The World

Back to Square One

Millions of refugees have attempted the dangerous journey through the Balkans from Greece to Western Europe. Many are now giving up.

An Afghan family with six children stand outside their container on May 11, 2017 at Malakassa refugee camp in Greece. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images.
An Afghan family (not the one mentioned in this story) with six children stand outside their container on May 11 at Malakassa refugee camp in Greece.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images.

Crawling on all fours, holding his wife’s hand with one hand and his infant son on his back, Khalid Mohmand inched his way up the side of the steep mountain that separated Greece from Albania.

As the rain fell harder and harder, and Mohmand slipped with every step, his wife Homayra feared that they wouldn’t make it. “While we were climbing the mountains my whole concentration was to make sure that Hossein was safe,” explained Homayra. “I was counting my last days, my last moments of life.”

Reaching the top of the mountain, after six hours of walking, suddenly the smuggler who was accompanying them shouted, “Welcome to Albania.” Exhausted, Mohmand sank to the ground in disbelief. They had made it to Albania, the first step of their long journey from Greece to central Europe.

Mohmand and Homayra (all names of refugees have been changed in this story for safety reasons) had fled their home in Afghanistan in early March 2016 after several failed attacks on Mohmand’s life. He had been working as a subcontractor for the U.S. military and had received multiple death threats. At the time of their departure, Homayra was four-months pregnant with their first child. This did not stop them from seeking safety within European borders.

Since the summer of 2015, more than 1 million refugees from the Middle East and North Africa have arrived on Europe’s doorstep, most landing first on Greek and Italian soil. Fleeing war, persecution, and economic devastation, many planned to continue their journey onward to central and northern Europe, only stopping in Greece for several days or weeks at the most.

All this changed after the ratification of a treaty between the European Union and Turkey in March 2016, which stated that all refugees and migrants who arrived in Greece after that month would be returned to Turkey. In exchange, European governments agreed to increased resettlement of Syrians from Turkey to the EU.

Following the ratification of the treaty, with the closure of the Macedonian border in northern Greece, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an estimated 50,000 refugees and migrants from the MENA region became stranded in Greece. Because Macedonia, Albania and other Balkan countries are not part of the EU, they are not required to abide by the EU policy of open borders. They effectively serve as a buffer, blocking refugees progress from member state Greece to the rest of the EU.

The couple reached Greece one month after the EU–Turkey treaty and were immediately stranded. With no other option, they registered for asylum in Greece and moved into a refugee camp on the outskirts of Athens where Homayra gave birth to their son several months later.

Over the course of 2016 and 2017, frustrated with the slow asylum process, lack of information and answers, and increasingly appalling camp conditions in Greece, thousands of refugees and migrants started seeking the services of people smugglers to continue their journey through the Balkan route onward to central and northern Europe. After six months languishing in the camp, Mohmand and his family decided to join them.

“We did this because even though Greece is a very good country, it also has many very big problems—the main problem being the economic crisis,” explained Mohmand. “Even the educated Greeks can’t find jobs. How could I find a job if I stayed in Greece?” Their goal was to reach Switzerland, a country with a high quality of life, a stable economy, and better job opportunities. There, they hoped they would find safety and a better future

With the Greek–Macedonian border to the north tightly sealed, however, the only way to leave the country was to go via illegal means—people smugglers—either by land or air. Refugees who could afford to spend upward of $3,600 per person, for a fake passport and visa, went by air. Those who couldn’t afford this expense, or who had large families, went by land along the Balkan route, the cost of which was usually half, though the risk usually doubled.

A journey that could take only one hour by plane might take three weeks of walking. And because the Balkan route is well-known to the authorities in these countries, smugglers and their clients are often arrested throughout various stages of the journey.

Refugees also face the risk of abuse at the hands of smugglers. But those desperate enough, like Mohmand and Homarya, will try anything to keep moving. “We have already lost whatever we had, we had nothing else to lose,” said Mohmand about their decision to use a smuggler. “This was the only way that we could to get to our target destination.”

For women traveling alone, oftentimes smugglers pose the greatest threats, asking for sexual favors in return for safe passage to another country. Many women are left with no choice as prices have become so high.

“If you use a smuggler, you need to prepare and accept three important things,” explained Mohmand. “First, you need to accept that you can lose your life, a family member’s life, a friend’s life.”

Second, women need to prepare themselves for the possibility of rape, he continued. And lastly, you need to be prepared for the possibility of hostage-taking, kidnapping, and theft. “Anything can happen, and these three important things you need to keep in mind when using a smuggler.”

For their journey from Greece to Serbia, the cost was $1,500 per person. From Serbia, they would have to contact another smuggler and pay an extra $850 per person to reach Austria. The last leg of their journey, a taxi from Austria into Switzerland, would cost $600.

In total, for himself and his wife—their infant son was free since they would be carrying him—Mohmand would have to pay $5,400, money that he did not have readily available. Having paid the initial $3,000 for the two of them to reach Serbia, Mohmand knew that once they reached Serbia, he would have to wait many months while he gathered the remaining funds from friends and family.

Once he pulled together enough money for the next step, Mohmand would have to contact yet another smuggler in order to arrange the next leg of the journey. The smuggling system is all joined like a chain,” he explained. “Greece is the source and they have workers in Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, everywhere.”

Afghan and Syrian refugees have also been known to be involved in smuggling in one form or another as well, usually as walking guides or middlemen. Their cut from the total amount is usually based on how many people they lead successfully over the border and how difficult the terrain is, explains Mohmand.

The police, too, are all involved, claims Mohmand. In Albania, “the police asked us to give them €10,000 [$12,200] and they would drop us to Montenegro. The police, the Albania police, asked us for €10,000,” he said with visible shock. It was money he didn’t have.

Closed borders have only made the journey more dangerous. Instead of a pathway to safety and a better life in Europe, Mohmand and his family found poor camp conditions and violence along each step of the way.

“Everywhere there are good and bad police. Mostly, unfortunately, we experienced the bad police,” he said.

Throughout 2016 and 2017, Oxfam interviewed hundreds of refugees and migrants who were attempting to traverse the Balkans on their way to central and northern Europe. What they found was that “rather than being places of safety, countries on the Western Balkan route have failed to offer protection or due process to many new arrivals.”

Furthermore, their report claimed, authorities in these countries “instead have pushed them back to their previous country of transit or even another country, without giving them a chance to claim asylum.”

The report also detailed the various ways in which these pushbacks were happening. Some states, such as Hungary and Croatia, which are both EU member-states, “have used brutal tactics, such as attack dogs and forcing people to strip naked in freezing temperatures.” Other tactics included more subtle, yet just as effective, means of expulsion.

As refugees and migrants continue to try to reach countries of safety, they are forced to take greater and greater risks, braving dangerous terrain, such as fast-flowing rivers, steep mountains, and dense forests.

As for Mohmand, his elation at having successfully reached Albania was short-lived. Less than 30 minutes later, he and the group of more than 30 people were arrested by the Albanian police and brought to a station for questioning.

At the police station, they were all made to sign a document in Albanian and, because none of the police spoke English, there was no translation given before signing.

“They made us sign it by force,” said Mohmand. “So I signed it and they told me that it was the deportation order that I signed saying I wanted to go back to Greece voluntarily.” Because everyone else had also signed the document, they were driven to the Albanian–Greek border and told to start walking back.

Before releasing them, the police confiscated their phones and broke all of their SIM cards. Homayra managed to hide her phone, however, so when they reached the place they had started from the night before they contacted the smuggler to tell him what had happened. He promised to show them another route into Albania the next night. And so they waited in the mountains in –3 degree weather.

The next evening the group started out again, this time walking 10 hours, crossing through several deep rivers with ice-cold waters before reaching the destination where the car would meet them. Again, luck was not on their side.

As they hid in the forest waiting for the car, the police arrived with night-vision goggles and found the entire group including the smugglers. Again they were taken to the police station.

This time, Mohmand was separated from the group and thrown in a cell by himself where he spent the night alone. At first he didn’t understand why, but during his interrogation the next day, it became clear that the police suspected him of being one of the smugglers, even though the two smugglers they had arrested were Albanian. It was because he spoke English so well, they said.

“They took me to a separate room and started asking me question, they even started slapping and kicking me,” explained Mohmand.

From the police station in Albania, Mohmand managed to call the UNHCR and to explain the situation. The next morning all 35 refugees were released from the police station and driven to the Babru camp where they stayed for 25 days before managing to contact another smuggler to take them to Serbia.

At the designated time and place, the smuggler arranged for taxis to pick up remaining families in the group and drive them across the Serbian border. From there, they would walk to a bus station from which they would travel to Belgrade.

That night, in -22 degree weather, the group set out. “The bottle of water froze in my backpack,” said Mohmand. “Hossein was covered with a blanket, but his breath was frozen on the blanket, it was that cold,” he continued.

After reaching Serbia, Mohmand and his family moved from one camp to the next, waiting for their relocation to Hungary. But, after 11 months of waiting, Mohmand decided to try one last time to get to Switzerland through other means.

In September 2017, almost one year after arriving in Serbia, he contacted yet another smuggler, this time a Serbian man, to help him and two other families cross into Romania. For $850 per person, the smuggler arranged for a Syrian man to guide them to the designated location where they would be met by another car that would take them to the next leg of their journey.

The three families and guide set out walking and for 24 hours they did not stop until they reached the destination. “We crossed three rivers,” said Mohmand. “I can swim, but Homayra cannot and she was four months pregnant.”

While I was crossing the river, Homayra fell badly and injured her knee. She had already passed Hossein to the person in front of her, but as she fell she remembers thinking about what would happen to her two kids—Hossein and the second on the way.

“When I fell down, I thought that I was done,” explained Homayra. “When I finally crossed, my heart was beating very badly and I was asking please God help me cross the water since I cannot swim at all.”

Having crossed the final river, the families waited in the forest for the car. But just as their car appeared, so did the police. Thinking that they were not visible from the road—it was 2 a.m. and the trees were masking their position—the families were not immediately concerned.

But then the police released their dogs. “The dogs were military dogs and they were so big that when they barked, you could feel their breath and saliva three meters away” explained Mohmand.

All three families and the guide were apprehended, brought back to the police station for questioning and immediately deported back to Serbia. In a last-ditch effort, the families tried again the next night. Once again, they were apprehended and deported back to Serbia.

“I said to myself then that I could not make Homayra and Hossein travel anymore—Hossein didn’t sleep for many nights,” explained Mohmand. After a moment’s pause, he continued: “He needs to be in a good place, not in the forest, not in this situation. And neither [does] my pregnant wife.”

With no other option, and unable to bear the nightmarish Serbian camps any longer, the family turned themselves into the Serbian police and were deported back to Greece. Relieved to be back in a country where they were not afraid of the police, Mohmand and his family made their way from the northern border to city of Thessaoliniki, and from there back to Athens.

“Life in Serbia is really restricted—Serbians are running away from their own country, how could a refugee live there?” explains Mohmand about his desire to return to Greece after nearly a year of trying to traverse the Balkans. “I cannot even compare Greece to Serbia. If I compare Greece to Serbia, Greece is heaven and Serbia is hell.”