Processing the refugees whilst in transit

Today I got to Sid, Serbia, where refugees and migrants are being handled.  I'm trying to digest what I saw and need a little time to process my thoughts - so a short first report (1 of 3 I think).

As we drove west from Belgrade we left the E70 motorway and passed through the village of Kukujevci, we approached Gibarac. A small lonely village - just a row of houses with a solitary shop and bar. Houses in this part of Serbia are very much of a type: low, functional, some have the 'hungarian' architectural style of bold arches and art deco charm. But most of all they are road side properties, the entrance is set to the side of the house, usually through a small gate and next to the parking for one car.  As there is no visible front door from the street, this enhances the image that the house and village it is shut and closed. This haunting quiet added to my sense of trepidation.

 

We cross a railway line, the driver pulled over and in short halting conversation got some directions that were barely audible to me. A few hundred yards more and were in Sid. Before long we pull over - The Autobuska Stanica Sid (Sid bus station to our right) and Sid railways station to our left. considering the small size of this place I was stuck by the number of taxis standing in rank and waiting for trade - at least 9 or 10. There was a hush around and I gained an impression that even the plastic bag of rubbish that blew over the road was solitary. And then all became a little clearer, we drove a little further, pulled over and got out.

A large and fairly intimidating concrete factory towers over us, but there next to it - almost opposite the railway station is a requisitioned large impressive house that has been converted into a processing centre for migrants and refugees.

As I take in my surroundings I see the signs - Mercy Corps notice board promoting www.refugeeinfo.eu - another board showing that we are in the last region before the Croatian border and any further south would be Bosnia and Herzogovina, and the formal sign: Republic of Serbia, Commissariat for Refugees and Migration, One stop centre, Sid - Point. This is where refugees and migrants are handled and processed by Serbia. We are just 3-4 kilometres from the Croatian border.

There are police, not trying to intimidate, just trying to facilitate, there are workers in Serbia uniforms, UNHCR, medicins san frontieres, Mercy Corp and more besides. And scattered around are people, who are clearly not from here, sitting, standing, talking, all waiting. There is no aggression, no tension, but everyone is waiting.

I am told that in various guises there are over 20 NGOs operating here and it's quite a large complex, but a permit is needed for entry and so we wander around whilst access for me is considered. There are seven children sitting on the ground in the compound playing some kind of card game. I am struck by how young most of the people are. I am told that there are about 500 people here at the moment - all wanting transit onwards.

But as I talk to people about what is happening I get more of the detail. Last year as many as 3,000 people a day were arriving, now it can be just a few hundred. But there are detailed tragedies and dilemmas. Syrians are getting permits and progression rights, whilst people from other countries are not. Moroccans and Algerians who are left stranded here are not happy bedfellows with others as they will drink alcohol and that causes conflict. One young person was killed by the electric cables trying to get onto a train not that long ago, two mothers have given birth here.

And the handling of it - Serbia understand they are handling people as they seek to make asylum applications here - but Croatia realise that they are the gateway not into Europe, but into the EU itself. And so the actual border has moved and this lonely railway station has become a new international frontier.. On occasion the Croation police are here at the station handling the migrants directly.

Looking around - and I am trying not to stare - I see people from across North Africa and the Middle East - the diaspora that has travelled here is not just about Syria. What is underway is a massive transfer of humanity towards Europe.

I manage to get a short halting story with one man "I am not Syrian, I'm from Afghanistan - the war in Syria in is the news now, but when I left, my country was ripped apart by conflict - my family are gone, what do I do? Wait for the political temperature to change so I get left into the EU or go back to nothing?" I can't help but agree with him.

But more than anything else, I am struck, impressed, by what Serbia is doing here - a processing centre, medics, sleeping space, food bags and water. It's very basic but it is helping. And as I sit here in my Belgrade hotel, lit by bright light and warmth and on my own, peaceful and in solitude, I am struck that those migrants and refugees I saw were making their nights sleep. They are clustered in rooms with 10, 15 other people, most of whom they don't know until this situation brought them together. And they are grateful and thanking us for our humanity.

As for the EU rules, the Croats and the Hungarian fences, and the western hypocrisy - I find myself despairing. Do we know so little of our own history, actions and involvement that we think we are only in Syria? Our hand, our soldiers, our arms, reach deep into the conflicts in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and more. It should come as no surprise that these people want sanctuary. And as I try and sleep tonight - in the name of humanity - we should say yes to that request for sanctuary.