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Migrants are encouraged by Aid Agencies to try ‘Closed’ Balkans Route into Europe

Serbia’s people-smugglers are looking for a share of a business worth more than $5 billion in southern Europe last year, according to international police agencies.

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Migrant children play with a cardboard box at a makeshift camp at the Serbian-Hungarian border near the village of Horgos, Serbia, May 19, 2016. Image Source: REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Fifty young men line up in a Belgrade park where aid workers hand them supplies for the journey ahead – a backpack each, containing a torch, phone and blanket.

But the aid organisations can do little more for the migrants, since the Balkan route to western Europe was officially closed. To reach their destinations, they must now rely on their wits, determination and shadowy people-smugglers.

Esan Ahmadzia, an IT manager from Afghanistan, says he ran into trouble with the Taliban and is heading for Germany to join his family. Javid from Pakistan wants to go to Italy.

Balkan states have tried to seal their borders, but for many migrants, Serbia still offers a risky path to a better future.

The smugglers can charge thousands of dollars and expose the migrants to grave danger – anything from armed robbery to drowning.

More than 650,000 people from the Middle East, Asia and Africa trudged through Serbia last year on their way to the European Union, but in March the borders closed, leaving thousands trapped on the Macedonian frontier.

Migrants. Image source: SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP/Getty
Migrants. Image source: SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP/Getty

A deal between the European Union and Turkey has stemmed the armada of rubber boats reaching Greece and several other countries in the region have closed their borders to migrants.

But people are still reaching Serbia via Macedonia or Bulgaria – a steady influx of around 200 a day, according to the Belgrade Asylum Information Centre.

Smaller numbers are arriving in Serbia via a new route from Greece via Albania and Kosovo, refugee experts say.

Most migrants use smugglers to get into Serbia and will use them to reach EU member state Hungary. Before borders closed, refugees had free passage on this last leg of the route to western Europe.

A few dozen a day are allowed into Hungary, families with children having priority. Those refused often try to cross the border fence illegally. Migrant support groups report some are beaten and robbed.

DANGER

“It’s absolutely impossible to stop migration. They say they don’t have any alternative,” Rados Djurovic of Serbia’s Asylum Protection Centre told Reuters.

“People are using more risky ways and they are coming.”

Refugees gather in central Belgrade to meet the smugglers. One open space near the bus station is known as the Syrian park, while over the road is the Afghan park. A bed for the night is on offer at an asylum centre just outside the city.

At the Krnjaca centre, Shekib Daqiq, 35, said he left Afghanistan because he was threatened after working as an interpreter for the French army. His journey with his family via Baluchistan and Turkey was fraught with danger.

He became separated from his wife, Nilo, and two of his children after walking for five hours through a forest in Bulgaria. The three were later deported to Turkey, he said.

In Serbia, the vehicle smugglers were using to transport him crashed and caught fire. Daqiq then walked for hours, his face covered in blood and six-year-old son Sadi on his shoulders.

Daqiq hopes to reach France: “If the government of France helps me, it’s not difficult.”

Also at the Krnjaca centre is Rezan Ibrahim, 44, a Kurdish teacher who said she had fled murders, kidnappings and threats in Iraq. Serbia is “very good”, but asked if she wants to go to Germany, she replies: “Of course.”

She said the journey so far had cost nearly 22,000 euros (17,163 pounds) for her and her three children, in payments to smugglers. For the next leg she will have to pay again, with smugglers charging up to 1,500 euros to travel through Serbia into Hungary.

Saman Ali Vjestica of the Asylum Information Centre said smugglers demanded 7,000 euros to get people from Greece to western Europe, or 15,000 from their country of origin. The route into Serbia via Bulgaria is cheaper but migrants say they suffer more there at the hands of smugglers and security forces.

Routes through Serbia are often controlled by smugglers from Pakistan or Afghanistan, with locals providing transport and accommodation, Asylum Centre officials said.

Serbia’s people-smugglers are looking for a share of a business worth more than $5 billion in southern Europe last year, according to international police agencies.

Police have this year charged 187 suspects with trying to smuggle 1,323 people across Serbia’s borders.

Those working with refugees say that by the time they reach Serbia, they will not be stopped by closed borders.

“Europe is there,” said Djurovic. “You can grab it already.” (REUTERS)

(Writing by Giles Elgood; editing by Andrew Roche)

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US-Taliban Meeting Cancelled, 14 Members on “The US and UN Blacklist”

A day later, Pakistan’s information minister Fawad Chaudhry confirmed the talks during a press conference, calling it a “game changer.”

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US, Taliban, Pakistan
FILE - Taliban political chief Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai, in the first row, second from left, Abdul Salam Hanafi and other Taliban officials pray during the intra-Afghan talks in Moscow, Feb. 6, 2019. VOA

An upcoming meeting in Pakistan between a delegation of the United States and Taliban representatives has been cancelled, according to information coming from both sides.

A Taliban leader confirmed, on condition of anonymity, that the meeting was cancelled, “by the Americans.” A Taliban statement issued later in the day said the talks were postponed because many members of its 14 person negotiating team were unable to go overseas since they are on “the US and UN blacklist.” Several of them are on the U.N. Security Council sanctions list which bars them from international travel.

Meanwhile, a U.S. official said Zalmay Khalilzad, who was supposed to lead the American delegation, is not planning to visit Islamabad this week.

US, China, Taliban
FILE – U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, center, speaks during a roundtable discussion with Afghan media at the U.S Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan Jan. 28, 2019. VOA

The U.S. said it had not received an official invitation from the government of Pakistan for this meeting which was first announced by Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid a couple of days ago.

Mujahid’s statement had set February 18 as the date of the talks and said a formal invitation had been issued by Pakistan. In addition, he said, the Taliban delegation would also meet the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

A day later, Pakistan’s information minister Fawad Chaudhry confirmed the talks during a press conference, calling it a “game changer.”

“The next round of negotiations with the Taliban will be in Pakistan, and as a result of these negotiations, there is a chance of stability in Afghanistan,” he said.

US, China, Taliban
FILE – Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (R) speaks with U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad (3rd L) during a meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Islamabad, Pakistan, in this handout photo released Jan. 18, 2018. VOA

Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry reacted strongly to the announcement of a meeting in Islamabad, saying it was in violation of a United Nations Security Council resolution.

“#Afghanistan complains to #UNSecurityCouncil on #Pakistan’s engagements with the Taliban on which #Afg Govenrment is not consulted,” Tweeted Sibghatullah Admadi, a spokesman for the Afghan foreign office.

Previously, Afghanistan launched a similar complaint against Russia for allowing Taliban members to travel to Moscow for a conference in which nearly 50 Afghans, including various political leaders, former jihadi commanders, and civil society activists were invited. However, the Afghan government was not invited to that conference because the Taliban have so far refused to engage with the Kabul administration despite pressure from the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and others.

President Ashraf Ghani lashed out at those attending the conference saying they had no “executive authority” to make any agreements.

“Let hundreds of such meetings be held,” he said.

Some analysts say Ghani’s statements indicated his frustration at being left out of the negotiations between the Americans and the Taliban that first started last Summer. Since then, the two sides have held several rounds of talks.

ALSO READ: ‘Big Progress’ in US-China Trade Talks, Says Trump

The last meeting in Doha early January lasted for six days and Khalilzad said the two sides had agreed “in principle” to a withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan in return for guarantees that Afghan soil will not be used by any terrorist groups or individuals.

Speaking in a public event at Washington based United States Institute of Peace, Khalilzad said the Taliban do not want to “sit with the government alone” because they did not want to give President Ghani an advantage in the presidential elections scheduled in July.

“There are indications that they will be willing to sit with the government in a multi-party arrangement,” he said. (VOA)