Crackdown traps would-be Asian migrants in Balkans

23rd May 2009, Comments 0 comments

Serbia has stepped up its fight against trafficking as part of a plan to ease visa requirements for its citizens to travel to the European Union, which the country aspires to join by 2014.

Banja Koviljaca -- Mohamed set off for a better life but his exodus from Afghanistan ended in Serbia, a key transit point for illegal immigrants hoping to reach prosperity in Europe.

"I did not come for fun, nor to earn some money, but to flee from the threat of the Taliban," Mohamed told AFP, speaking from the confines of a detention facility in the Serbian town of Banja Koviljaca.

The 36-year-old, a martial arts instructor, said he had felt the need to leave his hometown of Herat despite leading a good life there after he was approached by the Taliban and asked to join their Islamist insurgency.

After consulting his family, Mohamed felt he could no longer stay in Afghanistan and decided to start a new life in Iran.

But he found "foreigners are not welcome" in the Islamic republic, he said, and decided to try to reach the European Union, knowing it would be a long journey fraught with "difficulty and danger".

Like many other would-be migrants, mostly from Asia, he travelled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia, where he was caught by police and placed in this camp in the hills close to the border with Bosnia.

Mohamed was the only person in the detention centre willing to talk to reporters, although asked that only his first name be used.

"My father told me: 'go to Europe, they will understand your problem and will help you.' But I've been here for six months and ... nothing," he said, describing his wait as "gruelling and frightening".

The Balkans trafficking route is used by organised crime gangs to smuggle drugs, arms and people into Europe from the Far East, Africa and the Middle East.

The Banja Koviljaca facility currently holds more than 40 people who were "intercepted during their bid to cross through our territory illegally", said Robert Lesmajster, the camp's manager.

"They use their right to seek (political) asylum and stay here until their case is examined ... Most of them are refused as their motives are mostly economic ones," Lesmajster added.

Serbia has stepped up its fight against trafficking as part of a plan to ease visa requirements for its citizens to travel to the European Union, which the country aspires to join by 2014.

In 2006, police from the ex-Yugoslav states of Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia joined forces to cooperate in the fight against the problem, according to Serbia's interior ministry.

"Last year a total of 539 illegal immigrants were intercepted" in Serbia alone, said Mitar Djuraskovic, a senior official of the country's border police service.

"We envisage patrols and reception centres (in the region), and we already have an alert system in order to make our work more effective," Djuraskovic said.

The clandestine immigrants come mainly from Afghanistan, China, Ethiopia, Iraq and Moldova, he said.

Serbian police said in April they had arrested 10 people suspected of running an illegal immigration network of would-be Chinese migrants bound for the European Union.

Djuraskovic said it was "impossible" to fully eradicate the problem of illegal immigration.

He said a new wave of such immigration is usually spotted in the Balkans and elsewhere after troubles including conflicts, economic crises and natural disasters.

Meanwhile, Mohamed must wait. He is holding on to the hope that his asylum application will be accepted.

When? "Nobody knows, I have no information," he lamented.

Jovan Matic/AFP/Expatica

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