In Serbia’s Purgatory for Refugees, There’s Only One Ticket to Heaven

In grim “asylum centers” the only hope and obsession for thousands is to get on “the waiting list” that might, just might, get them into Hungary.

Marko Djurica / Reuters

KRNJACA, Serbia—It is the bleakness of the place that grabs you first. The steel gray sky, the low slung buildings, the winter grass short and bare, laundry hanging from washing lines outside in the cold winter light. There are kids playing though—makeshift cricket seems to be the game of choice—and some of the older guys are playing basketball.

This is Krnjaca, one of the 16 asylum centers across Serbia hosting some of the more than 7,400 refugees currently stalled there. One thousand people are staying here. Primarily from Afghanistan, they are desperate to find a way to move on with their journey to Western Europe.

You would be forgiven if you did not know that the Balkans have become the route of choice for refugees fleeing war. The numbers are not as dramatic as the numbers we saw crossing the Aegean Sea last year. The images of desperate people arriving in boats do not apply. But the flow of desperate people seeking sanctuary remains, their flight the stuff of Hollywood movies, their destination Western Europe.

They walk, fly, take buses, they squeeze into overcrowded taxis, they stumble through the deep forests of Bulgaria in the dead of night, dodging border guards, relying on unscrupulous smugglers. From Afghanistan through Iran, through Turkey, on to Bulgaria, they are beaten, detained, deported, exploited, packed into cars with no seats so that 20 people can be crammed together, with hardly room to breathe, for interminable lengths of time, never stopping, never wanting to be stopped. Then they arrive in Serbia. And that is where the journey, for many of them, grinds to a halt.

One of the only available legal options to refugees for onward travel towards Western Europe is hardly an option at all. Little known outside the region, the Hungarian border police have been allowing 20 asylum seekers to cross the border to enter the European Union every weekday. That’s 100 people per week. If you are a woman traveling with children, if you are gravely ill, if you are traveling as a family, you might have a chance of getting across the border, but nothing is guaranteed. If you are a single man, crossing the border this way is close to impossible.

But no matter how much the odds are stacked against most refugees here, they see this option as their only hope to cross into Hungary, and it has given birth to what is known, simply, as “the waiting list.”

This is how it works: in order to avoid large numbers of people gathering on the Serbia-Hungary border to wait there in the hope that they can cross, refugees, when they arrive at one of the asylum centers in Serbia, must register on a list which is shared with the Hungarian government.

As refugees understand it, the Hungarian government then determines who on that list gets the chance to cross the border and apply for asylum, but it isn’t clear what the criteria are. There is about the whole process a frustrating sense of randomness, like something out of Kafka. Those people who are put on the waiting list watch as their names move up, or not. If they get close to the top they go to the border to await their turn. Everyone else is out of luck.

Naima Sahalzada is 19 years old. She is at Krnjaca with her older sister who is 32 and her mother who is 60. They are from Afghanistan. They left because of the Taliban. Naima cries easily and uses the cloth of her hijab to wipe away her tears. She describes how smugglers in Serbia locked them in a room with no windows for six days before sending them back to Bulgaria. Her mother doesn’t sleep at night. They had sent their names to register with the Hungarian government 10 days ago but they have heard nothing.

Latifah Khalidi is a young woman from Afghanistan who is traveling with two of her children, aged eight and four. She travelled across Iran, Turkey, and Bulgaria with one child on her shoulders and another by her side. She traveled with one backpack. She is trying to reach her husband and her two other children in Germany. She has not made it to the waiting list.

“Three times I have registered here,” she says. “Each time, they say it’s not in our control. It’s in the hands of the Hungarian government. In the time that I have come here, everyone has come and left.”

“Now I feel like I’m crazy,” she says. “I am so nervous.”

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Zazli is here with his wife and four children under the age of 10. Their name is on the list but this doesn’t give him any peace of mind. He too is from Afghanistan and has been waiting at Krnjaca for four months now and has been on the waiting list for two. Their name is at number 414. By his calculations they should have moved on by now. But they haven’t. They go to the asylum center office he says and ask the same question every time.

“When is our turn? When can we go to the border?”

Nobody seems to know the answer.

If your name is not on the waiting list, it is almost impossible to move on from Serbia. At the peak of last year’s crisis, Hungary erected an imposing razor wire fence from west to east across its border. It will cut you at the slightest touch and refugees have the wounds to prove it. The Croatian border police have proven adept in apprehending refugees who try to cross. In the absence of legal alternatives, refugees continue to rely on smugglers but the prospects are slim, the chances of being caught or attacked by a ferocious dog on the other side of a border are high. Many have returned to Serbia with injuries that deter others from trying.

It is altogether unclear what will happen to these people if they do not make it to Hungary. The Serbian response is stretched to the max with the Serbian government building new sites to accommodate the numbers. Funding for this effort is limited.

Meanwhile, refugees spend days in monotonous isolation. Sometimes they play cricket. Sometimes they play basketball. But what they are thinking about is the list. How to get on it? How long before they can move on from this bleak place? This list – this “waiting list” – plays havoc with their minds while at the same time it is the thin, fragile, ragged shred of hope they cling to, never wanting to accept that they may have traveled all this way, endured all that they have endured for naught. The list is the one thing that keeps them moving forward, if only in their mind.