Migrant Lives

Inside Belgrade’s Migrant Camps

New waves of migrants, including Syrian war refugees, seek to reach the gates of Europe at the Hungarian border.

Stuck in Serbia
Stuck in Serbia
Rita Rapisardi

BELGRADE â€" It’s still dark at 5 a.m near the railway station in the Serbian capital. The streetlights are on but the roads are quiet. A half hour later, everything changes as the camped-out migrants awaken, and dozens of migrants quickly get up, take their sheets and clear the way for the commuters arriving at the train station.

The new day brings with it the race for some free electricity, and behind a small café five young men huddle around an adapter plugged into a wall socket. The smartphones are everything for a migrant in a faraway place: a direct line to loved ones they’ve left behind at home and the source of all the information they need to proceed, including addresses and maps.

We are at the heart of Belgrade’s transport system, where every day dozens of migrants arrive and depart from two bus stations and one train station. They follow the Balkan route, aiming to reach Hungary after coming up from Macedonia from the south.

An estimated 100,000 asylum seekers are crossing Serbia on this August day, and most stay in the capital for less than a week. They then travel onwards by bus, train or taxi to the border with Hungary. Some of them have heard about the Hungarian government’s construction of a wall along the Serbian border, for now just a four-meter-tall metal fence, but they are optimistic nevertheless about their chances to making it inside the European Union.

Hundreds of migrants are camped in two large green spaces, where trash and rags litter areas once covered in grass. There are tents in every corner, even under the trees, while others opt for sleeping bags strewn on the ground. The less fortunate resort to sleeping on cardboard, huddling against one another to conserve heat. Some seek shelter in the corridors of the station.

“I arrived in Italy from Algeria, after crossing the Mediterranean,” says a 40-year-old who gives his first name, Said. “In Rome they refused to give me asylum documents, so I took a flight to Istanbul and now I’ll try entering from Hungary.”

Taxi to the border

It is mostly men here, and the few women are married and arrived with their families. The majority of the refugees camped in Belgrade are between 20 and 30 years old, and hail from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and countries in Africa. Most dream of reaching northern Europe, especially Germany, Belgium and Scandinavia, following in the trail of their friends or family members who have made the same journey before them.

Five or six men raise their voices, smartphones in hand, and show a map to the taxi driver to help him understand where they want to go. “They all want to come, all of them,” says the Serbian taxi driver to Rosheng, the only refugee here who speaks English.

They reach a deal on a route to the Hungarian border, roughly 200 kilometers away, for fifty euros each. It’s expensive, but Rosheng accepts. But then, the driver refuses to have seven people, even after Rosheng explains that the two children can be carried in their parents’ arms.

In the end, the driver proposes taking two taxis for 500 euros. Another driver intervenes, saying he’ll take the group in one car, and receives insults from his colleagues. They depart for the border.

Rosheng is 21, speaks four languages and studied engineering in university. He fled Syria with his six brothers. “In Syria you can be a student until you’re 18, then you must go to war,” he says. “Even as a college student I can no longer avoid going to war. I don’t want to fight.”

He landed in Greece a week ago, before making his way through Macedonia. “Some soldiers put us on the train to Serbia. We paid ten euros,” he recounts. Rosheng left his friends, fiancé and parents behind in Syria, and they now wait for him at the Turkish border.

Local nightlife

He and the others will leave again tomorrow on the bus with their ten-euro tickets. “Then, at the border, we will see,” he says.

“All the hostels are full,” explains Jovac, who has driven taxis for a long time. “Not the hostels in Belgrade, they ask to see passports, but they go outside the city.” The other option is a city park, but there is rubbish everywhere and the night brings strong winds and colder temperatures.

It’s past 11 p.m. at the station when three full buses arrive. The people streaming out of the buses seem disoriented, and some don’t even know where they are. One group runs immediately to a cab driver, and the head of the family brandishes his smartphone, presenting a photo of a map: “We have to go here,” he says. His destination is a hostel 25 kilometers from Belgrade, where he has a reservation.

Many of the migrants in the camp are children, and they run around playing with whatever they can find: a rolled-up sock, a pair of underwear, a cardboard box. The younger ones don’t understand the situation they’re in, while the older kids stay close to their parents, sitting on the ground in silence. Representatives of local associations distribute food two or three times a day, but they don’t bring much â€" and many of the camp’s residents buy their own food.

Two young social workers from Belgrade freely distribute food and clothes to the camp’s residents. “No one thinks about them, we do the least we can,” says one. There’s no police presence anywhere to be seen, but one refugee claims that they patrol the area in plainclothes.

A few meters away, Belgrade’s nightlife awakens as the Serbian capital’s famous bars lining the Sava river open for the evening. Design galleries, nightclubs and cocktail bars on barges fill with young revelers as music seeps into the open air. The locals seem unaware of the dramatic situation only a few meters away.

Rosheng hasn’t taken a shower in two weeks, but he says it with a smile. “They took away my future and that of my brothers, just like they did in Europe during World War II," he says. "But we won’t give up, we will make it."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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