A report on the situation of refugees at the last stops in Serbia in December 2015 and March 2016.
In December 2015 I headed to Belgrade, Serbia with some donations from The Netherlands and two hands to help out with the increasing numbers of refugees travelling through Serbia in order to reach the European Union. Miksaliste, which was made available as a distribution centre by Mikser House and is being managed by ADRA Serbia and Divac Foundation, was my primary destination. Initially they went under the name ´Refugee Aid Serbia´ and later proceeded as ‘Refugee Aid Miksaliste’. On the premise of Miksaliste are to be found: a tent for coffee and tea, toilets and showers, a food distribution area, a clothes distribution area, a ‘child-friendly-zone’ from Save The Children and first aid (WAHA). Practical help is provided on a daily basis by volunteers from across the world. Between Miksaliste and the main train station, then, lies Info Park. The stand of Info Park is flanked by a tent from ICRC. At Info Park refugees receive information with regard to finding their way in Belgrade. Usually they are directed to Miksaliste and the Asylum Info Centre, which is located just across the street. There refugees can use the internet and get free legal aid. Save The Children is also represented at the Asylum Info Centre with a child-friendly-zone, rooms where mothers can take care of their babies and a storage of babycare supplies.
The main problem at the time were the weather conditions. The temperatures dropped far below zero and refugees were mostly in need of warmth, food and a hot shower to renew forces. Thus for many, a visit to Miksaliste has been a short and welcome stop on the way to the EU. People who don’t have the intention to ask for asylum in Serbia, and they make out a vast majority, are granted 72 hours to travel out of the country. So the following day most would take the train to Sid, from where they can cross the border with Croatia to enter the EU. The train takes approximately 3 hours to arrive in Sid and a ticket can be bought for 500 denar (4, 20 euro). At the time there were some hostels in Belgrade that provided refugees with free or at least very cheap accommodation. Nonetheless, people usually had to spend the night in a park before proceeding their journey the next day.
The people arriving in Belgrade were overall in bad condition. They often had injuries or at least sore feet from the hours and days they had to walk. Many stories go round, speaking of verbal and physical abuse and inhumane treatment while passing through neighbouring countries. I met a 16-year old Afghan boy who asked me for a cigarette. He was surprised to see a woman smoking, he told me, since it was not a common thing in his home country. Then he showed me his right hand; his fingers were red and swollen and the hand was bandaged. He said they had just treated him at Miksaliste after his hand was run over by a Bulgarian police car two days earlier. It had really hurt him and he had to cry, he confessed.
Among all these refugees, there were unmistakably smugglers. Often they were recognizable by their demanding attitudes and their ‘bossing around’ their company. Instead of 500 denar, refugees were charged 500 euros for a train ticket to Sid if they wanted a smuggler to arrange the journey for them. Language barriers and a lack of information were often the cause for this, so there were several translators active at the train station to help refugees purchasing their train tickets themselves.
In March 2016 I returned to Serbia. In the past three months, the situation has undergone some significant and even worrying changes. Miksaliste is currently struggling with finding ever more volunteers. People, in general, get tired and lose interest. The hostels that provided accommodation three months earlier, are having financial difficulties and thus had to cease their aid. Smugglers are more cautious nowadays, for it appears that surveillance is heightened, and they often dwell around obscure international restaurants instead of pretending to be touristic guides. It is no use to take the train to Sid anymore, since the border with Croatia is closed and control in the train is strict. Instead of spending one night in Belgrade in order to take the train the next day, more and more people find themselves stuck there and are forced to sleep outside.
One night, when I walked along with NGO Praxis – an organization that helps refugees with their registration -, we met a 20-year old boy from Algeria who had just been beaten up and robbed off his money. He told us he was gay and was desperately looking for protection, since in his own country he had to fear for his life. Now he arrived in Serbia and got assaulted after all. The boy was crying and clearly scared. Staff from Médécins du Monde checked his physical health, after which he was escorted to Asylum Info Centre by NGO Praxis. There he was offered some food and a place to sleep. The next day the boy had left after he had told the staff about his plans to head to The Netherlands. We haven’t heard from him yet.
That same night I met an Iraqi family outside the Info Centre. They were two women, one man and five children between the ages of 1 and 12. The man told me they had been walking for nine hours and now they arrived in Belgrade, they were unable to find a place to rest and sleep. He asked me how he could get to the EU, despite the fact they didn’t have any passports. The children were visibly exhausted and although their parents didn’t mention it, they probably had to carry their infants for nine hours as well. Desperately, the man asked me if I could take his youngest baby with me to The Netherlands. They were provided with some food, but they had to spend the night, and perhaps the following nights also, outside in the open.
In the town of Sid, the streets are now empty of refugees. Until recently they slept on the lawns in front of houses and were provided with food by its inhabitants. However, since the Serbian authorities intervened, refugees are directly sent to either the camp near the train station or a specific motel to be accommodated. At both locations, supervision is held strictly by the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees (SRC), meaning that independent volunteers are no longer permitted at the premises. Only NGO’s who meet the strict requirements are allowed access to the centres. One of these NGO’s was Intersos. This humanitarian organization hosted me in Sid and took care of the distribution of the remaining donations from The Netherlands at the sites.
It is uncertain, to say at the least, how the future will look like. On March 18th , at the time of my second stay in Serbia, the EU and Turkey joined forces to – supposedly – end irregular migration and smuggling practices. However, the focus lies primarily on Greece and the deal in itself has many angles. Meanwhile, the situation in other countries is getting dire and the refugee crisis appears to be ongoing still. There are currently many people stuck in the Balkan, unsure of whether they can proceed at all. It is expected that less people will reach Serbia due to closed borders, but those who already were in the country when the fences went up are still awaiting a solution. In the mean time they sleep in parks – and those who registered sleep in a centre -, trying to survive and hoping to find a way.
On April 26th, 2016, Refugee Aid Miksaliste received word from the Belgrade City Assembly that they were going to have to leave the site, because of the project ‘Beograd na vodi’ (Belgrade at the water). They were given ample hours to pack and transport everything. On April 27th, Miksaliste was officially closed. However, on May 9th Refugee Aid Miksaliste announced they will continue their work – at least temporarily – at ulici Gavrila Principa, 500 metres from the previous location (Mostarska 5).
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