SOMBOR / SUBOTICA The abandoned factory is full of trash and debris. There are mattresses in one of the rooms, and someone handy has tuned the stove.
About a hundred mostly Syrian men live in and around this old shack of a building.
We are in Sombor in northern Serbia. This is one of the numerous unauthorized camps on the so-called Western Balkan route, along which migrants seek to reach EU countries in search of a better standard of living. It is only 30 kilometers from here to the border of Hungary, and therefore the EU.
Men start to gather from the forest when the aid organization’s volunteers arrive in the afternoon.
The atmosphere is tense. Many seem anxious and tense.
Among the first to arrive is a young man with long hair. He is Syrian Adhamand he smiles good-naturedly.
Adham, 26, says that he traveled from his home country of Syria to Turkey six years ago. He left Turkey after a devastating earthquake in the winter and traveled to Serbia. The trip went through Bulgaria.
Adham shows his hands and says that he was beaten by the police in Bulgaria. The hands show traces of injuries.
Adham says he stayed on the outskirts of this abandoned factory for three weeks.
– The police sometimes come to ask where we are going.
It can be seen that migrants seeking to enter the EU without papers have been accommodated here before.
There is so much trash that it hasn’t accumulated in weeks or even months.
– It is really difficult here. Should have money to survive and get ahead. Many have no money. But if someone has food or something else, it is shared, Adham says.
Adham wants to go to Germany, where he says his girlfriend lives.
– I want to live there with my beloved without war. I want a peaceful life.
Aid workers distribute bread and apples and treat wounds. Many have nasty-looking boils.
In the middle of everything, the atmosphere tightens even more. The men push each other and threaten to throw stones. There’s a reason to take a break.
Taxi drivers are on duty in front of the abandoned factory.
They are part of a network of smugglers and ready to transport migrants to the border, as long as the price is agreed upon.
We see one of the drivers walking into the countryside to talk to the Syrian men.
“Everyone is dependent on smugglers”
A large part of the migrants who want to go to Hungary, an EU country, stay in informal camps or empty buildings, such as Adham, in northern Serbia.
Last year, 125,000 migrants were registered in Serbia’s official reception centers. However, according to the estimate of the KlikAktiv aid organization, there were twice as many people who passed through Serbia, i.e. no less than a quarter of a million.
The figures are still small compared to the figures of 2015, when 1.3 million asylum seekers arrived in Europe.
However, according to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency Frontex, illegal border crossings more than doubled in the Western Balkans last year.
Now thousands are stuck in Serbia, with a population of seven million, because crossing the EU border is difficult and expensive.
There were an estimated 7,000 migrants in Serbia at the end of April. With summer and warmer weather, the number increases, experts say.
The abandoned factory in Sombor has also persevered in cold weather.
The majority of those trying to get to the EU through Serbia are Afghans and Syrians. Migrants traveling alone stay in Serbia for an average of two to three months.
The lifting of corona restrictions has increased the number of people aspiring to the EU. The reason for the increase in the number of migrants is also the difficult situation in Afghanistan. Syrians, on the other hand, are motivated by the fact that Turkey recently started returning Syrian refugees back to their homeland.
Applying for asylum in Serbia has been made very difficult. Very few also want to stay in the country, because the more prosperous EU is more attractive than the Balkan state that is fraternizing with Russia.
According to the aid organization’s lawyer, all those who seek to enter the EU are dependent on smugglers.
– Not only at the borders, but all the time they are in Serbia, says Milica Švabić from the KlikAktiv organization in his office in Belgrade.
Crossing the border illegally with the help of smugglers will be expensive.
– A trip from Serbia via Hungary to Vienna, Austria often costs 6,000 euros. The price is the highest ever. The smuggling business is very profitable, says Švabić.
Smuggling taxis are also on duty in front of the reception center
Let’s go to another place to meet EU aspirants. About 60 kilometers from Sombor is the state-run Subotica reception center.
Subotica is the main illegal crossing point for undocumented migrants to Hungary. We have been granted permission to visit and photograph the camp, but we are not allowed inside.
There are also taxis on duty here day and night, even though the residents are chronically poor.
The drivers are not particularly shy about their presence and talk to the gatekeeper.
Even the night before, men have left here to try to cross the nearby Hungarian border. That happens every night.
According to ‘s information, the camp’s employees cooperate with smugglers.
– Smugglers do not only operate in unofficial camps, but also in government-run camps, says Švabić, without specifically referring to Subotica.
– The network of smugglers is extensive and complex. They do not only operate in Serbia, but their networks extend to target countries in the EU. They take advantage of people’s distress.
So we can’t get inside, but outside the center we meet a Pakistani who went for a day walk Imran Ali. He says that he tried to go to the Hungarian side twice, but the Hungarian police caught him both times and returned him to Serbia.
Police violence is common at the EU border.
– On the borders of Hungary, Croatia and Romania, people are often severely abused. In our aid work, we constantly see broken legs and arms, states lawyer Milica Švabić.
Pakistan’s Imran Ali has escaped abuse.
– The Hungarian police did not beat me, but only returned me. But if the special police catch them, they will beat badly. An ordinary policeman just orders you back and doesn’t steal money or mobile phones, says Ali.
A 23-year-old man says he left Pakistan seven years ago. After that he spent six years in Greece.
Ali dreams of getting to Italy, where he estimates he can earn hundreds of euros a month.
– Inshallah [jos Jumala niin tahtoo]Imran Ali states when considering entering Italy.
Ali plans to try again soon across the border. He too has to resort to smugglers, but the money is only transferred from one pocket to another when the border has been successfully crossed.
– The amount is only paid on the other side of the border. Maybe the smugglers have to be paid 2,000 euros.
Lawyer Švabić confirms that smugglers are often paid only after the fact.
Imran Ali is low on funds, and it is not clear how he plans to pay the smugglers for a successful border crossing.
Lawyer Švabić tells how people like Ali are likely to be.
– Some people get money from their families. Some pay their debts only after reaching EU territory by working illegally. This leads to a different type of exploitation. Many are at risk of becoming victims of human trafficking.
In the evening’s A-studio, the treatment of asylum seekers in the EU is discussed. The program starts on TV1 at 21:05.
See A-studio’s wider story about migrants in Serbia below: