April 28, 2015
SUBOTICA — At regular intervals, thick smoke emerges from the fire and interrupts the sleepy atmosphere. Eyelids open and words are exchanged to forget, if only briefly, the weariness that fills the brickyard. This abandoned factory in the Serbian town of Subotica is shared by Afghans, Pakistanis and Syrians traveling through the Balkans, and is used as a resting place before entering the Schengen Area, represented by the 26 European countries that have abolished passport and any other type of border control at their common borders.
On this day, about 30 Syrians and Iraqis are trying to warm up around a fire alongside 20 Afghans. People check their flashlights while awaiting a text from the smuggler. "Taxis are waiting for us on the other side of the border, and we are going to Austria," says Nabil, a 46-year-old Syrian man, adding that the passing and the drive will cost around $1,500 per person.
Predrag Sarac knows the scenario by heart. He is responsible for security along the 174.6 kilometers of the Serbian-Hungarian border, and his mission is to reduce the number of illegal crossings. His area is the third entry door for illegal arrivals in the Schengen Area (there were an estimated 37,000 illegal crossings in 2014), after the central zone of the Mediterranean Sea (174,000 illegal crossings last year) and the Western Mediterranean Sea (50,000 illegal crossings last year).
As executive director of Frontex, the European agency monitoring external borders, Fabrice Leggeri is worried because illegal entries into the European Union increased by 250% in the first two months of 2015 compared to the first two months of 2014. And he says that "a significant influx" is coming from the Balkans. Sarac explains why. "We are on Passageway 10, the shortest way between the Thessaloniki region and Austria. Migrants arrive here from Greece, hidden in trains and in cargo wagons, but they also arrive by car or by foot. And then, Kosovars add up."
In Kosovo, more than half of the working-age population is unemployed. It took more than five months to form a government, between July and November 2014. The dire situation has led many in this small country, which became independent in 2008, to flee to the West. Of 1.7 million residents, some 130,000 to 140,000 have left, says Ilir Deda, the country's opposition deputy.
The belief that Europe needed laborers and that customs officials would let migrants enter the territory increased the emigration frenzy at the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015. At first, this travel was possible because of the free movement agreement signed between the EU and Serbia in 2013, and also thanks to cheap transportation. It costs only 21 euros ($23) to take a bus for the 700 kilometers from the Kosovo capital of Pristina to Subotica in Serbia.
Serbian border, Horgoš — Photo: Meelosh
"This flight started in the summer of 2014," Sarac explains. "First, we caught Roma. Then, since November, very poor people, before seeing middle-class people arrive. We could catch families with children as well as groups of men alone, aged from 18 to 30 years old. We are still very attentive, but it looks like the wave has passed."
Syrians, Afghans and Pakistanis make up three-quarters of the people caught on the Serbian or Hungarian side of the border, the Frontex numbers show. Between March 1 and March 12 alone, Sarac's teams intercepted 536 people from those countries compared with just 33 Kosovars. At the peak of the exodus, the numbers had been more balanced, forcing customs officers to adapt and choose different modi operandi. Syrians and Afghans, who usually cross the border by foot, are now being dropped off by taxis just 300 meters away from Kosovar passengers heading to Hungary.
Nuri Sejdiu, 39, is an unemployed tiler who left Kosovo on Dec. 11, 2014, with his wife and their three children, aged 2, 10 and 12 years old. "I borrowed 1,000 euros ($1,080)," he says. "We took a bus to Subotica. For 250 euros per person, a taxi dropped us off on the side of the road and smugglers guided us by groups of 50 people. Once we arrived in Hungary, customs officers arrested us and locked us up for two nights in a center." He still can't believe that he and his family were then freed to resume their journey, even if he's had to return to Kosovo since then.
On the Serbian side of the border, he was safe. "A Kosovar can move around in Serbia," Sarac explains. "We can only catch the ones who admit they want to cross the border." As part of an agreement for normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU forced Serbia to give Kosovars freedom of movement. And that is believed to be partly responsible for the wave of arrivals in the West. And it could also explain why it took a very long time to react.
"We had to wait until the international community started worrying about the increase in requests for asylum from Kosovars before anything happened," one local observer says. Adds Serbian Interior Secretary Nebojsa Stefanovic, "I re-deployed 100 police officers to other places on the border and rallied 50 police forces. Additionally, 20 German police officers patrol with us and let us use their equipment,” he adds. Germany is the favorite destination for people coming from the Balkans.
Since the stream of Kosovars has dried up, but the number of other migrants has grown so dramatically, there is some question of whether the traditional Balkan path will be closed altogether, which would force migrants toward Romania. On this day, Zoran Vorkapic, a young customs officer, patrols with two Germans. “Here, there was some activity,” he says, pointing towards the trodden grass. On the previous night, 16 Afghans were arrested. This also means that the 30 Syrians from the brickyard walked through here and might already be long gone.
"The taxi to Vienna is a madness, because Hungary is a dangerous step," observes
a migrant named Mohamed. "We have to leave really quickly, before they take our prints and send us back here when we will ask for asylum somewhere else." The Syrians have experienced several difficult adventures. In Macedonia, they were attacked by an armed group.
“To reach the brickyard, we traveled 20 days from Turkey," Nabil says. "We took the bus when we could, but we also followed rails and used the GPS on our telephones to find them." The worst was "walking for 30 hours without drinking, eating or sleeping," Nabil says. "We were soaked, freezing, exhausted. We were like robots. But if we had stopped, we would have caught a cold. And then the police could have sent us back to Greece. This already happened to me in Macedonia."
Even if their path is shorter, the Kosovars also experienced difficulty. When Nuri Sejdiu was freed in Hungary, he spent the last of his savings on train tickets to Berlin and accidently traveled to Slovakia. At the border, his family was arrested and detained for two months. He volunteered to return to Kosovo and has to live there, ashamed of his failure. And he doesn’t know how he will repay his 1,000-euro debt.
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The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
October 19, 2021
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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