By Josie Argyle from the No Name Kitchen Team in Harmanli, Bulgaria

In April we met Ahmed El Arroussi, a man from Morocco, age 29, who wanted to share his story so far of taking the Balkan Route. He took this road because he believed he would not die on this route. Despite thinking it would be safer than taking a boat from Morocco to Spain, Ahmed has experienced extreme violence from police, border forces and smugglers.

They don’t respect the refugees. They take advantage of us, the police, the border police and also the smugglers… They treat us like [not humans].”

Ahmed took a plane from Morocco to Turkey sometime in February and crossed the border into Bulgaria and then Serbia on foot in the hope of reaching Italy. We met him in April in Svilengrad, whilst he was staying in Pastrogor Transit Centre. He shared with us details of his violent pushback from Serbia to Bulgaria, which happened in mid-March. When we met Ahmed, he still had marks on his wrists from where he had been handcuffed so tightly. He shared his story with us in the hope that sharing his story could help other people crossing into fortress Europe.

“Pushbacks from Serbia to neighboring countries such as Bulgaria or North Macedonia are a relatively new practice that has emerged alongside the European Union’s strategy to externalize its borders, delegating more responsibility to Serbian authorities to prevent people from reaching the border. This type of pushback is novel, as pushbacks typically involve movement from European Union countries to third countries

PUSHBACK – Serbia to Bulgaria

Ahmed first reached Serbia, after travelling through a mountain pass, sometime in March 2024, as he after explained to us. He and his friends went to Pirot Refugee Camp, where they were given an ID card. On their fourth day in the camp they obtained permission to leave to go to the grocery store. He asked an employee if they would have any problems with the police for leaving the camp. “No, you will not have any troubles,” he was assured by the employee. “If the police see you they will call the camp and we will tell them that you had permission to leave.”

However, just 500 meters from camp, Ahmed and his two friends – who are also from Morocco – were arrested by the Serbian Police. The Serbian police checked their identity card and told them they had to be under supervision inside the camp.

The Serbian police refused to call the camp to verify that they had been given permission to leave. Instead, they handcuffed them, kicked them and hit them in the face. They took their phones, their money and drove them to the border with Bulgaria, near the town of Dimitrovgrad.

When they arrived at the border, the Serbian police opened the vehicle. He recalls seeing six men in dark blue uniforms and dark masks. He is certain that they were Frontex officers.

They use a mask to hide their identity. And the badges that have their name, they hide it.”

Ahmed told us that they used these sticks to hit them. “I remember they had two kinds of sticks. The rubber one and the other one with the metal, the metal extension.” Whilst hitting them, the officers asked, “Where is the money? Where did you hide the money?” They told the masked officers that the Serbian Police had already taken all of their money and phones. Despite this, the masked officers still stripped them naked to search them.

Everything. Naked.

When they did not find anything, they shouted at them, “Go to Bulgaria.

At this time, they were next to the Nišava river, which runs between Serbia and Bulgaria. They told the officers, “We don’t know the way. We don’t have any phone, any maps, anything.” The masked officers told them to “Shut up”, kicked them in the chest, causing them to fall backwards into the river. They ran across the river to the nearest forest, where they waited, watching to see when the police vehicles would leave.

They waited for around three hours before attempting to cross back again into Serbia to reach Pirot Camp. However, when they crossed they were found by the Serbian Police. The Serbian Police alerted masked officers – who he tells us were Frontex – who returned to beat them.

The group tried six times in two days to return to Serbia. Every time they were caught, and every time they were beaten.

The last time that they were caught, the officers in masks handcuffed them with their hands behind their back and held in the back of the vehicle. They used the metal stick to hit them in the ankles. Ahmed told us that at this point he feared for his life.

At this point, he group decided to attempt to take a different route through the mountains.

We couldn’t try another time. That’s why we went back to Bulgaria.”

However, Ahmed was almost unable to walk due to the injuries to his ankle. “I say to them I cannot hold you back. Go. You can walk, I could not walk… That’s why we split. That’s why I go back to the Bulgarian border.”

Alone, Ahemd was later picked up by a patrol vehicle with a Frontex officer – a man from Portugal – and the Bulgarian Border Police, according always to his testimony, who took him to Gaber police station. Later he was taken to Busmantsi Detention Centre just outside Sofia, where he was held for 10 days. He told us that his friends made it to back across the border into Serbia to the camp in Sjenica. 

Detention and Claiming Asylum in Bulgaria

The vast majority of people apprehended by the police or border forces are initially detained in one of Bulgaria’s MOI (Ministry of Interior) Detention Centres Busmantsi or Lyubimets. The Asylum Information Database has reported that in 2023 only 2% of people apprehended by police or border forces were given direct access to claiming asylum, meaning that 98% were detained. Bulgarian authorities can hold people in detention initially for a 6 month period, which can then be extended by the court to a maximum of 18 months. However, upon applying for asylum in Bulgaria, people will then be transferred to an open reception centre such as Harmanli, Pastrogor or Banya. In Bulgaria, we have met people of multiple nationalities who have said they felt ‘forced’ to claim asylum in Bulgaria in order to leave detention.

When we asked him what the conditions in Busmantsi were like, Ahmed replied simply ‘it was hell. He told us that you cannot sleep due to the crowded conditions. He said there were around 16-20 people sharing one room and that men and women are forced to stay in the same rooms. He told us the food was inedible, and the guards did not respect Ramadan.

It was my dream at Busmansti to eat a fresh tomato.”

Ahmed met people who were experiencing distress and extreme mental health issues, he presumes after their long detention. He also met people with physical injuries after their attempts to cross the border saw them returned to detention, including one man who’s feet were cut after being beaten by the police whilst suffering from frostbite.

LGBT on the Move

Ahmed told us that the reason he has left Morocco is because he is gay and he was unable to live openly through fear of imprisonment and threats to his safety. In Morocco, homosexuality is illegal and you can receive up to 3 years in prison for same-sex sexual relations. There are no laws to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation, and same sex marriage is banned. Furthermore, societal attitudes towards homosexuality are prejudiced, with an estimated 79.92% of the population polling in 2022 that they would not accept homosexual people as neighbours.

He told us he wants to travel to Italy where his brother, who accepts his sexuality, is already living. Like others have reported to us, he said he was forced to begin the process of claiming asylum in Bulgaria in order to leave Busmantsi. PUSHBACKS FROM SERBIA – BULGARIA: “THE GRUDGE FOR THE SERBIAN POLICE AND FRONTEX WILL STAY IN OUR HEARTS”

Whilst homosexuality is legal in Bulgaria, LGBTQI+ people experience high levels of discrimination. In 2023, a poll suggests that 69% of people in Bulgaria do not accept LGBTQI+ people’s rights, and in 2022, 59.58% of people of people opposed having homosexual people as neighbours.

Ahmed told us he would not wait in Bulgaria to find out the outcome of his asylum application. However, under the Dublin procedure rules, he could still be returned to Bulgaria in the future. But like many people other people who claim asylum in Bulgaria, he does not see the country as his final destination. According to the same report by the Asylum Information Database, 48% (16,211 people) abandoned the asylum procedure in Bulgaria in 2023, citing poor reception conditions, lack of any integration or support programmes and low recognition rates of some nationalities as common reasons for absconding.

Externalisation of EU Borders

Pushbacks from Serbia to neighbouring countries such as Bulgaria or North Macedonia are a relatively new practice that has emerged alongside the European Union’s strategy to externalise its borders. Recently, as Serbia seeks membership to the Union, the EU has begun to delegate more responsibility to Serbian authorities to prevent people from reaching Europe’s borders. Pushbacks from Serbia to Bulgaria are novel, as pushbacks typically involve movement from European Union countries to third countries outside of the European Union.

During his pushback, Ahmed was able to distinguish between the Serbian Police and Frontex, despite the Frontex officers attempts to mask their identities. He told us that their uniforms were different to the Serbian Police and, unlike the Serbian Police, they spoke good English. 

The Serbian Police did not hide their faces. They hit us also, but they did not hide their faces.

Bulgaria, which is already a member of the EU, receives both political pressure and funding to police Europe’s borders. Balkan Insight reported that Bulgaria has received 69.5 million euros in additional EU funds to implement a pilot launched in March 2023 to prevent irregular arrivals into the EU. The pilot focused on ‘border and migration management’ and the use of ‘fast-track asylum procedures’ and ‘speedy deportations’. EU officials have hailed the success of this pilot, despite clear evidence that they [the EU] are aware the large scale use of illegal push-backs taking place from Bulgaria and of poor conditions in detention camps.

Ahmed and his friends are fully aware that they have been detained and forced to claim asylum in Bulgaria because of EU policies. “We know they [Bulgaria] do this to get the money for refugees. They don’t care about us”, he tells us.

As well as support for the pilot scheme, Frontex have recently deployed additional border guards, equipment and surveillance into the area. As of late March 2024, Hans Leijtens, the Executive Director of Frontext, had pledged to send 500-600 additional officers to the Bulgaria – Turkey and Bulgaria – Serbia border. 

Ignoring continued evidence of human rights abuses against people on the move, the EU has since allowed Bulgaria partial admission into the Schengen Area by sea and air, with a decision on land membership expected later this year. In the meantime, the EU Commission announced it was launching two new ‘Cooperation Frameworks’ to build upon the ‘tanglible results’ of the pilot scheme to deter irregular migration in both Bulgaria and Romania.

They don’t care about why you are travelling, whether it’s because of your religion, you don’t believe in God, whether you are part of the LGBT community… They [the EU] give them money to take refugees and they treat them like [not humans].”

Continuing on the Road

The experience has deeply affected Ahmed’s mental health. Whilst giving us his testimony, he told usthis whole story makes us [the group] mentally unstable”. Despite showing clear signs of exhaustion both physically and mentally, when we met him, Ahmed and his friends were preparing to go back and continue their trip. He told us he will try the Balkan Road one more time and if he is not successful, he will return to Morocco where he will take a boat.

He mused on how the boat crossing from his home country to Europe was less than 15km, yet his road has ended up taking him many months and he will travel more than 1000km to reach Italy. With still many borders left to cross, he has already paid around €4500 to smugglers along this route. He says a boat from Morocco to Spain would have cost around €2000. 

He told us that at points he had feared for his life. He is all too aware of the risk of death, after finding a dead body in the Serbian mountains during one of his crossings.

In spite of all he has faced, he remains humorous, kind and resilient.“You’ll make this into a Netflix series, won’t you? Right?” He showed us pictures of himself before making the journey – assuring us “look, I was actually good-looking!” and told us that it is his dream to be a comedian.

Since we met him in Svilengrad, Ahmed and his friends have continued their journey. Whilst they experienced difficulties crossing the border into Serbia, he reached Sjenica camp where he made contact with our other NNK team to get food and clothes. On their journey to Montenegro they encountered kind acts of solidarity from locals in border villages who offered them food and hospitality.

Ahmed is intent on sharing his story to counter the impunity of border forces and is concerned that people in his home country do not know about the dangers they might face crossing borders. Ahmed emphasised that he wanted to publish his story so that people could know the reality of the Balkan Road, and with the hope that exposing this violence and telling his story he might make the situation better for someone else.

We will not forgive the guys who treat us like [not humans]. The grudge for the Serbian Police and Frontex will stay in our hearts.”