By Olivier Ceccaldi
Olivier Ceccaldi is a French photographer. From May to June 2023, he traveled to Serbia and Bosnia along with organizations like Collective Aid and NNK to document the living conditions of people on the move in camps and squats around the Balkan Route. Before that, he worked as a volunteer and as a coordinator for Utopia 56 in France and has documented stories of people on the move in France, Greece and Tunisia.
During my photography report on migration in Eastern Europe, I observed the contradictions between European political rhetoric and the reality on the ground. While the presence of police forces at Europe's borders constantly grows stronger and the fight against smuggling network intensifies, it's important to remember how these networks actually came into being. By refusing to set up safe routes for people in exile, Europe has encouraged the creation of these networks. I worked for several years with organizations working with displaced persons in France and Greece, and today, as a photographer, I've decided to travel to the Balkans to try and understand the situation.
"By refusing to set up safe routes for people in exile, Europe has encouraged the creation of these networks."
Europe is currently rethinking and overhauling its entire asylum system, and on Thursday June 8, 2023 (1), the Council of Europe agreed on a set of new measures designed to reduce the mobility of exiled persons, with greater recourse to border asylum applications, as well as outsourcing the management of migratory flows. Consequently, new transit and/or detention centers are created, such as Lipa in
Even if the European Parliament's approval is still required, the Council's vote gives a clear picture of the agenda of European policy. Even more than before, it places control of migratory flows on its external borders. An orientation initiated in 2019 when Europe decided to endow the Frontex agency with a permanent body of border guards. The agency has made the fight against smugglers its main objective. In 2023, several smuggling networks were dismantled in Europe (2).
These results seem to vindicate the deployment of force on European borders (to give you an idea, Frontex’s budget rose from 19 million in 2006 to 754 million in 2022 (3)). The strengthening of border controls has involved the construction of physical barriers at Europe's gates. While Spain was the first nation to erect barbed wire fences in Ceuta and Melilla in the nineties, this practice has become normalized since 2015 and the humanitarian crisis. (4)
Today, the fences that seal Europe's gates are over 2,000 km long, particularly in Eastern Europe - there are even fences between several EU member states, notably on the Croatia/Slovenia and Slovenia/Austria borders (5).
The development of this policy at Europe's borders is also accompanied by stronger means deployed for control and weaponry: drones, thermal imaging cameras and an increase in Frontex staff, whose agents will be equipped with lethal weapons starting in 2023 (6).
"Today, the fences that seal Europe's gates are over 2,000 km long, particularly in Eastern Europe - there are even fences between several EU member states."
In addition to local police forces, 76 agents are deployed in Serbia every day. With the increase in these resources, a rise in violence and harassment of exiles has been observed for several years by the NGOs (7) working on the spot.
Testimonies of pushbacks and violence are increasingly frequent on the Balkan route. Several man I met in a squat near Horgos recounted how they had been arrested by Hungarian police, beaten up and sprayed with tear gas, before being taken back to Serbia.
This story echoes the one of Younes*, a man I met in another squat 10km from Horgos, who tells me about his journey on foot from Turkey to Serbia, and how, when he arrived in Belgrade, he was taken back to Bulgaria - which didn't stop him from crossing the border again a few days later – but only served to increase his
vulnerability, both physically and mentally.
Those testimonies show that tightening border controls and even building physical borders does nothing to dissuade people in exile from coming to Europe.
On the contrary, trapped in makeshift camps, living in more than precarious living conditions, people on the move find themselves without any legal means to reach their destination, and to do so, they even go so far as to take ever greater risks.
The shipwreck in the Mediterranean on 14th of June 2023 is the latest example of the consequences of the policies pursued at Europe's borders. Out of almost 750 passengers, only 78 were saved (8). A tragedy that could have been avoided if safe passage was established between the various transit countries for people in exile.
"Trapped in makeshift camps, living in more than precarious living conditions, people on the move find themselves without any legal means to reach their destination, and to do so, they even go so far as to take ever greater risks."
Indeed, for many, turning to smuggling networks becomes the only conceivable
alternative and this is what has enabled them to grow and become a very
lucrative businesses worth billions of dollars. (Global study on smuggling of migrants published in 2018 by the UNODC, page 26).
Today, to reach Europe, an Afghan exile has to pay several thousand euros at each
frontier. A true underground economy generating millions of euros. It's a reality that
drives many men to start working for the smuggling networks. Another path is possible but as long as the European policies will not change, the story will stay the same.
Farzad*, a man met in Serbia, tells me how he agreed to work as a spotter in
exchange for a 800 euros monthly salary and the chance to continue his journey
towards Europe. I heard the same story when I talked to Omar* in another camp. He shared with me the violence he witnessed in Iran and Turkey, then explains why he's been here for over a month. "I have to work because it's the only way I can go through. I first had to pay 3,000 euros to get into Iran, then 2,500 euros to get into Turkey, and now I've run out of money. At every border you must pay and if you don't have anything, then you have to work".
*the names have been changed to protect identities
1.Editorial: Migration Pact Agreement Point by Point | European Council on Refugeesand Exiles (ECRE) https://ecre.org/editorial-migration-pact-agreement-point-by-point/