By Maria Caspani
NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Police in some Balkan nations are abusing thousands of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, many of them children, as they travel across the region to reach the European Union (EU), Amnesty International said in a report.
Refugees and migrants fleeing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and other crisis zones endure beatings and extortion during the journey that takes them by sea from Turkey to Greece and then over land across Macedonia and Serbia into Hungary, the rights group said.
"Refugees fleeing war and persecution make this journey across the Balkans in the hope of finding safety in Europe only to find themselves victims of abuse and exploitation and at the mercy of failing asylum systems," said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International's deputy director for Europe and central Asia.
European nations are struggling to deal with increasing numbers of people who cross the Mediterranean in rickety boats and trek across the Balkans to escape violence and hardship in the Middle East and North Africa.
Nearly 2,000 have died so far this year trying to reach Italy or Greece by boat.
The western Balkans route has become the busiest irregular passage to Europe overtaking the Mediterranean route which remains the most deadly, the report said.
The number of people apprehended crossing the Serbia-Hungary border has risen by more than 2,500 percent since 2010, said Amnesty. Authorities at border crossings in Macedonia and Serbia deny them entry and beat them, Amnesty said.
Many are forced to pay bribes, said the report.
"I saw men badly beaten. They beat my 13-year-old son. They beat me too," one Afghan refugee told Amnesty.
The rights group interviewed more than 100 refugees and migrants between July 2014 and March 2015 in Serbia, Hungary, Greece and Macedonia.
At Macedonia's Reception Centre for Foreigners hundreds, including pregnant women and children, are held with limited access to sanitation and health care and with no opportunity to claim asylum, Amnesty said.
Former detainees reported police beat them and forced people to sleep on stairs without blankets and had no hot water and food.
STUCK IN LIMBO
Failing asylum systems in the region leave many in a legal limbo and vulnerable to human rights violations, the report said.
In Serbia, only one individual was granted asylum in 2014 and only 10 were granted refugee status in Macedonia.
Most asylum seekers reach Hungary where they are at risk of arbitrary detention in prison-like conditions with police who act like guards, it said.
Hungary's parliament passed legislation on Monday that tightens asylum rules, providing the legal framework for a fence to be built along the country's southern border with Serbia to stem the flow of illegal migrants.
"As increasing numbers of vulnerable refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants become trapped in a Balkan no-man's land, the pressures on Serbia and Macedonia are mounting," said Amnesty's van Gulik.
"These stresses, like those on Italy and Greece, can only be resolved by a much broader rethink of EU migration and asylum policies."
(Reporting by Maria Caspani,; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)