some chocolate. I offered the last of the food I had, two apples. Even the mayor brought some bags of food. The family were reluctant to accept, but they eventually did. I figured they did not want to be impolite and refuse what was offered to them. It was hard to see them so obviously suffer the indignity of accepting alms from strangers on the side of the road.

It was getting dark when the mayor and people from our group returned in the mayor’s green van from the border. It was bad news. The family would not be let across. The only suggestion was for them to return to Subatica on the next bus and try to go to a camp there. The Subatica camp is in a deserted brick factory. It’s an open camp not a detention centre. We never made it there as we had intended because we met these family groups and ended up at the border. By the time the bus to Subatica arrived it was dark and raining. I and the photographer got on the bus along with the Iraqi group. They paid in euros for their tickets. We were worried about whether they were being charged more than they should be, but couldn’t intervene. I had spent all I had on food earlier and the photographer didn’t have enough to cover the fare for the large group. And plastic cards are useless on board these local buses.

The mood was quite down on the bus. Aside from us, there were only a few people riding back to Subotica. The Iraqi man who was sitting beside me leaned his forehead against the back of the seat in front of him and dozed. The young child was crying. The women seemed in great distress. The old man was the only one who kept offering smiles whenever I made eye contact with him, even though he was obviously ill.

When we got to Subatica and came out of the bus station, a few cab drivers immediately surrounded the group and almost carried them to their cars. The destination was said to be Sid, a town near Croatian border, about 200 km from Subatica. We were very stressed about that. We could imagine how much they’d be charged for that. I was really worried as I saw a tall Serbian man orchestrating the whole thing and the cab drivers giving him some money. He was obviously a smuggler or something close to that. The photographer got on the phone with our group who were on their way to Subatica in a car to find out whether something had changed and the Iraqi family were told to go to Sid. As far as they knew, the person who’d acted as translator on the phone had told the family to go to the camp at Subatica and sleep there for the night.

Language was a real problem yesterday. We had two Farsi translators, myself and Milos who had come with MSF and other activists from Belgrade, but nobody who spoke Kurdish or Arabic, so our communication with the three groups we met was really laboured and inadequate. Google translator is very poor with Kurdish, and bad with Arabic.

Before the photographer finished the conversation, the family were on board the cabs and they drove away. I went looking for the Kurdish family we had met earlier in the day outside the bus station. They were nowhere to be found. We left the area and headed back to the centre of town. We tried not to talk about what we had seen that day and our worry for the Kurdish family.

Later last night I finally managed to talk to the Kurdish friend I had made in the refugee shelter in Berlin who agreed to act as translator. One of the guys in the Kurdish group had become my FB friend earlier that day, and I connected my friend in Berlin and him. Over the night and intermittently through today I’ve been communicating to Berlin in Farsi and he’s been translating into Kurdish for the young man in Serbia. We were trying to give them info about what places they could go nearby where there were transit centres and they could legally apply for asylum, but we found out they too had ended up in Sid near Croatian border.

Talking to the activists I met in Croatia just a few days ago, it is clear that going to Croatia is not much of an option for these people either. They are effectively trapped. Serbia is not accepting asylum applications. The “push back” means everywhere now people are being pushed back from crossing borders, and then nobody is really processing their asylum apps. So they can’t go forward, and they can’t even go back. The situation is really desperate. In responding to rumors and desperately going from one border to another, people are spending the last of their money (if they still have any) and there is nowhere for them to stay.

Activists are afraid of facing criminal charges as smugglers for helping the people on the move with info about borders and transit zones. Meanwhile, the traffickers are making money by sending people to uncertain destinations with false hopes. I can’t really describe what it feels like to witness this. And I know I can’t really imagine what it must be like for people who are entrapped like this. I now understand the depth of the shame people feel who are forced to witness this as many activists I talked to in Zagreb and Budapest expressed. I feel that shame now.

Related Images:

Posted in on the move Tagged with: , , , , ,