Gridlock in Serbia

Upon arrival at the border camps, refugees and migrants are sorted into three lists by the police: families, unaccompanied minors and single men. Many, especially single men, will wait in the camp for months before being summoned by border police to cross the border into Hungary or Croatia. They will then face another month of questioning before they are allowed to continue their journey; they are usually heading for Germany. Those who tire with waiting try to cross the borders illegally – but only a few succeed. Most are intercepted by the police and some are physically assaulted when caught. Despite this, many will attempt to cross illegally multiple times.

Serbia, the small nation-state at the center of the Balkans migration route – traveled by thousands of refugees and migrants since 2015 – served as an important transit point for many on the move. However, in September 2015 the Serbian-Hungarian border was closed, preventing many from reaching countries in northern Europe such as Germany and the UK. Currently an estimated 6,400 men, women and children are stranded in Serbia with little access to medical care or psychosocial support.

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Many activists have described a “ping-pong” situation, “where people are being endlessly moved back and forth.” As winter deepens, thousands are being exposed to extreme weather conditions without protective shelter or warm clothes. Our Doctors of the World teams are on the ground in Belgrade, Šid and in camps across the Serbian-Hungarian border, working to ensure refugees receive the medical, psychological and basic care they desperately require.

“When 700 people lived here, some didn’t have shelter when it was 104°F. The children got severely sunburned, and to cool off they started bathing in a pool of stagnant water and caught skin infections.”

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In the makeshift camp of Horgoš near the city of Subotica on the Hungarian border, nearly 150 refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa struggle to survive. Many live in hastily constructed tarp tents with little access to sanitation systems. Our team, comprised of a doctor, nurse and translator, provides daily care for the wounded and sick living in the camp. Nurse Nikolina Gligoric works in our mobile clinic. “I remember the situation this summer,” she describes, “when 700 people lived here. Some didn’t have shelter when it was 104°F. The children got severely sunburned, and to [cool off] they started bathing in a pool of stagnant water and caught skin infections. A 3-year-old Afghan child even drowned. We saw up to 100 people a day.” According to Nikolina, 140 migrants went on a hunger strike last August to demand that the border be reopened. “They went for 7 days without eating or drinking – in vain,” she says.

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In Šid, Doctors of the World runs a medical clinic in the busy transit camp known as Grey House. Here, Dr. Milena Milojkovic reviews the medical records of Khadija, a 53-year-old Afghan woman who is recovering from a heart attack. “She has four different problems: poor heart health, high blood pressure, diabetes and an eye whose pupil is overly dilated. Her eye problem was caused by a bomb explosion in Jalalabad on her way home from the hospital.” In Afghanistan, Khadija’s family was threatened by the Taliban because her son worked for the Afghan government. Khadija fled 7 months ago with her 13-year-old daughter. “We crossed Iran and Turkey, but in Bulgaria we were beaten and thrown into prison. It was hard to find the strength to keep going,” she sighs.

Before arriving in Šid, Khadija spent six weeks in Serbia’s capital city, Belgrade. During the summer months, people camp in the parks of the city while they wait to pass through the country. Now that temperatures have dropped as low as 14°F, the parks are empty. Instead, migrants and refugees risk freezing to death as they sleep in car parks and abandoned warehouses for the second winter in a row.

For those who become sick while stranded in Serbia, Doctors of the World runs a health center in Miksaliste – a former cultural institute that has been converted into an aid center for refugees. According to DotW’s Dr. Bojana Bojanic, patients come from the camps near Belgrade or the city’s streets; respiratory or skin diseases are common. However, she says, “…about 20% of [the refugees] return from the border with wounds inflicted by the Hungarian police.” The center currently relies almost entirely on donations and is regularly threatened with closure.

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Back at the border, Sabri, a 16-year-old Algerian boy, is preparing to cross into Hungary illegally and for the fourth time. He is a frequent patient at the Grey House clinic in Šid. “The last time I was assaulted by five Hungarian policemen,” he says, “But I am not afraid to do it again. I crossed Macedonia under a truck to get to Serbia. I want to join my brother in Germany and nothing will stop me.” Our nurse at Grey House, Zlatica Krstic, is concerned about Sabri. Hidden under long sleeves, his arms are riddled with cigarette burns. “After I left [Algeria], my 14-year-old brother was arrested and imprisoned. It’s my fault; it’s up to me to watch over my brothers and sisters while my father is at work.” Nurse Krstic worries that Sabri is burning himself to deal with the guilt of leaving his family behind.

Serbia is doing its best to aid the refugees and migrants who pass through, but the sheer size of the refugee population threatens to overwhelm the country’s financial resources and infrastructure capacity especially as neighboring nations have closed their borders. This is why international aid, such as the medical and basic needs care that Doctors of the World provides to refugees across Serbia, is so important. Without access to care or adequate shelter, thousands of people are increasingly susceptible to illness, and many run the risk of freezing to death. With 6,400 registered and more unregistered refugees and migrants currently in Serbia, many are simply hoping that spring arrives early this year.