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HORGOS, Serbia – They walked for miles in blazing sun to reach the doorstep of the European Union only to find its doors shut. Now, a group of migrants protesting Europe's closed borders say they have launched a hunger strike to press their message to European leaders.
Some 100 men and boys, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, have been protesting Europe's migrant policies for several days now. Last weekend they staged a march to Serbia's border with EU-member Hungary, where they stopped in a dusty field near the boundary, without any facilities and accepting only water from humanitarian groups.
Desperate, they said Wednesday that no one seems to care. Holding banners reading "Your Silence is Hurting Us" and "We Were All Born Free," the migrants were carrying on with their protest calmly in small groups, some with blankets or towels on their heads to protect them from the scorching sun. Their eyes blurred from the heat, some migrants collapsed getting up, as others rushed to their aid.
"The situation is turning from bad to worse," said Roohul Amin Afridi, 33, from Afghanistan, one of the protest leaders. "We have been on hunger strike for the past four days."
As a Serbian ambulance arrived to the scene, Afridi said that several men have collapsed already and have been taken to a local hospital.
Some 300 men initially set off on foot Friday from Belgrade, the Serbian capital, toward the Hungarian border, 200 kilometers (120 miles) away to draw attention to the plight of the several thousand people who have been stuck in Serbia and other Balkan countries after the so-called Balkan refugee route closed in March.
EU-member Hungary has tightened immigration rules, letting in only up to 30 migrants a day, mostly families with small children, and pushing back those caught trying to cross illegally. Hundreds of migrants are already staying in makeshift camps along the Serbia-Hungary border with almost no facilities. Any newcomers will face weeks, even months of waiting, while single men have little hope of making it across the border.
Gyorgy Bakondi, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's national security adviser, says Hungary wants to have full control over the migrant influx.
"We would like to avoid causing domestic security tensions in Hungary or other countries as a result of a bad decision on the part of the authorities," he insists, dismissing the migrant protest as "staged performances" designed to put pressure and draw media attention.
Protest leader Afridi describes the situation at the border as "disheartening," saying that "hundreds are languishing" at the border camp and "nobody cares."
"We don't have anything to do, we don't have any choice except to be on hunger strike," he says.
So far, no incidents have been reported at the protest site, watched closely by the Serbian police. Few hundred meters away, a small tent city hosts several hundred more migrants, including families with small children. There, migrants cover their tents with tree branches for protection, while children play volleyball over a net made out of old clothes and blankets.
Faced with the pileup of migrants on its territory, Serbian authorities have also announced tougher controls on the Balkan country's borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria, where most migrants enter Serbia. With EU nations eager to curb the influx after more than 1 million asylum-seekers came in 2015, many migrants have turned to people smugglers and used clandestine routes to get in.
Aid workers say some 600 migrants are currently staying in the camp at Horgos. Nebojsa Covic, a field associate from the U.N. refugee agency, says "people are aware of their prospects ... waiting patiently for their turn."
Covic says the group of protesting migrants who arrived on Sunday, have "refused the food, taking only water."
Among them is 18-year-old Minhaj Uddin Wahaj from Afghanistan. Wahaj says he left his home in the capital, Kabul, some six months ago and traveled through Iran, Turkey and Greece before reaching Serbia. He joined the hunger strike on Tuesday.
"I don't want to be in war any more, that is why I left my country," Wahaj says, adding that his family stayed behind, but that "they are not safe in Kabul."
"Nobody is safe in Afghanistan," he says. "I am looking for a safe place on this Earth."
AP Writer Pablo Gorondi contributed from Budapest, Hungary.