Amnesty International today (7 July) accused Balkan countries of mistreating migrants passing through their territories on the way to the European Union, saying people fleeing war were being “shamefully let down”, and denouncing “failing EU migration policies”.
“Thousands of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants — including children — making dangerous journeys across the Balkans are suffering violent abuse and extortion at the hands of the authorities and criminal gangs,” the rights group said in a report to be released today.
Migrants fleeing war, poverty and persecution were being “shamefully let down by a failing EU asylum and migration system which leaves them trapped without protection in Serbia and Macedonia,” the London-based group said.
The number of migrants and refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and Tunisia, travelling overland through the Balkans on their way to EU, has dramatically increased in recent years.
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 said.
The journey takes them by sea from Turkey to Greece and then overland across Macedonia and Serbia towards EU-member Hungary, a route that is increasingly used as it is considered less deadly than sailing across the Mediterranean from Libya.
More than 1,800 people have been killed attempting to cross the Mediterranean this year alone, according to the United Nations.
Amnesty’s report is based on four research missions to Serbia, Hungary, Greece and Macedonia between July 2014 and March 2015 and interviews with more than 100 refugees and migrants.
Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia, said that Serbia and Macedonia had become “a sink for the overflow of refugees and migrants that nobody in the EU seems willing to receive”.
Many migrants told the rights group that they have been forced to pay bribes of up to 100 euros ($110) to police while passing through the Balkans.
Last month Serbian police arrested 29 police officers and nine customs officials suspected of corruption and abuse of power, accusing them of taking bribes to let migrants illegally pass through the border to Hungary.
Migrants reported being pushed, slapped, kicked and beaten by Serbian police near the border with Hungary and an Afghan refugee told Amnesty that “a woman who is five months pregnant was beaten.”
Many migrants were reported to have been “arbitrarily detained by the authorities” for prolonged periods, without any legal safeguards or the opportunity to claim asylum.
In addition, refugees and migrants are also vulnerable to financial exploitation by smugglers and attacks by criminal groups, the report said.
Successful asylum applications in Serbia and Macedonia are very rare, with only one person 10 granted refugee status in Serbia in 2014 and 10 in Macedonia, according to Amnesty.
Discouraged by the slow progress in processing their applications, most asylum seekers continue their journey into Hungary where they face further rights violations, Amnesty said.
“Those detected entering Hungary irregularly are routinely detained, often in overcrowded and degrading conditions, or ill-treated by police officers,” according to the report.
Amnesty called for “a much broader rethink of EU migration and asylum policies”.
“Serbia and Macedonia have to do much more to respect migrants and refugees’ rights,” van Gulik said.
“But it is impossible to separate the human rights violations there, from the broader pressures of the flow of migrants and refugees into and through the EU, and a failed EU migration system.”
The EU faces an acute migrant crisis, highlighted by the drowning of hundreds of people trying to reach its shores by crossing the Mediterranean, and is struggling to find ways of shouldering the burden between its 28 member states.
In recent years, Bulgaria has suffered from waves of refugees, mainly due to the civil war in Syria. The most impoverished country in the EU, Bulgaria has a limited capacity to deal with the challenge, and has been criticised by human rights groups for mistreating the flow of refugees.
Hungary, which has registered more than 67,000 illegal immigrants so far this year, announced last month it would build a four-metre-high fence along a 175-km stretch of its border with Serbia. The U.N. refugee agency condemned the plan.
The EU has seen a sharp rise in the number of Kosovo citizens smuggling themselves into the bloc via Serbia to Hungary. In addition, immigrants who came from across the Mediterranean also take the journey from Greece to Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and further West.
Hungarian PM Victor Orbán, under pressure to stem a loss of public support to the far-right Jobbik party, has said Hungary's borders should be defended by all means. His government has put up billboards telling migrants to respect the country's laws.
Hungary has also said it could suspend the application of EU asylum rules in order to protect its interests. The Hungarian Parliament plans to vote on Friday whether a planned tightening of asylum rules can be decided on a fast-track basis, before the summer recess.
>> Read: Hungary suspends EU asylum rules