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A New Calais? Migrant 'Jungle' Forms On Serbia-Croatia Border

Migrants have begun to live in an informal camp 70 miles from Belgrade, hoping to start a new life westward in Europe.

An Afghan refugee near the Serbian-Croatian border in Sid, Serbia on February 11
An Afghan refugee near the Serbian-Croatian border in Sid, Serbia on February 11
Camilla Cupelli

ŠID — After the Serbian government shut down an official migrant center in this town on the Croatian border, an informal camp arose next to the train station. Locals were quick to start calling it "the Jungle," a reference to the sprawling makeshift camp in Calais, France that had long been a decrepit home to thousands of migrants seeking to cross the English Channel.

More than 100 people have been stuck here since the border was closed in the autumn of 2016, taking shelter in the railway tracks and an abandoned factory nearby. In the last few weeks, many have left on a new route to the European Union through Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"That route is simpler because the border with Bosnia is longer, and there are drones patrolling the Croatian border now," says an Afghan migrant named Yamal.

Officials are discouraging migrants from traveling through Bosnia. "There's only one center there," says Marc Pratllusà of the Spanish NGO No Name Kitchen. "We went there a few days ago, and the situation still needs to stabilize."

Faces Of Šid

For the migrants stuck in Šid, their informal leader is Komando, an Afghan man fluent in English who earned his nickname fighting in a militia group. After suffering an injury that left him in the hospital for four months, he traveled across several countries and gained an intimate knowledge of border issues along the way.

Everyone in the Šid camp has been pushed back from the border at least once.

While Komando sits under the shade eating corn served by No Name Kitchen, other members of the camp's Afghan community and Spanish volunteers play a game with dice and bottle caps. Seated just a few feet away in the brush near the railway tracks is 24-year-old Lucky, one of the few Pakistanis in Šid. Impeccably dressed in a vest over a red polo, he tells his story of fleeing the Taliban by paying smugglers more than $5,000 to travel to Turkey and onto Europe.

"I've been here for five months and ten days, but I want to go to Croatia because the smugglers say it's better than Bosnia," he says. "I'm here with my cousin but this could be our last night here, God willing."

An engineer with a perfect English accent, he is convinced he'll find work and a better future in Italy. "No one goes alone, we all have someone to help us cross the border," he says. "In Italy they don't deport you, and there are more job opportunities there."


Refugees in an abandoned factory close to the Serbian-Croatian border in Sid, Serbia on February 9 — Photo: Edward Crawford

Everyone in the Šid camp has been pushed back from the border at least once. Some try to cross into Croatia once a week, and many have been here for more than a year. Others, like Yamal and his cousin Jamil, use it as a pitstop before leaving as soon as possible. After spending one day in Šid, the two 17-year-olds with hopeful eyes will leave for Bosnia with a larger group. "We slept here in a tent amid the ruins, but tomorrow we will leave," says one.

A large faded sign overhanging the decrepit buildings marks the entrance to the camp. Graffiti in different languages is scrawled on the walls and a small swing hangs from metal tubes. Any shaded spot in sight is taken up by a tent, and a single large water tank serves the entire community.

Volunteers from No Name Kitchen help fill the tank and bring more to provide bathing water. "There were many more organizations here in the winter, when it was very cold and there were a hundred people here," says Pratllusà. "Now we're the only ones left."

The spotlight of the migrant crisis has shifted elsewhere.

In the last few months, the media attention that came with the spotlight of the European migrant crisis has shifted elsewhere as politicians tout the closing of the so-called "Balkan route." Locals in Šid aren't buying it.

"The data tells us that the number of people entering Serbia isn't decreasing, with 456 arriving in April and 250 in the first two weeks of May," says Sara Ristić of Info Park, a local organization that provides migrants arriving in Belgrade with essential information to navigate the city. "The outflow towards Bosnia is a new phenomenon, as well as the arrival of more Iranians overstaying their tourist visas and other migrants expelled here from Bulgaria, Hungary, and Croatia."

While numbers aren't falling, they don't seem to be rising either. According to an April 2018 report by the Belgrade-based NGO Refugees Aid Serbia, 33% of migrants who tried to enter Croatia were pushed back, compared to 31% for those seeking to cross into Hungary.

"Border police often commit acts of violence against these people," says Stephanie Moissaing of Doctors Without Borders, which operates in Serbia. "They cause psychological and physical injuries which could make the victims more aggressive."

The Bosnian Ministry of Defense reported that 2,280 migrants have been found attempting to illegally enter the country so far in 2018, with 1,967 of them apprehended at the border. The number of arrivals is rising but the country remains unprepared for the influx. Serbia operates at least five government-run migrant centers, but almost all those arriving in Bosnia flock to the northwestern town of Bihac on the border with Croatia.

Bosnian authorities and the local press have condemned the growing inflow of people but have proposed little in the way of solutions. NGOs warn of an imminent emergency if migrants begin to cross into Bosnia by traversing the river Drina, which marks a long stretch of the border with Serbia.

"The camps are overflowing because there are too many people housed in them," says Moissaing. "But for the people arriving in Bosnia, it's an important psychological victory. They've taken a step forward, even though the next one will be even more difficult."

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