Horrific images of hundreds of people freezing in the cold while waiting to get their one free meal for the day are a reminder of a winter that the Serbian government would rather forget. It was January 2017 when pictures went viral and alarmed people all across the globe. Some media agencies even compared them with those from Second World War.
Last year, the Serbian government had guaranteed accommodation for up to 6,000 people stuck in the country after the closure of the so-called ‘West Balkan route’ for migrants travelling north, the majority towards Western Europe. However, the government had said that everyone left outside of that number should find another country to stay in.
Refugees and migrants stuck in Belgrade were forced to set up camp in an old warehouse just a few steps from the Belgrade Waterfront, a luxury residential area. The area was never intended for habitation, and even less so in winter when temperatures reached -20 degrees. Hot water, food and sanitation were all nonexistent, but the number of migrants living in the warehouse nonetheless rose to some 1,200.
While Serbian officials denied the allegations that capacities of reception centres were insufficient and insisted that refugees turned down their offer for hosting and willingly stayed out in the cold, pressure from the international community saw them open another temporary reception facility. But what would have happened if the world hadn’t seen those horrific images and put pressure on Serbian authorities? And even more importantly, what will happen this winter? Is Serbia ready to react adequately if a similar situation occurs?
Winter is coming
According to European Commission data, there are currently just over 4,000 refugees and migrants in Serbia waiting for a chance to reach their destination country. Until then, they are housed in government sites such as asylum and temporary reception centres – or out on the streets.
The migration crisis was first felt in Serbia in 2015, and throughout that year and in the first quarter of 2016, an estimated 920,000 migrants arrived here. But Serbia is nobody’s dream come true: it is merely a hurdle to pass on the way to Western Europe.
For the last year, it has been repeated again and again that the Balkan route was closed as a consequence of the EU–Turkey deal. The truth is, however, that people are stranded in this small country, struggling to survive until they figure out a way to reach the EU – legally or otherwise.
Earlier in October, the EU announced that it would provide an additional four million euros of emergency aid to Serbia. This can be interpreted as an attempt to avoid last year’s scenario. The aid will be used for providing food distribution in reception facilities, protecting the most vulnerable groups and on education-related activities.
The EU is by far the number one contributor of humanitarian aid in Serbia, with approximately 80 million euros provided since the outbreak of the crisis in 2015. Whether the aid will be sufficient and properly used remains to be seen.
Serbia was not at all prepared for the tremendous influx of migrants and refugees last winter, but improvements can already be seen this year. Asylum and temporary reception centres are providing basic needs for people who reside there. At the moment, 93% of refugees are situated in those facilities.
There are numerous NGOs providing support, with Refugee Aid Miksalište prominent amongst them. Based on the site of the Belgrade warehouse that was the focus of so much attention last winter, Refugee Aid was recently forced to close and the whole building was demolished rapidly to make way for the expansion of the Belgrade Waterfront project. By that time it had already provided help for more than 110,000 people and was much needed to continue its hard work. However, with the immense efforts of organisers and volunteers, Miksalište reopened in less than two months.
Serbian attitudes to migrants
The resounding findings of Gallup’s Migrant Acceptance Index show that the four countries described as least accepting of migrants – Macedonia, Montenegro, Hungary and Serbia – are all located along the West Balkan route. In Serbia, this may be due to demographics: more than 90% of its citizens are white, Orthodox and Serbian, so everyone who doesn’t fit in the pattern is regarded with instant suspicion.
On the other hand, surveys conducted in Serbian municipalities with reception centres indicate that nearly half of the respondents hold positive attitudes toward migrants. It is evident nonetheless that integration is not an easy process, and only hard and continuous graft can make it reality. One recent step towards integration was made by allowing migrant children to attend Serbian schools from the start of the academic year this September.
A price to be paid
It was said that the EU-Turkey deal would close the Balkan route. Nevertheless, people are still trying to cross borders illegally, risking arrest. Médecins Sans Frontières claimed in their recent report that young migrants were beaten by border authorities and attacked by dogs in attempts to deter them from seeking asylum in EU countries.
Cases of violence and mistreatment on the part of Serbian authorities were also recorded. Oxfam reported one such case last December: a group of Syrians who registered with the intention of seeking asylum were herded into a police van on the pretence of taking them to the reception centre. Instead, the van stopped in the woods near the border with Bulgaria and abandoned the Syrians with temperatures approaching -11C.
They were found by locals the next morning. Serbian authorities denied that the event took place and even though investigation was opened, no witness statements were taken and the case did not come to light.
Closing the Balkan route has not averted a humanitarian crisis. While the flow may have been stemmed, this will not mean a great deal for the thousands of migrants trapped in Serbia.
Winter is now fast approaching, and time is once more of the essence. While Serbia is better prepared this time around, no assurances have been made regarding the future of the many who are still without shelter. As ever, policymaking above the heads of those subjected to its outcomes shall decide what shall happen to thousands of people whose futures are out of their hands.