At the crack of dawn hundreds of refugees, most of them Syrians, stream into Serbia’s southern valley of Presevo after a perilous journey they hope will lead to a new life in the European Union.
“It’s a dangerous road, we’ve been walking for days,” says Mahmoud Rashid, a 25-year-old Kurd from northern Syria’s devastated city of Aleppo.
For several weeks the men and women, some carrying babies, had mostly walked – crossing through minefields on the Syrian – Turkish border, camping in forests, and hiding from mafia gangs as they passed through Greece and Macedonia.
At Presevo, they are met by local officials who usher them into a temporary reception centre to receive medical aid, food and shelter.
The majority hope the stay in Presevo, a mostly-ethnic Albanian town of some 30,000, will last only a few hours – the time it takes to apply for asylum in order to get a document legalising their stay in Serbia for 72 hours.
Once the precious piece of paper is in hand, the plan is to board a train or bus to the northern town of Subotica on the Hungarian border.
But many have discovered that making that crossing is not as easy as thought, given Hungary is building a four metre high fence to keep migrants out.
The number of people apprehended crossing the Serbia-Hungary border alone has risen by more than 2,500 percent since 2010–from 2,370 to 60,602, Amnesty International said in a report in early July.
Those caught are stuck in Serbia, resulting in a sharp jump in the number of asylum seekers there.
Since the beginning of the year, more than 37,000 asylum seekers have been registered in the ex-Yugoslav republic, the interior ministry said.
And with between 800 and 1,000 refugees arriving every day in the Presevo valley in recent weeks, according to official estimates, fears are growing of a looming crisis in Serbia.
“It’s just the beginning of the refugee crisis in Serbia. Wait until autumn,” said an international relief worker who did not want to be named.
“I have a feeling the country will not be able to cope without strong foreign backup.”
Underlining the pressing demand, local Red Cross official Ahmet Alimi said, “Since we established the centre a week ago some 5,000 people have passed through, twice more than the number registered by the authorities since early June.”
No turning back
In a visit to Serbia this month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged that the EU would help Hungary and western Balkan countries deal with the sudden influx of migrants. At the time, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic stressed that the “immigrants are a joint problem and we will need Europe’s help to resolve it.”
Visiting Presevo in July to assess the impact of the refugee influx, he asked migrants: “Are people here friendly? Do you have enough to eat?”
For many Syrian refugees, Greece is typically the first EU port of call but most try to slip through unnoticed to avoid seeking asylum in a country mired in a debt crisis where they expect little material support. So instead they head through the Balkans, many hoping to wind up in affluent Germany or Sweden.
Residents in Presevo are generally sympathetic to the refugees as they themselves are accustomed to conflict due to the inter-ethnic tensions near neighbouring Kosovo.
“It’s a shame what was done to those poor people,” said Stojadin Ilic as he handed bottles of water to refugees passing in front of his house. For the migrants, there’s no turning back despite the risks.
Rashid sees no alternative. “Aleppo is devastated and very dangerous. There are no more schools, no hospitals. I want to start a new life in Europe because the old one is finished. ISIS razed it to the ground,” said the unshaven young man.
Hysein Ahmed, a maths professor also from Aleppo, fled with his wife and their three children.
“Just look at this,” he said, showing a scar on the head of his 10-year-old son Lemandar from a shrapnel wound.