Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
This month we spoke to Glasgow resident Nina who has gone to Serbia as an independent volunteer to work with migrants in Belgrade’s unofficial refugee camp…
Nina, can you tell us a bit about what you have been doing in Belgrade and why you went?
I have mostly been helping with Hot Food Idomeni and Soulwelders but I also work independently to support other small projects that appear. I came here because I wanted to spend some time supporting migrants and refugees and a friend who had visited Belgrade in the summer told me that it was a place that could really use extra hands.
Can you describe the situation where you are?
Belgrade’s unofficial camp, known as ‘the barraks’, houses a continually fluctuating number of migrants. When I was here in December-January the head count was somewhere between 1200 and 1800 and recently, as more official camps have opened in Serbia, this has decreased to somewhere in the region of 800-1000 people, with new people arriving every day. Women and families get priority in camps so it’s all men and boys here (the youngest being eight but a huge amount in their teenage years).
The barraks is an area behind Belgrade’s main bus station that has two large abandoned warehouses and a number of derelict buildings. The outdoor areas are used as a car park and the migrants mostly live inside. The buildings themselves are shells of structures. The warehouses have holes in the roofs, the doors are missing and most of the windows are broken. There is no electricity.
Until very recently the guys that stay here have been burning open fires inside the buildings to keep warm. They burned rubbish, tyres and old railway sleepers, creating a thick toxic smoke. One of the most common issues I heard at this point was chest problems. Some struggled so badly with this that they chose to sleep outside without a fire. Thankfully there are now groups (Soulwelders, Help-ña and other independent people) distributing fire wood and fitting stoves so at least the smoke isn’t so poisonous or thick.
There is almost no sanitation. There are no toilets, just areas used for this purpose and one ‘long drop’ with a private area. There are a handful of broken mains pipes where people can collect water. To wash they heat this water in buckets on top of fires and then take them outside. People were braving temperatures of -15 during the day to wash this way.
When I first entered the barraks the conditions hit me pretty hard. I had arrived with Hot Food Idomeni to serve lunch and there was a queue of around 2-300 men and boys waiting for food. Most were wrapped in grey blankets and waiting in the concrete yard in the centre of the barraks, flanked by old grey buildings. The visuals really made me feel like I was in a concentration camp and I struggled to deal with that at first.
The second thing that hit me, in contrast to the first, was the warmth I received from everyone “hello my friend” “how are you?” “Where are you from?”. My first task was line management (trying to stop people sneaking into the queue). Combined with the unfamiliarity of the situation it was a little intense but it became clear very quickly that it’s a pretty entertaining game for a lot of the young guys here, and it involved a lot of chatting and smiling. Eye contact and a smile with someone trying to cut in is almost always all you need to do.
What are the biggest challenges that people face there? Why are people stuck in this camp?
As a person with papers who doesn’t live in the barraks, this question is hard to answer. The material things I’m most commonly asked for are shoes and jackets. It has been as cold as -20 here and without proper clothing the weather can be incredibly harsh. People also need access showers and to wash clothes, many here have issues with lice and scabies.
The most obvious answer to both these questions however, would be borders. This is a challenge that basically everyone here has faced multiple times. Both the Croatian and Hungarian borders are now closed and enforced with extreme brutality. It’s pretty common here for people to have had multiple unsuccessful attempts at crossing them. People report being beaten, attacked by dogs and in many cases having their possessions and warm clothing taken from them. A couple of weeks ago a young man that stayed here named Rahmat died while trying to cross into Hungary when he fell through thawing ice on a river. Guards were reported to be present, but they didn’t intervene.
I have been told by a couple of guys here that it’s best not to think about the borders, they say you can try all day to find a solution to this problem and nothing will come to you. Coupled with the journey people have already made (especially through Bulgaria where pretty much everyone reports violence from the authorities), and the trauma of leaving home and the circumstances around that, I can’t begin to fathom the psychological difficulties these people are facing.
The closing of the borders is also why people are stuck in official and unofficial camps. Previously it was possible to access Europe through the Balkan route but this closure has shut it down, leaving thousands of people stuck in Serbia.
The most surprising, or probably shocking, thing I have witnessed has been how small an impact plummeting temperatures had on the support people were given here. When it’s reaching -20 at night and people are sleeping outside there’s an obvious danger there. The Serbian government had issued an open letter banning aid in the beginning of November and the help reaching people had slowed to a trickle. With such low temperatures I expected to see a change in that but almost nothing happened. MSF put some heating into 1 warehouse and did a large blanket distribution but that was it. Migrants were still wearing thin slippers and sandals while the ground had a perpetual inch of ice on it. Many didn’t have decent or adequate jackets and there were cases of frostbite.
I was also quite taken aback by the migrants I’ve met here who lived in the UK for a long time. Suddenly finding myself in conversation with a guy who had a strong cockney accent amid a sea of Afghan-English speaking accents was fairly unexpected. Perhaps naively I hadn’t expected to meet some of the people that the UK had deported and were trying to get their life’s back. One man had a long standing UK asylum application invalidated because he returned to Afghanistan briefly to visit a dying parent but it wasn’t safe for him to be there so he had to leave.
What has been your most uplifting moments so far?
Obviously big uplifting moments have been few and far between. I don’t personally know anyone that has been successful when trying to cross the border. I know a lot of people that have been unsuccessful, harmed and humiliated at the border. It can really make you despair at times.
At the same time, uplifting moments are everywhere. I think when you’re surrounded by groups of people that are working towards the same things you feel each other’s successes collectively. A few groups have cleared an area in one warehouse and started an evening kitchen. There is now food in the evening and also a space that has more of a community feel and it was amazing to just see that happening and spend time there.
Probably more than anything, spending time with the people here can be uplifting. There’s a huge culture of hospitality. Almost everyone everyday has a smile and a warm greeting. I’m constantly offered a seat by the fire, sweet chai and food, if people have it. They have amazing stories about their lives and ambitions. I know an 18 year old that wants to reach safety in Europe but hopes to return to Pakistan to set up an NGO offering free education, one day. There’s a young teenager that hopes to become doctor and a man aiming to complete his half finished medical degree that was interrupted when he fled the Taliban.
In spite of the grim circumstances and harsh lifestyle these people have been dealt, they still have energy and kindness for visitors and really inspiring ambitions. I am so privileged to have been able to spend the last few weeks with them all.
Do you think the media coverage of the situation in Belgrade is true to what you have been witnessing?
Basically no however, at the same time, I’m not going to claim that the media outright lie.
There’s just so many sources that paint a really narrow picture. For example, the official line here has been that the Serbian government offers migrants places in camps and that people in the barraks are there rather than in camps through choice. There is an element of truth in that, many don’t want to go to camps for a very legitimate fear of deportation and loss of autonomy. However, for a long time (and probably still now, even after the recent opening of a new camp) there simply wasn’t the space to place them in camps. People were frequently telling me that they were trying to register to access them every day and getting told to come back another time. There’s also very little analysis of the situation and violence at the borders and I have seen almost nothing about deportations to Bulgaria which I’m told by people here is a very real threat. There is a tendency to look at the situation at a very base level without looking into the biggest issues and concerns that actually need to be addressed.
There’s also a tendency to portray a “poor refugees” narrative, which to a certain extent is true – but that’s only circumstantial. This place a full of very capable and intelligent humans that don’t want to be eating a meal cooked by an aid organisation everyday. There’s engineers, farmers, doctors and generally a lot of really interesting and able humans. There’s so many layers missing from the reality of the situation and I feel that the tendency to paint people as helpless really fuels misguided fears elsewhere that migrants are a burden or a threat rather than seeing the amazing human potential being wasted here.
All photos credit: nina
We are really grateful to Nina for providing such a poignant insight into the kind of solidarity efforts that are happening in Belgrade. Is there someone you know, or have heard of, that you think would make for an interesting interview? Let us know using the form below!