On the ground in Serbia: Holding onto hope amongst the chaos

Thursday, 19 November 2015 15:03 GMT

Transit Centre in Serbia - by Melissa Winkler

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The number of migrant and refugee arrivals to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea in 2015 has now surpassed 590,000—more than twice the number of arrivals in all of 2014 and more than eight times the number of arrivals the previous year.

With Hungary’s tighter border restrictions, the escalating crisis in Syria, and the threat of the approaching winter, more and more refugees are using alternative routes to reach European Union (EU) countries. An estimated 6,000 to 7,000 people are entering Serbia from Macedonia each day.

On November 11th – a public holiday in Serbia – Maria Nazarenko, International Medical Corps’ Regional Coordinator, went on a field visit to the Serbia – Croatia border, where a mobile medical unit, operated in partnership with a local NGO, IAN, is providing assistance to refugees. She was not expecting the scene that met her there. What follows is her own account from Serbia.

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Maria Nazarenko, Regional Coordinator, International Medical Corps, Serbia

Serbia, Wednesday November 11th

As we drove towards the railway station, where the refugees are now able to board a train that takes them directly to Croatia, to a camp set up by in Slavonski Brod, we decided to stop near the one stop centre in Adasevci. This centre has not yet been officially opened. It is a hotel, located at the petrol station right off the main highway. Even though the hotel has not been finished yet, and cannot provide beds for anybody, busses going to the train station are being stopped there by the local authorities, and large crowds remain there, awaiting their turn to take the next train.

The scene that welcomed us there was not at all what I had expected. There was at least thirty busses parked at the petrol station, along the highway near to the unfinished one stop centre. Groups of people, women with children, and young men were sitting on the grass, or walking around looking for somewhere to get food or clothes. The little store at the petrol station looked empty at this time, and inside the one stop centre there were a few empty tables and only one medical team providing emergency assistance to people.

A young woman came up to my colleague and me asking for help. She wanted to get water for her little daughter, who was no more than three years old. She was with her friend or relative, another young woman. They looked extremely tired, and could speak only a few words of English. As we led them to some drinking water that was provided for the refugees on the spot, I tripped and fell into some mud. The two women picked me up, and pulled out a paper napkin to help me clean myself. I felt a wave of compassion for these women: they worry about others, even when they themselves do not receive even the basic attention they need at this place; they have no food, yet they have enough kindness in them to care about a total stranger. 

When we got to the cistern, we realised there were no bottles, and my colleague ran off to try and find someone who could get something which they could fill with water. One of the volunteers working at the one stop centre said that the food distribution had already finished for the day, and there were no other water points except for this one.

As we kept walking through the crowd, a man addressed us in very good English: “How long do we need to stay here? Do we have to sleep here?” he asked. The man said that he and his family arrived in Adasevci at 4 o’clock in the morning. He came from Syria with his whole family, crossing the sea into Greece. He had to spend three or four days on the island in Greece because there was a ferry strike, and there was no transport to the main land. They then travelled across Macedonia, and across Serbia, and now he was hoping they would be able to cross the border with Croatia before nighttime, so that they could sleep somewhere where there might be a bed or a matrass, and not on a bus or on the ground outside. He wasn’t too worried about himself, he explained, but he had his family with him, and wanted them to be safe and warm.  

There were some delays with the transport for several days, and in an uncertain situation, any information we could give would only amount to empty promises. Inquisitively, and still hopeful despite the long journey, he asks: “Maybe another five days and we can get to Germany?”…