The Balkans crisis: A human story

A woman lays out a blanket among a crowd of refugees at the Serbian-Croatian border

In recent weeks there has been a lot of talk about the closure of borders across Eastern and Western Europe. The debate across Europe has become polarised between left and right and between ‘poor helpless refugees’ and ‘migrants who are just economic opportunists’.

But at the heart of this story are human beings – young men, women and small children – and this is what we are forgetting.

Above all, the thousands of people currently arriving in Europe are human beings; ordinary individuals like you and me who have been put in extraordinary situations and are having to make terrifying and difficult decisions that I hope personally I never have to make.

People queuing huddled in blankets
People wait on a cold and frosty morning in the Croatian camp of Opatovac to board buses that will take them on to Slovenia. Temperatures are dropping to nearly freezing during the night and most people are ill-prepared for the cold weather.

The journey people are now facing subjects them to conditions far below standards of basic human dignity. The uncoordinated border closures by different countries are having a real-time impact on neighbouring countries and ultimately on individual human beings. There is a direct and immediate link between the limiting of passage to people and the dire humanitarian situation currently being faced across the Balkans, which is causing unnecessary human suffering.

Man in a wheelchair
A man in a wheelchair with other Syrian refugees at the Croatian camp of Opotovac. His family take turns pushing the wheelchair. In Macedonia they had to push it for two hours straight in the rain and with no light. Pushing it along the railway tracks was particularly challenging. The previous wheelchair was stolen so they had to get another one from the Red Cross.

There is also a problem with distinguishing between refugee and migrant; even those escaping immediate danger, war and persecution also hope for better lives along the way. Afghanistan, for example, has been ripped apart by conflict for decades.

Infrastructure, services, education facilities and the economy have been destroyed.

There remains a real and constant danger for many normal people across the country, but combined with this is an increasing sense of hopelessness – that there is no future for the country and no future for the people within it. We should acknowledge the fact that someone can be both a refugee and still have some economic motivations.

This kind of situation is the result of prolonged warfare and protracted conflict and this is why when you ask many of the young Afghan men making the perilous journey across Eastern and Western Europe why they are doing it, they often say to be able to get an education or the opportunity to work.

They are a generation that has grown up knowing nothing but war and conflict.

In the 21st century these protracted conflicts have become the new norm. It is not just Afghanistan, but countries such as Somalia, South Sudan and, of course, now Syria, where fear and conflict have replaced day-to-day life and functioning systems are being methodically destroyed or left to fall apart. Ending war in a country will not necessarily fix all the problems. It is clearly the first crucial step, but massive reconstruction and rehabilitation are the real keys.

A CARE volunteer with a queue of people
CARE volunteers provide assistance to people boarding buses from the Croatian camp of Opotovac to the Slovenian border.

From a humanitarian response point of view this is also a unique type of crisis, which is extremely challenging for aid agencies to respond to. People are en route and transiting, routes are continuously changing and sometimes people are staying less than a day in any given country, making it difficult for organisations to provide the much-needed assistance.

When you look at the faces of these people as they hike across borders in the mud, wind and rain, and see the exhaustion and suffering etched across their faces, you can see that this is not a journey of choice.

No-one would choose this if they had a choice.

They are leaving everything they know, selling off all their possessions, facing months of physical hardship – and all for a future of uncertainty. This is a last act of desperation and the least we can do as Europeans is give them the respect and dignity they deserve by properly listening to what they have to say.

Iljitsj Wemerman is CARE Emergency Team Leader for the Balkans refugee and migrant response.

CARE’s emergency response in the Balkans:

In Serbia, CARE has assisted nearly 13,000 refugees through the distribution of food and hygiene packages, and is continuing with daily distributions of CARE packages. In Croatia, our local partner The Volunteer Center Osijek (VCOS) has mobilised volunteers to assist at the temporary camp in Opatovac. The volunteers provide support to the camp management, help with registration, work on family reunion and tracing services, support mothers with children, help the sick and elderly, do crowd management and organise the distribution of the CARE food and hygiene packages.


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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.