Feature 10 Nov 17

Refugees Shunning Official Centres Face Serbia’s Winter

As winter approaches in Serbia, the refugees who spurn the offer of state-run camps will have to cope with the icy weather almost unaided.

Filip Rudic
Refugees at the Miksaliste aid centre in Belgrade. Photo: BIRN

Serbia is able to accommodate immigrants who arrive there in government-run shelters, but refugees who stay out of the camps, because they do not wish to apply for asylum, face the risk of spending the coming icy winter out in the cold.

"I went to two organisations that [claim to] ‘welcome’ refugees, but it’s fake. They told me I could stay only one day and then would have to go to the police for [applying for] asylum – but I don’t want to," Salim, who came to Serbia late in October, says.

Unlike most Middle Eastern refugees from war-torn countries, Salim is from Kuwait.
But he comes also from a social class that the government of Kuwait considers illegal immigrants from neighbouring states.

Seeking a better life in France, he started on a long journey to France with his brothers and their family of ten in total, including six children.

Asked about what he will do if winter still finds him in Serbia, he says in a worried voice: "I don’t know".

If Salim and his family apply for asylum, he would still be able to leave a government centre at will.

However, the centres are located outside Belgrade, and some of the migrants don’t want to get stuck in Serbia. They want to remain close to the main bus station, to be able to leave at short notice.

According to the medical humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres, MSF, several factors push migrants to stay outside the camps.

"New arrivals have to wait several days before they can get registered to access the camps. Some nationalities are granted less chance to access asylum rights; some fear being sent to camps where there are restrictions on movement; some fear being sent to camps in southern border areas, where there have been cases of unlawful expulsion to Bulgaria and Macedonia; others prefer being near EU borders," the MSF told BIRN in a written reply.

But as winter approaches, low temperatures and the lack of food, water and other necessities pose an increasing hazard for refugees and migrants, Ljubica Antic, communications assistant at the UNHCR, said.

Her organisation does not distribute aid to refugees but, in cooperation with partner organisations, refers them to the government-run centres.

"The UNHCR also provides information about registration, legal procedures and applying for asylum in Serbia, and helps them in the application process, in cooperation with partners, offering legal aid and translation services provided by the partners," Antic explained.

Handing out aid banned to push migrants to camps:

Some refugees again frequent Belgrade parks, though in fewer numbers. Photo: BIRN

Another complication for migrants outside the camps is the ban on charities distributing aid to them, brought in by Serbia’s Ministry of Labour last November.

The state "wants them all in camps, which is right, since the conditions are better there than on the streets," Teodora Jovanovic, from Miksaliste, an independently run refugee aid centre says.

Jovanovic says that Miksaliste does hand out some aid to "the most vulnerable" persons, and says larger donations of winter clothing will be required as the temperatures drop.

However, the aid ban can backfire and lead to misunderstandings. Salim said he resented the fact that his family could not get any food for the children in one of the aid centres near a Belgrade park where they were then staying.

"Why don’t [they] give food to children? Because the centre for refugees is fake. I swear to you, it’s fake," he insisted.

While around 180 new arrivals are recorded in Belgrade every week, the number of refugees in Serbia has not risen and remains around 4,600 in total, according to the Crisis Response and Policy Centre, CRPC, an NGO.

"This means people are leaving [Serbia], so there is no exponential growth in numbers of refugees outside the reception facilities and the concentration in the Belgrade area is not alarming," Vladimir Sjekloca, director of the CRPC, says.

According to him, this is also why there is no need for the mass distribution of aid.

Sjekloca told BIRN that NGOs and the government are processing refugees’ cases quickly and placing them in centres.

"I think we all learned the lesson from last winter - and that [crisis] will not occur, unless there is a mass influx of people," he said.

Number of refugees on the rise again?

However, the MSF told BIRN that they have observed a "sharp increase" in the number of new arrivals over the past month, particularly of people fleeing Iraqi Kurdistan, which has seen renewed fighting between Kurdish and Iraqi government forces.

"Additionally, along the border areas and in Belgrade, about 500 people are estimated to be sleeping rough outside the centres. It is likely that during the winter, some migrants will remain outside the system," MSF said.

The organisation says that, beside the risk of hypothermia and frostbites, during the cold weather they usually record a rise in respiratory diseases, while the medical conditions of those who are already ill and remain in the open tend to worsen.

"Last winter, from January 2017 onwards, the MSF clinic saw 36 cases of frostbites, about 10 between second and third degree, [and] one of our patients, a 16-year-old boy, had part of his finger amputated," MSF recalled.

A "large number of refugees and migrants" is also camping near Serbia’s border crossings with Croatia and Hungary, where the UNCHR has heard reports of migrants being violently turned back at the border, Ljubica Antic, from UNHCR, said.

According to UNHCR and partner organisations’ estimates, there are "about 100 refugees and migrants in the west of the country, around 70 in the north, and around 300 in Belgrade".

Ivana Vukasevic, from the Humanitarian Centre for Integration and Tolerance, an NGO based in the northern city of Novi Sad, says living conditions in the abandoned houses and factories near the borders with Hungary and Croatia where many migrants camp are poor.

It is there that the refugees, mostly men in their twenties and thirties, hunker down as they prepare to illegally cross the border – and to which they return if and when they are sent back.

Vukasevic says HCIT regularly informs the migrants there about their options if they chose to register with the authorities, especially in the shadow of the coming winter.

"But I am sure that a certain number of people will turn down any aid and remain outside [of camps] – mostly due to pressure from the smugglers," Vukasevic said.

This is also the case with Salim’s family; He says they have paid a smuggler "a lot of money" to send them further on their way.

The same man led them through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, and from there on a seven-hour hike into Serbia, but Salim still does not trust him.

"I don’t know if he wants to send me to Hungary or Romania [next]. But he tells me ‘I’m sending you to France,’" Salim says.

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