Syrians have been fleeing their country since the war started in 2011, but others from places like Afghanistan have also been fleeing for years.
To those who become trapped in the Western Balkans while waiting to obtain an approval to stay in Europe, life seems just as violent and uncertain as it was back in their war-torn homeland.
According to a new report from Oxfam titled "A Dangerous Game," refugees and migrants have been robbed, beaten, stripped, and even given electric shocks by European authorities. Serbia and Macedonia are among the countries where refugees report the worst instances of abuse.
In one instance, a group of children were abandoned in freezing temperatures at the Bulgarian border in the middle of the night. That happened after they were told they were being taken to a Serbian asylum center, Oxfam reported.
In Croatia, police forced a group of migrants to strip naked and walk back over the border to Serbia while being beaten by a group of officers carrying batons. In other cases, attack dogs were unleashed on them.
In Hungary, authorities told migrants to strip and sit in the snow before pouring water over them.
Under the care of Bulgarian police, migrants were searched and robbed before they were sent back to the border.
The pattern of mistreatment and abuse, Oxfam noted, is seen on the Western Balkans route, and they involve authorities from Croatia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, and Macedonia. As Oxfam noted, most of these instances happen to breach international law.
An Afghan man identified only by the name Aarif who spoke to researchers said that as he tried to enter Croatia, he “was caught on the other side by the police, who put us in a car and turned on the air conditioning. It was very cold. Then they threw away our blankets and jackets, and left us on the Serbian border. They took our mobiles and our money, and beat us so harshly we couldn’t get up."
Another Afghani, identified only as Isaaq, said that the “Bulgarian police treated us so harshly that we will never forget it as long as we live — not only me but also all my brothers standing here faced cruelty in Bulgaria. They crossed the limit of cruelty.”
When asked to detail the abuse, Isaaq said that officials “put us in a cage, and didn’t give us food for three days. They beat us so badly. They even gave us electric shocks.”
Ruth Tanner, advocacy advisor for Oxfam South East Europe, said these stories are pushing migrants and refugees into the hands of dangerous smugglers, as they become fearful that if they try to go through the legal channels to obtain asylum they will be mistreated.
“The brutal illegal actions of law enforcement officials create a climate of fear among refugees and other migrants," she explained. “This pushes many to rely on smugglers to continue their journey to other places in Europe, which is very dangerous as it leaves already vulnerable people exposed to the criminal underbelly of trafficking and violence.”
It's saddening and depressing to see this kind of treatment of people who are already suffering so greatly due to war at home.
As the conflict in Syria continues at full speed, expect more refugees to flee their countries — we just hope they are able to find kinder routes to places to call home.