BELGRADE: Inside an abandoned Belgrade warehouse, its walls blackened with smoke, several dozen youngsters huddle together under blankets in a bid to fend off the freezing temperatures as the Serbian winter sets in.
Most have left home and family in Pakistan and Afghanistan to seek safety or work in Europe, but have found themselves caught in stateless limbo as successive European nations have slammed shut their doors.
“We are waiting for Christmas Day. Maybe they will open the borders,” says Waseem Afridi, a 23-year-old Pakistani stuck in this frigid cul-de-sac on the path to the European Union.
About 1,000 migrants are sleeping rough in downtown Belgrade, the UN refugee agency says, many settling in the warehouse squeezed between the central railway station and a luxury apartment construction site on the Sava river bank.
During the night they brave temperatures falling below zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit).
“It is getting colder every day,” says Afridi who comes from Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
The acrid air inside the warehouse irritates eyes and throat. For heat, the migrants burn whatever they can find.
The lucky ones put carpets on the glacial concrete, while others use cardboard.
Those who get up from their blankets, tired-looking, try to warm up with a hot tea and eat some bread.
Those first up head towards two fuming barrels filled with heated water to wash up.
The young men, some of whom are still teenagers, refuse to go to one of the 13 official reception centers which accommodate some 5,300 people, according to the Serbian refugee agency.
Serbia lies on the so-called Balkan route that has been taken by hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa since 2015.
The route was effectively shut down in March, but migrants have continued to cross the region in smaller numbers, often brought there by traffickers.
Mohamed Darwich, from eastern Afghanistan, said he does not want to go to a reception centre because the authorities “will send us back to Bulgaria where again we will have to pay money” to smugglers.
Darwich, who said he is 17, started his journey a year ago. It cost him 7,000 euros ($7,380) obtained from the sale of his family’s land.
Others finance their journey by selling livestock or shops.
Some have tried to cross illegally into Croatia or Hungary, which unlike Serbia are EU member states.
“They caught us near the border. They beat us and sent us back,” claims Ihsan Ullah, a 15-year-old Afghan.
Ullah says Serbs treat them better. His desired destination is London where he has an uncle who has financed his odyssey.
‘We are stuck here’
It is not possible to verify whether their stories that could enable them to obtain refugee status are true.
Afridi says that in Pakistan he took part in polio vaccination campaigns that displeased the Taliban.
Hashim Zia-Ulhaq, travelling with his two younger brothers from eastern Afghanistan, claims that back home he was accused of having worked for a road construction company cooperating with Westerners.
In any event the 25-year-old feels he had no other choice but to leave.
“If I had a solution to my problems, would I have left my wife, my four-year-old son, my mother and my father?”
Unlike Afridi he is not counting on Christmas goodwill.
“Europe is not what it used to be. They were not treating refugees like this,” he says.
“The attacks in France and Belgium made things worse…. We are stuck here.”
Wrapped in a blanket, Mohamed Khan, a 23-year-old Pakistani student speaking perfect English, is angry.
“Europeans can say that they are for human rights. But, where are human rights when it is minus five, minus seven, minus 10” degrees Celsius? Khan asked.
He refuses to explain why he left Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan.
“Nobody leaves his country without a reason,” he simply says.