• Reports indicate an increase in the number of Syrian refugees moving along the Balkan Route to seek asylum in Europe.
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to receive migrants despite the dangers of the journey and the state of its reception centres.
  • Documents reveal that the European Commission and European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) were aware of gruesome human rights violations in Bulgaria and instead focused on the integration of Bulgaria into the Schengen Area.
  • Videos show groups of men stripped of their clothing in near-freezing temperatures while they are being pushed back from Serbia to North Macedonia.

ECRE member organisation Collective Aid has reported an increase in the number of Syrian refugees along the Balkan oute. According to the NGO, this increase is due to the ongoing violations by the Syrian regime and food insecurity. The latest statistics from the European Union Agency for Asylum also show that in 2023, Syrians submitted 181,000 applications in the European Union; a 38 % increase compared to 2022. According to a report by the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), Syrians also formed most of the population in the Sombor temporary reception centre (TRC) and many informal settlements in northwestern Serbia, an area that has become uninhabitable for migrants since the introduction of special military operations in October 2023. “Far from preventing the transit of people on the move, the actions of the Serbian state instead force people to use more treacherous border crossings to seek safety and increase the chances of death along the Balkan route,” wrote BVMN.

The number of people seeking asylum has increased in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) as a result of the Special Police Operation in the area around Subotica which began in October 2023 and closure of the border to Hungary. According to a report by the International Organization for Migration , 4138 people arrived at four TRCs between 8 and 21 January. They included people who were registering for the first time and others who had registered previously and had returned for assistance, possibly after experiencing pushbacks as they continued their journey. BiH currently has four TRCs, one reception centre, one asylum centre and one detention centre with a combined capacity of nearly 5000 places. Collective Aid reported that “the situation in the TRCs remains mixed, and although some people feel that an improvement after coming from the living areas in the north of Serbia, they remain inadequate in terms of normative standards”. Video evidence from Blažuj, an all-male centre on the outskirts of Sarajevo, showed bathrooms and toilets in very poor condition, with holes and mould in the walls. Some residents have complained about a lack of heating in the containers and the fact that most people are housed in hangars and sleep on bunk beds with very little privacy. However, this has not deterred people from seeking refuge in BiH. In addition, local NGOs are also concerned about conditions in the Lukavica detention centre, which they describe as a “black hole” where people on the move, including families and children, are detained for long periods without understanding the reason and period of their detention and often while experiencing racism from the  guards. Meanwhile, the European Union has announced that it will provide an additional € 6.4 million for projects aimed at “strengthening border and migration management in BiH” following the increase in arrivals and BiH authorities have requested  an upgraded working arrangement with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) for operational co-operation and deployment of the latter’s personnel without executive powers.

In Bulgaria, an internal report has revealed that both Frontex and the European Commission knew about the country’s appalling human rights record on its border with Türkiye, but that they chose to ignore it in order to pursue another EU priority, namely the ‘expansion of Schengen’. The report was written in 2022 by an unnamed Frontex officer posted to Bulgaria’s border with Türkiye and has recently been revealed by investigative reporters. “Frontex border guards are intentionally kept away from ‘hot’ points’ where such pushbacks usually occur,” the officer wrote. The report adds: “They [Bulgarian border officers] have instructions not to allow Frontex to see anything or they would have to do an official report.” It also details a series of inhumane and illegal practices endured by migrants as they were being forcibly removed from Bulgaria. Bulgarian border guards reportedly referred to the migrants as ‘Taliban’ and the report’s authors wrote that: “It has been suggested that allegedly … they leave them naked and take all of their belongings”. It also described asylum seekers being “forced to swim back to Turkey, even if they do not have the skills or strength to do it”. Tineke Strik MEP told reporters from Solomon:  “It is astonishing that an EU agency is still unable to comply with EU law after so many institutional inquiries, reports, recommendations and warnings…This shows that even though the Agency has a new director [Hans Leitens], the problems are far from being solved”. In a written response to reporters from both Solomon and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, the Bulgarian Interior Ministry stated that only “isolated incidents” of refoulement had been confirmed over the years and that each incident had been examined. It also claimed that many of the allegations of refoulement were “baseless”. Ilgiana Savova, director of the refugee and migrant programme at ECRE member organisation the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee,  told the reporters: “We maintain, according to our sources and our regular analysis, that these people [irregular migrants] have been intercepted inside the country. Therefore, we are not talking about entry prevention but return – and unofficial. We all know what the term is: refoulement”.

In Serbia, videos have surfaced that appear to show groups of men being stripped in near-freezing temperatures and then pushed back over the border into North Macedonia. Legis, the North Macedonian NGO that shared the videos, has claimed that the incident was the second of two abusive and “degrading” pushbacks that took place in one 24-hour period in which 70 people were forced by Serbian authorities to strip either naked or down to their underclothes before being forced back into northern Macedonia. These incidents took place “after an EU-Serbian border cooperation summit, aimed at strengthening the Serbian border against people-smuggling operations,” said Jasmin Redjepi, president of Legis. A ‘call for action’ on the mistreatment of migrants in Serbia came from the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, who said: “Recent reports of alleged pushbacks by Serbian police officers at the border with North Macedonia, characterised by ill-and degrading treatment and robbery of migrants, possibly including those attempting to seek asylum, require prompt and effective investigation by state authorities”. Serbian authorities have denied the claims made against them. “Serbian border police do not use dogs for border surveillance, nor do they have them in their unit,” the Serbian Interior Ministry said. There was no acknowledgement that the “disputed events” took place on the territory of Serbia, AFP reported, citing a statement from the ministry. “Serbia has been working to suppress irregular migration with absolute respect for human rights recognised by the international community,” the statement added. Rados Djurovic, executive director of ECRE member organisation the Asylum Protection Centre said that his staff had noted an increase in accounts of pushbacks from Serbia to North Macedonia since the beginning of the year. “We can say it is now a regular practice,” he underlined.

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