Refugee and Migrant Children Injured in Illegal Border Push-Backs Across Balkans

Average of 30 cases a day of unlawful and clandestine push-backs into Serbia

Serbia Freezing Temp
Photo Credit: Tatjana Ristic/Save the Children.

Child Refugee Crisis Relief Fund

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FAIRFIELD, Conn. (January 24, 2017) — The EU-Turkey deal has led to a deadlier land route for refugees crossing the Balkans, with children experiencing harsh weather conditions, dog bites and violent treatment by both police and smugglers as they cross mountains and forests in sub-zero temperatures.

In the last two months, 1,600 cases of illegal push-backs from Hungary and Croatia have been alleged by refugees and migrants, who have been forced – often violently – back into Serbia, despite already crossing its border. An average 30 cases a day of unlawful and clandestine push-backs highlights a disregard for the human right to an individual assessment of the need for international protection.

Save the Children estimates that there are up to 100 refugees and migrants who arrive in Serbia every day, and is supporting the government to refurbish safe spaces and support services which prioritize unaccompanied children. About 46 percent of refugee and migrant arrivals in Serbia are children and 20 percent of these children are unaccompanied and travelling alone, some as young as 8 and 9 years old.

Teenage boys at Miksaliste, (the refugee aid hub in Belgrade where Save the Children and many charities are working), who have been returned from the borders, report police brutality as a regular occurrence along the Balkans land route.

"During the trip I had many problems especially in the woods," a 12-year-old from Afghanistan told Save the Children. "The Bulgarian police beat us, took our money, and asked us why we came to Europe. We also had problems with the mafia."

One Iraqi family, who arrived at Miksaliste early in the morning, had crossed the mountains on the Bulgarian border in the snow the previous night, carrying their 8-year-old daughter. The mother needed urgent medical attention on arrival. They fled Iraq when their house was bombed and the children could no longer attend school because of ISIS.

"In truth the refugee crisis has not abated," said Jelena Besedic, Save the Children’s Advocacy Manager in Serbia. "It’s simply a more dangerous route, especially for children. The EU-Turkey deal has given smugglers a firmer grip on a hugely profitable business, incorporating increasingly dangerous tactics to circumvent authorities."

Refugees and migrants are being forced further underground, often using people smugglers, and increasingly out of the reach of aid agencies’ efforts to provide basic and life-saving humanitarian assistance.

More than 1,000 people are still sleeping on the streets in the center of Belgrade, and with up to 100 additional people a day who need assistance, shelter capacity has become overstretched. Even when space becomes available in asylum centers, migrants and refugees are anxious to move, fearing that they will be detained in centers indefinitely, or deported illegally.

Save the Children outreach teams have met unaccompanied children, one as young as 8 years old, too frightened to get on the bus to the new reception centers. This vicious circle is exacerbated by the smugglers who work on a system of fear and myth, operating in the abandoned warehouse behind Belgrade’s train station. Misinformation about the asylum system is spread by smugglers, who prefer migrants to be accessible to their profitable network.

This week, Serbian authorities made additional temporary space available to get people off the snowy streets and into shelter, but it is still far from enough to meet current needs. Charities and local health services are responding to cases of frostbite and respiratory illnesses caused by freezing people lighting fires of trash to keep warm in the windowless, wet warehouses. Distributions of food, warm clothes and shoes have been strongly discouraged by the authorities outside official shelters alleging they enable people to stay on the streets and in abandoned buildings.

Save the Children is calling for the EU to urgently help by increasing funding for emergency shelters and for the Serbian authorities to support provision of life-saving assistance for those waiting to be relocated to official shelters. In the longer term, safe and legal routes for migration must be made available, including family reunification, resettlement, humanitarian visas, private sponsorship, all of which constitute the best way to combat smuggling along the route, which is an increasingly fatal last resort. Unaccompanied children remain the most vulnerable, so Save the Children continues to identify and prioritize helping these children.

Save the Children gives children in the United States and around the world a healthy start, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm. We invest in childhood — every day, in times of crisis and for our future. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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