While migrant journeys to Europe often conjure up harrowing images of people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean, many other refugees take a different route: an arduous land route across the Balkans. In 2017, a documentary film crew followed migrants as they made their way along this pathway from Turkey to the EU border, hoping to shed light not just on the journey itself, but also on the lives of those making it. The resulting documentary, Routes, is a compelling film that reveals the human stories of Europe’s lesser-known migrant crisis.
Directed by Petar Bojović, Routes was released in 2021, but has been long been in the making. Produced alongside NGO Refugee Aid Serbia, the initial idea for the film emerged in 2017, shortly after the peak of the European refugee crisis that had erupted following conflict in Syria. Previously, most refugees reached Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy. But 2015 saw an influx of asylum seekers making the shorter Aegean Sea crossing between Turkey and Greece, or crossing into the European Union through the Balkans. Largely fueled by xenophobia, governments reacted to the influx by closing their borders, leaving migrants stuck in limbo. Many asylum seekers found themselves stuck in Serbia, which is not an EU member, but borders three EU countries: Hungary in the north, Romania in the northeast, and Bulgaria in the southeast.
The documentary itself opens in 2017, where Diana, Sam, and Felix are operating a grassroots NGO in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. They’ve worked with migrants crossing the Balkan Route for several years, providing them with the essential items, food, and clothing they need to survive. Disappearing media coverage and increasingly-hostile officials are making the journey more and more dangerous — something the three humanitarian workers hope to challenge by making their own trip across the Balkan Route, from Turkey to Belgium. Along the way, they organise integration festivals for migrants and locals to come together through workshops, food, art, and music, hoping to ease tensions between communities by fostering intercultural exchange.
Routes follows the trio’s journey, but also the people they meet along the way: migrants seeking safety, wary local communities, politicians, and organisations affected by the crisis. The result is an image that is both uncomfortable and painful, but ultimately humanising. By interweaving these personal narratives against the backdrop of the Balkan Route, Routes is an urgent portrait of our times that goes beyond the mainstream facts and stats.
While the film focuses on the Balkan route, the director also hopes it can relate to the universal migrant experience. “As a migrant from the former Yugoslavia, I was always interested in migration journeys and its effects. Returning to Serbia as a young adult and witnessing how my home country managed the influx of asylum seekers in 2015 shocked me,” Bojović explains. “Routes focuses on a specific demographic experience of asylum seekers and refugees, however, there is also a broader story of migration within this film. I believe that all people who have ever moved around the world, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, will be able to relate to the experiences shared in our film.”