At Miksalište refugee centre in central Belgrade, young asylum seekers are queueing up to get a free haircut. The room is packed with newcomers, connecting their phones to plug extensions and wifi; elsewhere, two people are playing table tennis.
Some have just arrived from the Middle East and north Africa, others have been sleeping rough in the nearby Park Luka Ćelović, known locally as Afghani Park. But unusually in Serbia – a gateway to the EU – it is Iranians who make up significant numbers of new arrivals.
Last year, Serbia became the first country in mainland Europe to offer Iranians visa-free travel. Hostels and apartments are full to the roof thanks to Iranian tourists. In Knez Mihailova, Belgrade’s pedestrian zone, Farsi is frequently heard.
However, many Iranians are not taking their return flights. Planes arrive full and leave empty. They are driven to the west partly because of economic hardship, exacerbated by Donald Trump’s new sanctions that have sent Iran’s currency, the rial, into a tailspin.
Soroush Rahmani, 24, arrived in Serbia four months ago. He was using a 72-hour leave period from his refugee camp to sleep rough in the capital, gearing up for his overnight “game” – to try to enter the EU. Tonight would be his ninth attempt.
Like other refugees, Rahmani has deposited €2,000 (£1,780) with a money exchange bureau to pay for his passage. This will only be released to his smuggler once he has called to confirm he has successfully reached Italy.
“Iran was like hell,” he says. “I prefer to sleep in cardboard here rather than live in Iran.”
Hungary’s tough border security means Rahmani will attempt to enter the EU through Croatia. Many refugees first cross into Bosnia and Herzegovina, as the longer border gives them a better chance. Bosnian media reported recently that the number of Iranians seeking asylum in the country this year (up until September) stood at 1,647 compared to 16 Iranians in the whole of last year.
“Every time a refugee plays ‘the game’ they are putting their lives at risk,” but some see no legal alternative, says Milena Timotijevic from the International Rescue Committee. “They are at the mercy of unscrupulous smugglers and human traffickers; they are frequently pushed back, violently, by border guards; they are subjected to ‘survival sex’ and other forms of sexual abuse. And yet they never stop trying.”
Hasan Kameli was arrested by Hungarian police during his last game. They released him in the Serbian border town of Subotica, but only after 20 days in jail, where he says he was beaten. “I lost my hope about the future of living in Iran. I sold my motorbike, which was all I had, to come here,” said the 22-year-old, who has a motorcycle tattoo on his right leg.
“You can’t live in Iran anymore, you can just remain alive there, there is no future in Iran.”
Gordan Paunovic, the director of the NGO Info Park, said the number of Iranians arriving was growing fast. “You immediately recognise Iranians,” he said. “You see Syrians, Afghans they all look poor. Suddenly you see a group of kids with backpacks, who look like they’re on the school excursion … You look at them and you give them a smile and you get so many smiles back.
“Everyone who comes [from Iran] is either LGBT, or Christian or politically oppressed, or was fighting in Syria for Assad and decided to leave because they didn’t like it.”
Most Iranians arrive on one of the two flights a week that land in Serbia. At Info Park, the Guardian met an Iranian couple with a 11-year-old son and a 17-year-old daughter who had arrived by plane four days earlier and were inquiring about seeking asylum. The daughter – a bright student just a year before her crucial university exam in Tehran, was the only one speaking English. She was clearly anxious about her father’s decision to stay, asking how long it would take her to go to school in Serbia.
Serbia’s tourism minister, Rasim Ljajić, who is trying to promote tourism by abolishing visa requirements, said that in the first seven months of this year, 15,855 Iranians visited Serbia. More than 1,500 of these have expressed a desire to seek asylum. It is not known how many of these proceed to the EU.
But not everyone wants to go to the EU. The Guardian visited an asylum camp 42 miles (67km) outside Belgrade in Bogovađa village, where 35 Iranians were living.
Amin, a 27-year-old gay Iranian, fled from the Iranian city of Shiraz after his father reported him to the police for having sex in the house with his partner. His friends bought him a one-way ticket from Tehran to Belgrade.
“When I arrived, they kept me in the airport for six days – I had no money, no hotel reservation and no return ticket,” says Amin. “I came here with nothing. In Iran, my biggest threat was my own family, not the government. Family is the biggest problem when it comes to LGBT.”
Like Amin, many refugees are detained immediately at the airport – 1,000 have been deported since last year. The Guardian spoke to a group of Iranians held in a detention centre at Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla airport who said they were beaten up, humiliated and kept in horrible conditions for more than a week. They sent pictures of themselves with bruised arms and legs, and a toilet overflowing with faeces. The Serbian interior ministry denies that the guards used force against them and said one refugee fractured his hand after falling down.
Back in the Miksalište refugee centre in Belgrade, Samsour, a 15-year-old Afghan, ate bread and cheese given to him by his cousins. He has not been able to shower for six days, nor has he a blanket for the cold nights.
The outside walls of the refugee centre have recently been transformed by an Iranian artist called Reza. One wall features a cartoonish depiction of a journey from Africa, and a cake behind the wire fences of the EU surrounded by yellow stars. An eagle is breaking into the fence, reaching a blue area, reminiscent of the colour of the EU flag. The wall is marked in Persian and English calligraphy with one word: freedom.
Source » theguardian