A recent report by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Serbia details how child refugees are being abused by border force officials all along the Balkan Route. The Balkan Route is a path—popular with Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan refugees—that runs from Turkey into Greece, Bulgaria, and north toward Germany. Last year, the EU and Turkey placed extra border control forces and electric fences along the route to stop asylum seekers from reaching Western Europe—though thousands of people continue to attempt the journey every month.
The report covers the first six months of 2017 and finds that children on the Balkan Route are not only assaulted but also illegally deported after they’re arrested. “In a real-life game of snakes and ladders,” it’s stated in the report, “human beings take one step forward and two steps back as they are forcedly moved from one place to another.”
Of the children treated by MSF, just over 75 percent were assaulted by either state police or border force officials, while eight percent were hurt by traffickers. Most of them—the youngest only 12 years old—had visible signs of mistreatment, including knife and razor blade cuts, scars from severe beatings, and symptoms of dehydration and food deprivation. “At each border crossing, instead of fair and protection-sensitive border procedures,” the report reads, “asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants are pushed back, robbed, beaten, humiliated, and attacked by dogs.”
The abuse is not just happening with children, but with refugees of all ages—and not just at borders, but also in camps, police stations, and detention centers along the route. In November of 2016, the Bulgarian government quarantined people in the Harmanli refugee camp in southeastern Bulgaria after false media reports of asylum seekers carrying infectious skin diseases. Bulgarian officials placed all of the roughly 3,000 refugees into a small confined area of an already overcrowded camp. Riots inevitably broke out, to which police responded by firing rubber bullets and using water cannons.
“I saw with my own eyes people getting beaten by the riot police with their heads cut open,” a 30-year-old refugee who was living in the Harmanli camp at the time explains to MSF. “Many were young, like teenagers, and their faces were covered in blood. First, they shot teargas, and then they entered our rooms and beat everyone with sticks. Many of us were injured.”
According to MSF, the worst abuse of refugees is happening near the border between Serbia and Hungary. “After some hours of walking, the police saw us and caught us. There were maybe six or seven policemen with five brown dogs,” one refugee tells MSF. “A friend of mine was bitten in the arm; there were holes on both sides of his wrist. I myself got a knee in the face, so I fainted for a few minutes and when I came to, I saw that the policemen had bound the others together at the wrists with a plastic rope, and then they all stood in a line. While we stood in line without being able to do anything, we were beaten in the arms and legs.”
Some authorities have encouraged “civilian vigilante groups,” the MSF report claims, “such as the ‘Border Hunters,’ who are now an official part of Hungary’s border patrol team, employed by the state and openly promoting xenophobic discourse and violence against refugees.” So far, the Hungarian government has carried out 44 investigations into police brutality, but only two officers have ever been found guilty. Both were fined.
“[When] we arrived near the Horgos border [the border between Serbia and Hungary] they ordered us to take off our clothes and leave our blankets. It was very cold, it was snowing, and we were shivering,” a 30-year-old asylum seeker from Afghanistan recalls. “They ordered us to get in a line, keeping our arms up in the air, and for those who could not keep them in the air, a policeman would beat you in the ribs with a baton. While we were in the line, they forced us to keep our eyes open, spraying them with a painful spray.”
“Why is this cruelty happening to us?” Asks a 24-year-old refugee from Afghanistan who was sent back from Croatia to Serbia. “We are humans, not animals, we’re not dogs. The dogs sleep on the garbage here and so do we. The last time I was beaten by the police, I told the officer to just take his gun and kill me… just finish my life.”
“I was caught by the Croatian police, I was nearly at the border with Slovenia, and they beat me for a long time,” a 15-year-old adds in the report. “They stripped me naked, it was very cold. They put me in the back of a car and drove me all the way to Serbia.”
In the six months covered by the report, at least 78 people died attempting to take the route. Most of the deaths were caused by drowning (38) and car accidents (12), while seven people died of hypothermia, and four died by suicide. Near the border region of Šid in Serbia in June of 2017, two Afghan teenagers, aged 12 and 15, died when they jumped from a lorry after realizing it was heading in the opposite direction to the Croatian border.
Of course, all the numbers and incidents mentioned in the report are just the cases that MSF came across. It’s hard to say what else is going on along the Balkan Route.