“We are afraid that they will close the border now. But we don’t fear terror much anymore. Every village in Syria is worse than Paris… we don’t have much to lose,” a 17-year-old Syrian called Mossa told BIRN in Belgrade.
Mossa said that he and several of his friends were heading for the Croatian border and hoped to reach Western Europe from there.
But many of the refugees fear that their route to the EU will be blocked in the wake of the Paris attacks on November 13.
Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia this week decided to close their borders to so-called economic refugees.
From November 19, only refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq will be treated as legal migrants.
Those coming from Sri Lanka, Sudan, Morocco, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Pakistan cannot cross state borders anymore since these countries are not officially in war.
Previously, on November 17, French police called for witnesses to identify the attacker who blew himself up near the Stade de France stadium on Friday in attacks that killed 129 people. A Syrian passport was found under the name of Ahmad al-Mohammad near his body but it has not been confirmed whether the passport is genuine.
Police officers in the Balkans confirmed that the man pictured on the Syrian passport passed along the Balkan refugee “route” running through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia.
Right-wing politicians all over the EU have since called for stricter border checks and for the scrapping of the passport-free Schengen agreement, saying that Islamic State militants were posing as refugees.
France has demanded stricter external controls on the EU’s border. A response to this request will be made at the EU ministerial meeting starting November 20.
Human rights NGOs say the EU must resist the urge to further seal its external borders, as this would result in human rights abuses while doing little to enhance security, or slow the influx of refugees.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, on November 17 said it was “nonsense” to blame refugees for the terror attacks in France, stressing that they could not be held collectively responsible for what had happened in Paris, Beirut and elsewhere.
Speaking in Serbia, Guterres urged European governments not to make any unilateral moves in response to the recent attacks but to find a united response.
“It is not the refugee outflows that cause terrorism, it is terrorism, tyranny and war that create refugees,” he said.
Sadam Ahmed, 19-year-old from Afghanistan, agreed that the Paris killings had caused new problems for refugees.
“We are in big trouble now… we are also coming from a war and now they want to send us back because of that,” he told BIRN.
Ahmed, who wants to go to Switzerland, said the EU needs to establish procedures to distinguish terrorists from ordinary refugees.
“They need to check people… take fingerprints… do whatever they need to do to separate us out because we are not terrorists… we just want to start a new life,” he said.
He said he was well acquainted with ISIS because they have a base in his home village of Pekha in the Achin district of Afghanistan.
“I lost my parents and two brothers and a sister. I don’t know where they are at the moment. ISIS soldiers have a headquarters in my village of Pekha and everybody fears them… we are also running away from them,” he said.
Ahmed reached Serbia through Turkey and Bulgaria and hoped to reach Switzerland through Croatia.
But the refugee route may become more complicated after the EU meeting on November 20, if countries on the route introduce additional border controls.
In total, EU member states have built more than 235 km of fences on the EU’s external borders at a cost of over €175 million.
This includes the 175 km fence along the Hungary-Serbia border, a 30 km fence along the Bulgaria-Turkey border, which is to be extended by a further 130 km and a 10.5 km fence in the Evros region along the Greece-Turkey border.
Macedonia has started to erect a fence on its southern border with Greece, currently the main entry point for refugees.
Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov said on November 15 that the fence would “not be aimed at closing the border”, but at controlling and limiting the flow.
If this occurs, however, refugees could end up trapped in Balkan states that cannot even cope with the refugee quotas agreed at the EU meeting held on October 25.
The European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, then agreed with leaders of Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovenia, Austria and Germany that 50,000 refugees would be accommodated in Greece and another 50,000 in Western Balkan states.
However, the current total capacities of the Balkan states do not exceed holding 10,000 refugees.
Although some informal refugee centres have opened at key points along the route, few of them can be adapted for winter conditions.
Macedonian authorities say they have a capacity to accept only some 2,000 refugees over a longer period.
The Macedonian Security Council said if more refugees stay for a longer time, the country could not guarantee their humane treatment.
“Macedonia will be forced to confront the challenge of a longer stay of uncontrolled number of migrants for which it has neither capacity nor possibility to offer humane treatment,” the council said on November 15.
Most refugees from the Middle East and Africa pass through through Serbia.
Since the beginning of the year, 436,000 have been registered in Serbia, the majority entering the country at the southern town of Preševo near the border with Macedonia.
Some 3,000 refugees can find temporary shelter on Serbian territory where they can receive medical services, use hygienic facilities and receive some food in order to continue their journey. But the five existing asylum centres can hold only about 1,200 permanently.
Ivan Gerginov, from the Serbian Commissariat for the Refugees, told BIRN that the situation could be better but Serbia was struggling with problems such as a lack of infrastructure and human resources.
After registration in Presevo, refuges move northwest towards Sid, on the border with Croatia, crossing into Croatia and then reaching other EU countries.
With snow and rain forecasted for the upcoming week, Croatia is trying to adapt its refugee centres to sub-zero temperatures.
Croatian police say the country’s only refugee centre that is ready for winter, in Slavonski Brod, can hold a maximum of 5,000 persons.
“Everything in the camp functions well for now. Compared to other camps in other countries like Serbia and Macedonia, this is one of the better camps in terms of conditions,” Tea Vidovic, from the Centre for Peace Studies, which is dealing with the refugee crisis, told BIRN.
“But these capacities are not enough to keep people over a longer period of time,” she added.
Croatia can permanently accommodate only 550 people.
“Croatia does not have a plan to increase its capacities as that would mean the greater engagement of authorities dealing with migrants, and our resources at the moment are limited,” Croatian police told BIRN.
A total of 369,440 refugees have entered Croatia since the beginning of the crisis, few of whom stay long in Croatia.
Balkan leaders hope the EU will pay to increase their capacities to deal with refugees but the amount of money that Brussels is willing to offer the Western Balkans is unknown.
Many human rights organisations working in the field have criticised the EU for failing to help the Balkan countries to tackle the refuge crisis in a proper manner.
NGOs warn that the current action plan, which seeks to prevent asylum seekers moving on from transit countries, and to make those countries responsible for processing their claims, could create human bottlenecks.
The NGO Human Rights Watch says the EU’s plan will trap refugees in countries that lack the capacity to receive and process them properly.
“Drowning at sea or freezing in a Balkan field can never be acceptable forms of border control,” Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said on November 16.
“European governments should expand safe and legal channels and ensure access to asylum and humane treatment at its borders and inside every single member state,” she added.
The rights organisation Amnesty International urges the EU to implement a series of achievable, realistic measures to respond to the global refugee crisis and ensure protection for the hundreds of thousands who have already arrived in mainland Europe.
“The global refugee crisis represents a huge challenge for the EU but it is far from an existential threat,” John Dalhuisen Amnesty International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia, said.
“Managed, safe and legal routes into Europe would go a long way towards identifying security threats before they arrive,” he added.
“The EU needs to be responding not with fear and fences but in the best tradition of the values it purports to hold dear,” he concluded.
Marija Ristic, Sven Milekic, Natalia Zaba, Sasa Dragojlo and Sinisa Jakov Marusic contributed to this article.