THE BLOG

I Spent Three Months At A Refugee Camp. This Is What I Saw

The situation was desperate.

20/06/2016 5:28 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:54 PM AEST
NEW! HIGHLIGHT AND SHARE
Highlight text to share via Facebook and Twitter
Evan Davies
"Perhaps now the 'lucky' ones are those that had been turned away before they reached this point."

On a sodden and muddy road between the Macedonian and Serbian borders, another small episode in the great geopolitical tussle between Europe plays out.

Four hundred refugees, many of them women and children, huddled under tarpaulins in the freezing rain, unable to go forward and blocked from going back.

These mostly Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrived a few hours earlier on a train from Idomeni in Greece.

They passed through screening on the Macedonian border enroute to the Western Balkans, hoping for resettlement in Austria and Germany. But without warning, they had been denied entry into Serbia.

Hours earlier, I had arrived in the refugee transit centre in Tabanovce.

We stuffed bags with whatever we can: rain ponchos, beanies and scarfs, anything to provide some small comfort to those stuck between borders while we consider what to do next.

The makeshift border crossing is a hidden dirt road fenced with chicken wire. It runs through a field, next to a train line. A man approached me, asked if I can speak English. He wanted to know why they could not pass. I had no answer for him but assured him we were doing all we could to get either side to allow them passage.

The situation was desperate. Babies cried, children shivered with the cold, and adults asked for food, milk for babies, warm clothes and blankets. It was freezing, cold and wet, the ground slippery with mud and the light quickly fading. As I moved through makeshift tents handing out what I can, hands grab at me and people call out.

Our items ran out so we headed back to the centre. Messages had already been sent via the cross-border messaging groups and agencies start to respond from both sides. Medical staff arrived with food packages and we grabbed warm clothes, ponchos and milk boxes for the children.

A group of women were pushing to go back to the centre in Macedonia but were being blocked by security forces. One sick, elderly woman was allowed to be brought back through by medical staff. Another woman thrust her baby towards us, trying to get us to take it somewhere warm and dry.

A young female Arabic interpreter was desperately trying to calm the situation down and, after another few minutes, we were able pass. A pregnant woman emerged from under a tarpaulin, saying she is nine months pregnant and needs to go to hospital.

As night fell and the rain started to ease, people lit a bonfire in the middle of the camp and clung to it for warmth.

Evan Davies

Hot meals were provided from organisations on both sides of the border, but still, neither of the security forces were stepping aside.

Later that night, an announcement was made that the Western Balkans route was now permanently closed, leaving these people with little hope of being able to continue on the journey.

These people had had a shred of hope. Of the 30,000 camping on the Macedonian border for weeks, they were finally allowed to pass. But their hope was short-lived.

As European countries discussed ways of limiting the flow, fear began to spread through national governments that they would get left with the burden.

Border practices began to deviate, with no one wanting to be more lenient than their nearest neighbour to the north.

Macedonia had already felt the effect of this with 700 Afghani refugees prevented from entering Serbia on the day a new agreement was reached between Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia on who had the right to claim asylum.

Four weeks later they were still residing in the Tabanovce transit centre.

In days prior to the 400 becoming stuck, 1200 refugees had been returned to Serbia from Croatia and Slovenia and neither country had accepted anyone further.

Now transit centres in both Serbia and Macedonia, never intended or resourced to accommodate refugees for more than a few hours, were full, leaving thousands in limbo and without legal status.

Five days later and the 400 are still on that muddy road.

Assistance is still being provided from the Macedonian side but as Serbia deems the group to be in Macedonian territory, they have banned the distribution of goods because it would be breach customs regulations.

To this point, both Serbia and Macedonia had shown great generosity in their support and administration of the refugees transiting their country, a stark contrast to Australia's management of the comparative few who seek asylum in Australia.

Indeed, the Western Balkans route had been described as a humanitarian corridor with, at one time, more refugees transiting in a day than Australia ever received in a year.

Eventually, the Macedonian authorities allowed those between the borders to re-enter the Tabanovce centre, although many did not for fear they would get pushed back to Greece.

A few weeks later, the authorities forcibly moved everyone back to the overcrowded centre.

Without any information on what would happen to them, and significant numbers still separated from family members who had gone ahead of them, many tried to continue on their own or with people smugglers to Serbia. Some got through but many more got arrested and were indeed forced back to Greece, where Europe is desperately trying to contain 'the problem'.

A colleague this week told me about a chance meeting they had with a young Syrian woman who had been stuck on that road. She had remained in the centre for two months before deciding to chance it to Serbia.

While she had been successful there, she was now camped on the border with Hungary where up to another 600 people have amassed hoping to gain entry to the border zone.

Even if she does make the next step, neither refuge nor safe passage is then assured. She will again run the risk of imprisonment, violence, abuse and exploitation. But while the brutal war still rages in Syria, she has no option to return.

More On This Topic

Advertisement
Advertisement