Europe's migrant crisis: the ghosts of Sid


Sid (Serbia) (AFP)

Exhausted from being stuck in Serbia for months, dozens of young migrants survive in appalling conditions in Sid, a small town bordering European Union member Croatia, which they try to enter every day.

Every morning in the freezing winter cold they head for a closed printing factory, the last stop before the border with the EU.

Under police watch and sometimes harangued by locals, volunteers from western countries give the travellers coffee, apples, eggs and water for a wash.

A generator is installed to charge mobile phones. They also provide tents, shoes, clothes.

Some migrants who camp in the nearby forest, away from the police gaze, have a long walk. Their clothes are muddy, their faces worn.

"I am broken," said a 28-year old Afghan who introduced himself as "Sirg" and spoke of cold Serbian nights in the woods.

"We think tomorrow we will be dead," he said.

He said he had tried more than 60 times to reach Croatia, even making it to Slovenia once. But every time he was intercepted and sent back to Serbia.

According to Andrea Contenta of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), some 5,000 migrants are currently stuck in Serbia, mostly in official reception centres.

Some 500 sleep rough in Sid, others are in Belgrade or the northern town of Sombor.

Their chances of getting out of Serbia are steadily diminishing with borders increasingly better protected.

Time saps their strength, they sometimes get sick -- and money is scarce.

"We try every day. We are tired," says Hamza, 27, from the Algerian town of Biskra, who hopes to go to Belgium.

Croatian police intercepted him and sent him back overnight but he will try again the same day once he has warmed up.

Any means of transport will do. Some migrants hide in trucks, in the chassis of freight trains or on their roof.

Others simply try their luck on foot.

"Hopeless and left without alternative, some of them decide to take enormous risks to continue their journeys regardless of the dangers and hardship of cold winter," Contenta said.

"European measures of deterrence won't stop people," he added.

- Violence and tensions -

"I try and try again," said Ali Amjad, a 24-year-old from Kabul.

He has been in Serbia for almost two years, as has hs friend "Kako," who laughs maniacally and shows signs of psychiatric problems.

Sometimes fights break out between men of different nationalities.

Last week a north-African was stabbed in the heart and evacuated to a hospital in Novi Sad, the capital of Serbia's northern Vojvodina region that borders Croatia and Hungary.

A 21-year old Algerian, who introduced himself as Miki Salem, had his arm in a sling and bandages on his buttocks where he said he was stabbed.

"These were Afghans, it was not a fight, it was an attack for money," he recalled.

"We cannot stay here, this is a shitty life!" the pastry chef, who rules out going home, added.

"We are taking the risk, we are seeking the life," he said.

Once the winter becomes too harsh he will find a shelter in Belgrade then come back in March.

After the fight police apprehended several dozen migrants and sent them to a camp in the southern town of Presevo.

But they will almost certainly return -- shelling out another 150 euros ($175) to Serb smugglers for the trip by car.

For the local population, outbreaks of petty crime have strained relations.

Zoran Petrovic, a breeder from a nearby village, claims that since February numerous animals have gone missing.

"In last three months it has become massive. They come in a group of 10 to 15 and take five animals at once," he said.

Natasa Cvjetkovic, a councillor from the small opposition centrist SDS party, said she believed her community was "sacrificed" because it was small and remote.

"The main goal is to spare the big cities," she complained.