Refugee crisis: All the normal assumptions have been thrown out

Five-year-old Noor from Syria waits with his family to board buses to take him from Croatia to Slovenia

Despite border closures, refugees are still entering the Balkans in huge numbers. CARE is working through partner organisations using a network of volunteers to provide 24-hour assistance seven days a week to refugees crossing through the Balkans.

This includes packages with dry food, drinks, wet wipes, clothes, blankets and materials specifically for women and mothers, such as sanitary materials and nappies. 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 keep in touch with other family members.

Tessa Gough, Emergency Response Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) specialist, was recently in Serbia coordinating CARE’s WASH response for refugees and migrants crossing through on their way to Europe.​

What are usually the biggest WASH issues in a humanitarian emergency?

Water and sanitation are totally fundamental. The need for it never stops, and it can mean life or death, so in an emergency the first thing you have to do is see: Is water available? Is sanitation available? The focus is often on water because it is a very tangible thing, but the bigger problem in an emergency is more often sanitation. When you have a lot of people concentrated in one area, whether transiting through, in a camp, or after a natural disaster, they still have to go to the toilet somewhere! If that waste is not properly managed and disposed of then it can cause illness, and when you have big populations that are displaced that illness can move very quickly among people.

What is the situation like on the ground in Serbia at the moment?

Half way through my deployment, countries began closing their borders. We had been planning for services that would provide water and sanitation for people transiting through Serbia who were staying for only a few hours. When the borders closed it had knock-on effects and we went from seeing 1-2,000 people coming through a day to a total of 2-2,500 people who became trapped within the country. Our response went from trying to deal with lots of people for a short amount of time to quite a few people for a longer period.

The one thing that really shocked me was the numbers of children among those crossing – I had no idea that so many families were making the journey.

Refugees queue to board buses that will take them from Croatia on to Slovenia
Refugees queue to board buses that will take them from Croatia on to Slovenia

How has this changed CARE’s work and plans?

It has been very challenging. There are many elements of this crisis that are entirely out of our control, such as countries closing their borders. When things change in this context, they change very quickly.

The assumption at the moment is that people will be staying from anywhere between 1-2 months and 6 months, but also that they may start to be moved to different locations within the country that are better suited for longer term accommodation. Maybe people will also get asylum within Serbia itself. These are all questions that are still being worked out at the moment and will affect how we do our programming.

What is CARE doing?

From a WASH perspective we have now begun to focus on more extensive hygiene packages and hygiene promotion. This is hard to do when people are transiting through and do not want to carry too many things with them, but now people are staying a bit longer, they need things like soap, shampoo and sanitary pads for women as well as better general facilities for washing and showering. Much of this is also about maintaining people’s dignity as well as for practical reasons; it allows people to feel human and shows them that somebody cares about them.

We have also been looking at providing better communication – providing internet access and using things like WhatsApp groups to let people know what the situation is like ahead and what to expect. This lets people know where they are, how long they will be there and how long the journey takes. In general people are incredibly good at looking after themselves but they need the information to be able to do so.

Families washing and collecting water at points provided in Croatia
Families washing and collecting water at points provided in Croatia

How is this emergency different from others?

In this context all the normal assumptions have been thrown out of the window. This crisis has not been static so it is really hard to plan and often aid agencies, while being reasonably nimble, are not set up to change plans on a regular basis; especially when working with donor funding and agreements, it is incredibly difficult.

Much of the knowledge we have from traditional emergencies did not apply. We were assuming, for example, that people would want a shower. But people were so scared and nervous that if they moved away from the transport area then they might miss their buses. We were trying to provide things to people, but people did not necessarily want them at that time. It was really a case of providing the basics and things that were easy and not too cumbersome to carry, like wet wipes and bottled water, that we wouldn’t normally do as a long-term intervention.

How does this emergency fit into the wider global context?

I think generally a lot of people are at the end of their patience and the end of their hope. If you take the Syrian refugees in Jordan for example, support has been continually withdrawn and reduced to refugees over the last year or so. People there are not allowed to work to support themselves and, after five years of conflict, they are running out of what savings they did have. So what are they going to do? As horrible and uncertain as the journey to Europe is, they feel that if they stay in Jordan, they have NO future. People are proud and they have hope and they think they would perhaps have more of a chance to get ahead if they were out of that situation.

I can completely understand why they would risk it – if you do not think you have any other options, you have to do something. I do not support it but I understand it. Generally we need a more comprehensive policy looking at what is happening within each of the countries. That is the only way the people making these dangerous decisions and putting themselves and their families at risk can be understood.

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