At Miksalište refugee center in central Belgrade, young asylum seekers are queueing up to get a free haircut. The room is packed with newcomers, connecting their phones to plug extensions and wifi; elsewhere, two people are playing table tennis.
Some have just arrived from the Middle East and North Africa, others have been sleeping rough in the nearby Park Luka Ćelović, known locally as Afghani Park. But unusually in Serbia – a gateway to the EU – it is Iranians who make up significant numbers of new arrivals.
Last year, Serbia became the first country in mainland Europe to offer Iranians visa-free travel. Hostels and apartments are full to the roof thanks to Iranian tourists. In Knez Mihailova, Belgrade’s pedestrian zone, Farsi is frequently heard.
However, many Iranians are not taking their return flights. Planes arrive full and leave empty. They are driven to the west partly because of economic hardship, exacerbated by Donald Trump’s new sanctions that have sent Iran’s currency, the rial, into a tailspin.
Soroush Rahmani, 24, arrived in Serbia four months ago. He was using a 72-hour leave period from his refugee camp to sleep rough in the capital, gearing up for his overnight “game” – to try to enter the EU. Tonight would be his ninth attempt.
Like other refugees, Rahmani has deposited €2,000 (£1,780) with a money exchange bureau to pay for his passage. This will only be released to his smuggler once he has called to confirm he has successfully reached Italy.
“Iran was like hell,” he says. “I prefer to sleep in cardboard here rather than live in Iran.”
To donate and contribute to Rohingya refugees and Rohingya students, please go to www.allmercy.org
Hungary’s tough border security means Rahmani will attempt to enter the EU through Croatia. Many refugees first cross into Bosnia and Herzegovina, as the longer border gives them a better chance. Bosnian media reported recently that the number of Iranians seeking asylum in the country this year (up until September) stood at 1,647 compared to 16 Iranians in the whole of last year.
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