Photo Essay: Afghan Asylum Seekers Stranded at Hungary-Serbia Border

As leaders met for the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan, asylum seekers in Serbia – many of them Afghans – marched toward the border with Hungary. Photographer Danielle Villasana visited one of the makeshift settlements on the Serbian border where hundreds are stranded.

Written by Danielle Villasana Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A migrant sits beside a wall constructed with razor-sharp wires by the Hungarian government near Horgos, Serbia, where hundreds of migrants await admittance into Hungary. Only 30 people per day are allowed into the country.Danielle Villasana

HORGOS, SERBIA – More than 300 migrants in Belgrade marched toward Hungary’s border with Serbia on Tuesday, appealing for European nations to let them in.

An estimated 6,000 people are stranded in Serbia due to the border closures, most of whom fled countries such as Afghanistan, Iran and Syria. Though Hungary currently admits around 30 people per day from Serbia, most refugees and migrants are essentially gridlocked, with nowhere to go.

A 24-year-old man from Afghanistan lost his leg due to a land-mine explosion. He said he fled his country with his wife and two children because, "the Taliban are killing people." (Danielle Villasana)

A 24-year-old man from Afghanistan lost his leg due to a land-mine explosion. He said he fled his country with his wife and two children because, “the Taliban are killing people.” (Danielle Villasana)

“Now there’s a stalemate, and people who are coming are not going to get in. Nobody seems to have an answer as to how it will improve in light of Hungary’s closure over the last couple of months,” said Albert Grain, the volunteer coordinator for Refugee Aid Miksaliste, a nongovernmental organization in Belgrade providing assistance to migrants.

Thirty-six-year-old Marzia, far left, holding her youngest daughter, walks with her two other daughters toward Belgrade's "Afghan Park" after receiving food from a distribution center. (Danielle Villasana)

Thirty-six-year-old Marzia, far left, holding her youngest daughter, walks with her two other daughters toward Belgrade’s “Afghan Park” after receiving food from a distribution center. (Danielle Villasana)

According to Grain, about 65 percent of people they receive are from Afghanistan. Thirty-six-year-old Marzia and her husband left Afghanistan with their three daughters because of the ethnic and religious discrimination they faced as Shiite Muslims. “Every day it’s becoming worse and worse,” said her husband, adding that they will try to reach Western Europe using smugglers.

Marzia says her children suffer from psychological problems and from the pressures of the long journey that has now lasted eight months. "My little daughter is very nervous. She's not the same as she was, and she's not listening to me as she would before."

Marzia says her children suffer from psychological problems and from the pressures of the long journey that has now lasted eight months. “My little daughter is very nervous. She’s not the same as she was, and she’s not listening to me as she would before.” (Danielle Villasana)

“The main problem for vulnerable groups like families is the lack of accommodation and the lack of a safe space, where they can rest even for a couple of hours,” said Grain. Like Marzia and her family, the majority of migrants sleep in these two parks on cardboard, covering themselves with blankets provided by aid organizations.

Faced with overcrowded camps with poor facilities, where people wait for extended periods hoping to be admitted into Hungary, people are increasingly turning toward smugglers.

Marzia’s daughters look at a map of Serbia in a pamphlet that provides information for migrants and asylum-seekers. “I think this is a problem that will dramatically change the entire concept of borders and the entire geography of Europe, if we’re not careful,” Grain said. (Danielle Villasana)

“The conditions of the transit zones, the lack of adequate shelters, hygiene, proper water systems and showers are creating increasing problems with skin conditions and gastrointestinal diseases,” said Medecins Sans Frontieres humanitarian affairs officer, Francois Tillette de Mautort, at the Horgos border camp, where 60 percent of the occupants are women and children, most of them waiting an opportunity to cross the border.

The makeshift refugee camp is located near one of two border crossings in an area that is neither Serbian territory nor administered by Hungary. Organizations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres are working to improve camp conditions. (Danielle Villasana)

“The world has forgotten about Afghanistan because our country has been at war for 40 years. [First] Russia, then the Taliban, now Daesh [ISIS] and the Taliban, are all in my country,” said Mohammad Hanif, who left Afghanistan six months ago with his wife and four children, and now lives in the Horgos camp. Hanif was an employee at Kabul’s Northgate Hotel, which was attacked by the Taliban in August this year.

Afghan asylum seeker Mohammad Hanif, left, attempts to fix a sink in Horgos border camp. Hanif, who left Afghanistan six months ago, now lives in the camp with his wife and four children. (Danielle Villasana)

Many of these families “don’t see any futures in their home countries because even if these countries are not at war in this moment or involved in a conflict, they’re all coming from countries with histories of conflict and violence,” said Tatjana Ristic, who works with Save the Children in Belgrade.

Twenty-seven-year-old Maroof, not pictured, carried his son, who has disabilities, on his back, while fleeing Afghanistan with his wife and two other children. (Danielle Villasana)

Save the Children provides a child-friendly space and a teenage corner where Ristic said children and their families can relax and feel like they’re at home. “Because we are working with children in distress, children who went through traumatic experiences, we provide a space where they rest, relax, feel safe and also have a chance to be children again so that they can play and express themselves as they want to, in their way,” she added.

One of the activities that the child-friendly space offers is called “Superhero” in which children can paint and draw superheroes that resemble themselves as a way to focus on their strengths that helped them during their journey. (Danielle Villasana)

Refugee Aid Miksaliste is one of the Belgrade-based organizations serving as a distribution and integration center. From distribution of non-food items such as clothing, shoes, hygiene supplies and blankets, to providing “safe” spaces for mothers and minors, as well as computers, showers and various workshops, the organization covers a range of asylum seekers’ needs. They also provide meals to about 350 and 400 migrants a day.

An Afghan man holds his daughter as he walks into Refugee Aid Miksaliste, a distribution and integration center in Belgrade. (Danielle Villasana)

Recounting his experience of arriving in Greece by boat only to find out that the borders had been closed, Hanif asks: “Why did you allow the women and the children in, and then close the borders?”

Hanif’s daughter helps her sister drink juice that is distributed daily, along with other food items such as bread and milk, by the Hungarian government. (Danielle Villasana)

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