Subotica, Serbia — August 2016

He was caught crossing illegally into Macedonia seven times. On his eighth attempt, he was successful. He is nineteen and from Western Sahara, but now he is in Serbia. He is waiting, eating, sleeping, meeting with smugglers, trying to cross the Hungarian border, eating, and sleeping again. He has seven cigarette burns lined up on his right arm. I met him at food distributions in Subotica, Serbia that a group of volunteers and I ran every morning.

Western Sahara is not a war zone, so he is considered an economic migrant. North Africans are not protected in the same way as those fleeing war or persecution in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. When I was distributing food ingredients this August in Subotica, Serbia, the North African community was actually asked to leave the official camp. They are left with two options: sleep on the streets or find a quick solution, usually a smuggler, to cross into Hungary. Those who follow the legal route have their names pushed down on the long list of asylum-seekers waiting to pass into Hungary because officials favor refugees from Syria and Iraq. The legal way takes months; only thirty people are let in each day, twenty-eight family members and two single males. In light of these obstacles, North Africans resort to irregular border crossings to reach their destinations in Western Europe.

At the borders immigrants are met with violence. Unlike scars on other bodies in the camp, the seven cigarette burns on the arm of the young man from Western Sahara are not self-inflicted wounds inspired by psychological despair or trauma. Instead, the burns are instances of police brutality from Macedonian border cops. The Macedonian police knew his name from his consistent attempts to cross, and one officer in particular would call out his name each time he was pushed back into Greece. Every time, the same officer would give him a cigarette burn on his upper arm. Some are deeper than others, but all of the marks will scar him permanently. Just as the border guard remembered his name, he will remember his encounters with the evidence on his body.

“Police problem”, he would say at food distribution the mornings after he unsuccessfully attempted the Hungarian border. He is tall and thin, but always stands a couple of inches shorter while he leans back, relaxed with his arms crossed over his chest. He does not say much but observes all. He never came back with dog bites or black eyes like some of the other migrants who had run-ins with the Hungarian border zone.

He stopped coming to food distribution and I haven’t seen him since. I assume he finally crossed into Hungary considering his experience and determination. Maybe he even travelled further into the Schengen region, possibly reaching Germany, although he said he did not have a preference. Another part of me worries that he did not reach his goal and instead is being held somewhere in Serbia for not having required police entry papers. He was already in jail in Greece for six months for the same reason.

He does not seem angry, but he should be. According to a European stereotype, he is a criminal, a cheater, or maybe a terrorist. Other refugees are skeptical of him for crowding the same camps and adding to the mass of people hoping for resettlement. He is alone and his only advocate.

Jail and violence do not deter immigrants’ movements in hope of better opportunities. Often, they still reach their destinations. Maltreatment and isolation along the way creates psychological scars that develop into a mistrust of European society and rule of law, making future integration inconceivable. Sometimes they can’t just get over it.