Balkans refugee crisis: Report from the frontline

By: 
CARE
A one-and-half-year-old baby with his mother in a temporary camp in Croatia. Her husband has been missing for over a year from inside Syria. She has fled Syria with her baby and two other children.

CARE’s Lucy Beck reports from the Serbia-Croatia border, where CARE is providing emergency food and hygiene items to Syrian refugees.

Over the last 48 hours the situation has seriously deteriorated with an increasing number of closed border points causing bottle-necks of thousands of refugees in Serbia and overcrowding of the one official camp in Croatia with services, resources and manpower desperately overstretched.

With weather conditions extremely cold, wet and windy and no shelter provided the conditions for thousands of refugees are dire.

Tent camp at night
People at the temporary camp at Opatovac in Croatia

Many are forced to spend the nights outside without shelter or proper hygiene and sanitation facilities. In Croatia they are overcrowded in one camp (in Opatovac) in lightweight tents with minimal services as they wait to board buses that will carry them further on to the border with Slovenia, which is now also beginning to restrict access across its border due to the high volume of new daily arrivals.

As CARE emergency response members have said, the conditions are comparable to those in war zones and some of the most deprived areas of the world where CARE and other humanitarian organisations work.

The fact that it is in Europe is a tragedy and an embarrassment.

With the extremely cold weather conditions the biggest short-term needs are blankets, shoes and socks as many people are walking miles in inadequate, flimsy and wet footwear. Some are wrapping their feet in tin foil to try and keep warm.

Refugees walking along a road
There are not enough buses to transport everyone from Serbia to the already overcrowded camp at Opatovac in Croatia, so many are crossing the frontier on foot and walking over 5km to reach the camp themselves

People arriving in Serbia and Croatia are trying to reach western Europe. The situation and routes remain unpredictable, but the one constant is that numbers continue to increase day by day with 6,000 people registered at the Croatian border (coming from Serbia) by 7:30pm tonight [20 October] with bus loads continuing to arrive throughout the night and the border remaining largely closed to stem the tide of those crossing.

As night fell tonight thousands of refugees stood at the impromptu barricades at the Serbian-Croatian border chanting “open, open” to Croatian police forces.

People queuing at the border at night
People queue at the Croatian border with Serbia after Croatian officials closed the only crossing point in order to limit the huge number of people crossing. They chant the words "open, open" as they wait in the cold, mud and rain.

CARE, through our two local partners and their network of dedicated local volunteers (who provide services 24/7 free of charge), continues to provide basic assistance packages including dry food, fruit, energy bars, drinks, hygiene wipes, clothing and blankets as well as gender-specific items such as sanitary pads when needed. They have also set up a woman-friendly space on the Serbian border-crossing point of Vojvodina.

Volunteers distributing food in the temporary camp
CARE partner organisation volunteers hand out bags of basic items including food, drink and clothing to new arrivals in the Croatian camp at Opatovac

The people arriving are from a mixture of places including Afghanistan, Iran, and western Africa among others, with the majority still being Syrian refugees. Due to the increasingly tight border restrictions many families are now finding themselves separated on crossing into Croatia, and missing children and family members is a critical issue in the Croatian camp.

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Update 22 October 2015 from Iljitsj Wemerman, the CARE emergency team leader:

“I have worked in Somalia and Yemen and some of the worst humanitarian crises in the world and the situation here on the Serbian border is comparable to those. People have little clothing, food or water. Many are forced to sleep in the open. Paths are muddy and covered with waste.

“Most of those crossing from Serbia into Croatia have already travelled through at least five countries to reach this point. They have travelled weeks or even months on foot, buses, trains and boats.

They are tired, very cold and increasingly weak and sick.

“We have seen illnesses such as respiratory tract infections, diarrhoea and even some cases of hypothermia and pneumonia. There is an imminent risk of fatalities.”

Around 5-6,000 people are thought to be arriving in Serbia daily at the moment on their way to Croatia. Governments and aid agencies are unable to keep up with the volume of new arrivals. The onset of winter across the region where temperatures drop to below freezing is a serious and potentially life-threatening worry, with many of those arriving unprepared for the cold.

While initial arrivals in September and the beginning of October were mainly men, CARE is now seeing an increasing number of women and often very young children. They are more vulnerable to safety and security risks, such as sexual and gender-based violence.

In addition to providing food and blankets, a trailer offering mobile phone charging and free WiFi has been set up, as social media and phones are a key way for people to key in touch on the move. In the coming weeks CARE will scale up assistance with provision of water and sanitation as well as shelter.

It is important to note that refugees arriving in Europe still only represent a small percentage of the people affected by the Syrian and other crisis. The vast majority remain in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where humanitarian operations are seriously under-funded and continuous cuts are being made to refugee programmes making life impossible for those living there.

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