Refugees in Serbia 'sprayed with insecticide' before forceful eviction

Hundreds are still unaccounted for after the 'scary' treatment at hands of authorities

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The Independent Online

Serbian authorities have evicted some 1,200 refugees from a makeshift camp in derelict barracks in central Belgrade, leaving several hundred – including unaccompanied children – unaccounted for.

Migrants living in the abandoned structure were told to leave early on Thursday morning by officials from the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration to allow for the building’s immediate demolition.

Some local aid workers described the evacuation as a “remarkably smooth operation” but others reported “chaos”.

“We were shocked at how inhumane and disorganised the eviction was,” Rosie Johnson, a volunteer with charity SolidariTea, told The Independent. “The commissariat came in to the barracks where people were sleeping at 7am, waking people up by hitting them with tent poles, dismantling their tents while people still slept inside and not giving anyone time to gather their meagre belongings.”

Ms Johnson also said that commissariat officials wore gloves throughout the operation and were seen to be frequently washing their hands after contact with refugees in a nearby fountain.

“I hoped this would go unnoticed by the guys [refugees],” she added. “But Zakir turned to me and said, ‘Rosie, you and Lily [her colleague] are good people. You talk with us and you don’t wash your hands after you touch us. Why do they wash their hands? We are not dirty animals.’ Then Safi said simply, ‘I am not an animal. Serbian people think I am animal’.”

Ivan Mišković, a spokesperson for the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration, told The Independent: “They [the officials] wore gloves because they had to remove bottles and non-food items.”

Video footage from Wednesday, the day before the evacuation, also shows what looks like an official in protective workwear and face mask spraying what volunteers in the Serbian capital said was toxic insecticide within the barracks while refugees and their belongings were still inside.

“It was just like an invasion of privacy and a total disregard of their dignity,” a volunteer doctor said. “It was done with no regard to their humanity at all. They just came into everybody’s rooms and started spraying what could have been a dangerous toxic substance. They just sprayed it over what little belongings they have, it was scary and rude and undignified.”

The Commissariat has denied any role in the use of insecticide, saying it is “not mandated with any kind of spraying”. It added that it could not confirm who carried out the spraying.

No injuries have been reported.

Many of the refugees, of which a high number were lone boys and men of Afghani and Pakistani descent, were taken on buses to a series of government-run camps with spaces across the country. But as many as 400 were no longer accounted for at the time of writing.

“Our main concern is that over the coming weeks many people may go completely off-radar,” Stijn Van der Leest, of Help Refugees, told The Independent. “This is particularly worrying given that approximately 40 per cent of the original population of the barracks is under 18, which leaves a lot of potential for trafficking, exploitation and abuse by the many smugglers that are known to operate in Belgrade.”

Humanitarian non-profit organisation Are You Syrious? also reported that a number of refugees were returning back in Belgrade after being transported to the official camps.

Many migrants say they feel threatened by the idea of being locked up. They also complained of overcrowding and said their basic needs were not being adequately met in the state-run camps.

Ahmed, a 24-year-old refugee from Afghanistan, said he did not want to leave the barracks because although the conditions were squalid they had become his home. “In these camps we’re not free, we live like animals,” he said. “We’re fed and then we sleep and that’s all we do. In the barracks we had a good life; we were all living together here and we were free.”

Mr Mišković added that the refugees were “transported in an organised manner in buses to the reception and asylum centres” and the whole process went “without slightest incident or unwanted action”.

“Moving out of migrants from the barracks and other public spaces in the Belgrade city centre was carried out in a highly human and proper manner, at the same time taking into account migrants’ human rights,” he said.

“All the migrants, more than 900, were properly informed week in advance and provided with information on free feds in reception and asylum centres managed by the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration of the Republic of Serbia. Also, they were given an option to apply themselves and to choose where to be accommodated.

“It is our impression that they themselves realised that living in the barracks in question was no longer sustainable for many reasons. And, which is more important, by moving them from those places we protect them from smugglers and other forms of abuse. 

“Commissariat for Refugees and Migration managed to provide enough accommodation capacities for all the migrants. On this day 6,514 migrants are accommodated in reception and asylum centers.”

A number of refugees had staged a hunger strike in protest of the eviction and planned demolition after Serbian authorities warned that all migrants squatting in the centre of Belgrade would be transferred to governmental centres within one month.

The site of the former barracks is being cleared as it forms part of the plans for a £2.5bn waterside development. The Belgrade Waterfront will include skyscrapers, luxury penthouse apartments, shopping malls, hotels and parks.

More than 7,200 refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants were identified in Serbia at the last count, according to the UN Refugee Agency’s latest report, which was published last week.