Bea and Lucy’s story – Kelebjia and Belgrade, November 2016
It has been a year, almost to the day, since our last trip to Serbia where as many as ten thousand people were forced to walk in the night to an open field and queue to cross the Croatian border in sub-zero temperatures.
Since then so much has changed. The EU Turkey deal and the closure of the Balkan route has led to a more static but nonetheless bleak situation. We are no longer seeing thousands of people making their journeys, instead the problem is now more insidious, with people stuck for months on end living in camps (many of which are inhumane) or worse, sleeping rough in the freezing Serbian winter in forests or on the streets. There are close to 10,000 refugees in Serbia, who are waiting to get into the EU. Hungary has slowed its acceptance of asylum seekers down to a trickle with just 20 people a day on weekdays. Like so many poor countries on whom this situation has been thrust, Serbia is clearly struggling to cope and was only ever meant to be a transit zone rather than a long term host for so many people. Desperate to get them off Serbian soil, the authorities deport refugees from Serbia at random back to Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece without a proper process or regard for where they have come from and their prospects of gaining asylum in Europe. Refugees find themselves taking one step forward and two steps back in a cruel game of snakes of ladders. This process has had an enormously detrimental effect on refugees mental states. We met Syrian refugees sleeping rough in Belgrade who were desperate not to be sent to the camps as they were in an understandable state of panic about deportation.
During our trip, we heard many shocking stories about refugees being persecuted and preyed upon at the Hungarian-Serbian border where tensions are running high. The local volunteers dissuaded us from accessing the makeshift camp at the border because of a shoot-out days before our arrival between people smugglers and the Hungarian police. We were also told that the Hungarian police and locals hunt refugees in the forests with guns and dogs, leading to many refugees appearing in camps across Serbia wounded by dog bites.
On the Serbian Hungarian border, refugees are divided by nationality. In Kelebjia, the concentration of people is mostly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis. We volunteered at the Kelebjia Community Centre, a project by the amazing North Star team, 500m from the Serbian-Croatian border. There we were reunited with the wonderful Alex who we met last year in Berkasavo and we met the equally wonderful Sid from Michigan who have been manning the project with Kelsey for months on end. They have established a beautiful initiative to bring some much needed respite to the lives of the people waiting at the border. Refugees can find warmth in a heated tent provided by MSF, wifi, tea, warm dry clothes and even a small stove to cook on. Volunteers and refugees work together to create and maintain a community space where refugees can find a sense of purpose and equality, even if it is short-lived. The makeshift border camp, where the KCC's visitors have to camp outside in the freezing temperatures of Serbian winter, has no loos or showers. The KCC provides a hosepipe shower but unfortunately it is too expensive to heat the water and many refugees understandably choose not to wash for weeks on end rather than brave a cold shower in the icy open air. The volunteers play with the many children and give parents some much needed time off. The refugees are given only a single pack of instant noodles a day by the Serbian police but Fresh Response, a team of international volunteers staying in the nearby town of Subotica visit three times a week with fresh food. We made two trips to the local hypermarket, filling our car with fresh food to distribute to the refugees on days where Fresh Response were unable to visit.
We also went back to Sid, the small town we visited last year. There we met with an incredible Serbian aid worker called Rade who has worked with refugees since the Balkan wars. Rade showed us the camps in and around Sid, which are run by the Serbian Commiseriat assisted by large NGOs such as Mercy Corps (who Rade works for), Medicins San Frontiere and the Danish Refugee Council. The refugees are given tins of food but only those with money can get fresh food and proper nourishment. Many of the camps, for example the one in central Sid, are not heated, which is unimaginable in the freezing cold of Serbian winter. Refugees can wait in these camps for months on end, with the risk of deportatation hanging over them and no reassurance that they will make it into the EU. Lice and skin diseases have spread throughout the camps. The authorities have resorted to hosing down the refugees and disinfecting their clothes. We saw twenty refugees including teenage boys and girls arrive at a camp, shivering from the cold and looking shell-shocked probably from the ordeal of having to sleep rough. They were forbidden entry to the camp for fear of spreading lice. We do not know what happened to them.
In Belgrade, there are close to 2,000 people sleeping rough in derelict, abandoned warehouses, parks and under bridges. There we met the incredible Lissett, who works tirelessly with Refugee Aid Serbia to provide support to the refugees there. Although the population is generally made up of "single males", we saw barely teenage boys shivering in sandals and flimsy clothing. As we entered a dark, leaky, warehouse inhabited by refugees, the stench of burning plastic filled the air. Desperate for light and warmth, refugees burn anything they can get their hands on. The refugees told us that at 4.30 that morning, the police had come to round them up onto buses to go to a camp. Even though the camp where the refugees were to be sent had amenities (like hot food and showers) for many, camps mean the prospect of deportation which is something they cannot risk, not after they have made it this far. For refugees who do not go to the camps, their only resort to cross the borders to the EU is via the people smugglers. We went to a park, where we saw these transactions take place in the open in the centre of Belgrade.
Our friends in the field in other countries affected by the crisis such as Greece, tell us that help is also still desperately needed there where refugees similarly face uncertain waits in hideous conditions.