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Danger, xenophobia, closed doors: the challenges for refugees on their journeys

August 27, 2021
topic:Refugees and Asylum
tags:#refugees, #Afghanistan, #Syria, #asylum seekers
located:Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, USA, Austria, Turkey
by:Katarina Panić
As the crisis in Afghanistan deepens and a growing number of people seek to flee, the EU cuts funding for refugee camps along its borders and many of its member states' leaders all but refuse to help alleviate the plight of migrants. As a result, many asylum seekers opt for more perilous migration routes where they suffer from hunger and are vulnerable to harsh weather conditions and abuse.

In the last week of July, a migrant Afghan family decides to try ‘the game’. A father, a mother, and their four young children, who have been stuck in Bosnia for too long, desperately want to reach the European Union - which is just across the river. At midnight, they step into the Una river, which is frigid and fast, but not too deep at this time of year. Suddenly, the father accidentally drops his five-year-old son. Hearing the parents scream, moan and cry for help, locals call the police to the scene. An hour later, they find the child’s body downstream.

This family is among the more than 80 million forcibly displaced persons on the planet. According to Frontex, the western Balkan route saw 22,600 illegal border crossings this year - 90 percent more than a year ago. The majority of migrants came from Syria, Afghanistan and Morocco. The number of undocumented border crossings of Europe's external borders in the first seven months of 2021 reached over 82,000 - a 59 percent increase from the previous year. 

Banja Luka-based journalist and human rights activist Vanja Stokić has been covering the migrants for two years in Bosnia. Most of the migrants and refugees she has met are now in the EU. They all have harrowing life stories; she witnessed the horrors they experienced, meeting them while they were freezing, hungry or in excruciating pain. 

"For example, at Camp Lipa, I met a young man from Pakistan. A very decent and modest young man, he performed the function of an imam in the camp. He often tried to cross the border. Each time he was humiliated and beaten. One day he sent me a message from Spain. It was the country he wanted to go to, and he finally succeeded," Vanja told FairPlanet. 


Despite the record numbers, Frontex’ data precedes the Taliban’s seizure of  power in Kabul and the subsequent refugee crisis it has created. As the media report, there are evacuation flights from Afghanistan every fifteen minutes.   

Until now, the EU’s policy has been to only finance refugee camps in countries outside of its borders - including in non-EU European nations. Now, their policy has slightly changed towards keeping Afghans in neighbouring countries, meaning completely outside of the European continent. EU countries still struggle with the consequences of the 2015 immigration crisis, when more than one million migrants arrived in Europe, mainly due to the Syrian civil war.

"The events in Afghanistan are dramatic, but we must not repeat the mistakes of 2015. The people from Afghanistan should be helped in neighbouring states. The EU must secure the external borders and fight illegal migration and people smugglers," Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz tweeted. The worldwide media republished his interview to Austrian broadcaster Puls 24: "I am clearly against the fact that we now voluntarily accept more people - that will not happen under my chancellorship either."

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, visited a reception centre in Spain for evacuated Afghans who have worked for the EU with their families. 

"I also want to thank the Member States, who are taking in our colleagues from Afghanistan and their families. […] We need to help. It is our moral responsibility, and not only to help the Afghans arriving here in Spain but also those who have remained in Afghanistan,” von der Leyen stated. I also call on all States who have participated in the Afghanistan mission - Europeans and others - to provide sufficient resettlement quotas and secure pathways, so that collectively we can accommodate those in need of protection." 


Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia criticised Belarus' current policy of allowing undocumented migrants to cross its borders into the EU as retaliation for EU sanctions against Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. Russian President Vladimir Putin has opposed temporarily allowing refugees in Central Asian countries before obtaining visas to the United States or other countries, claiming it could allow militants disguised as refugees to reach Russia. Turkey has erected a three-meter wall at its border with Iran to prevent Afghan refugees from coming in. 

Some EU countries don't even want to participate in the reception of Afghan migrants or organise migration corridors for them on the way elsewhere. It seems that Europeans want Americans to take over the whole burden of providing aid to refugees since their country produced their plight - ignoring the fact that they were US allies, too.

"It is not the duty of the EU nor Slovenia to help and pay everyone on the planet who is fleeing instead of fighting for their homeland," Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša stated.

"They should all find their place in the US. We can symbolically receive a smaller number of people. I'm not in favour of saying no, but there are limits so that I would receive about 20 people," Croatian President Zoran Milanović stated. In words: twenty. And it was not a joke.


While the world is focused on Afghanistan, people already in migration still lack fundamental rights. In Bosnia, many people linger outside of the camps run by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). They live in the streets, in the woods, in abandoned properties or in makeshift camps, and are often victims of xenophobic attacks. 

"They eat rice and bread mostly. They drink water from the rivers or paddles or melt snow. They have no conditions for personal hygiene nor access to medical care. I recently met a family with a small child whose large part of the skin is affected by scabies,” Vanja told FairPlanet. “Still,” she continued, “pushbacks are the most violent issue. Humiliation and harassment leave the greatest consequences for them. They have been deprived of their dignity.”

“That is why some decide to return to their countries,” Vanja added. “I met a young man from Algeria who slept on the streets of Velika Kladuša and Sarajevo for several months. He said he had been often hurt as a person. His parents sent him money for a ticket, and he returned home. However, he says he'll try again.”

Image: Julie Ricard

Article written by:
Katarina Panić
Katarina Panić
Afghanistan Bosnia and Herzegovina USA Austria Turkey
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The EU fortifies its borders to prevent migrants from coming in.
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Governments' reluctance to accept asylum seekers forces them to opt for more perilous migration routes.
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"The events in Afghanistan are dramatic, but [...]The people from Afghanistan should be helped in neighbouring states. The EU must secure the external borders and fight illegal migration and people smugglers," Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.
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