Where in the world are we and am I?

Yesterday I got to Sid, Serbia, on the border with Croatia, where refugees and migrants gather and are being processes - something of what I saw and heard follows.

There are a few hundred people here - mostly men - mostly young. The ones wandering round on their own are late-teens to mid-late twenties. One lad has clearly been reclothed, got a newly packed rucksack and carrier bags - I sense from his optimism and demeanour he has a permit to travel. I look at him closely, he is talking excitedly and I am struck at just how handsome he is. In any other walk of life he could be an actor, a model, someone's boyfriend, partner, fiancé. And yet, here, in this small Balkan village he is stateless and homeless.

 

Most people cling together in groups of 2-3. But the women are in two sorts of gatherings - those that are either sitting alone on the floor watching over bags and possessions or they are younger, with their husband and a young child or two. And then I begin to understand why. It is the women whom I suspect the police are the less willing to move on and so the women stake out the spaces near the road, by the notice boards, closest to the railway station. I wonder if they are first to see and know a train is arriving and grab their seat.

As we wander round I see piles of supplies, logs, firewood, water bottles - there are skips with rubbish in. Somewhat heartbreakingly I watch three adult men (themselves asylum seekers) sorting through the rubbish extracting cans and plastics which I assume they will trade or re-use.

And then my permit is approved: with a simple nod and touch on the shoulder I am told I can go into the camp. There is an understanding that you don't take pictures and you don't talk direct to the asylum seekers themselves.

I am shown the medical room where basic health checks are undertaken at the front of the camp, there is a larger more clinical room behind, where people who need it are treated for specific conditions - I am shown a sort of social room where there are board games and toys. I notice how many of the games are in English.

Then we go further down and I see the shower blocks, the portable toilets, the lean-to structures largely erected last October and November (I'm told) at the peak, and we pass a heavily barred and locked store which I is where food is held and issued from. And then I get to look into a small crèche of sorts - a small room, the size of my hotel room right now, and I count 16 children aged between 3-6 years of age and three young carers in their 20's. One of the carers comes over and greets me warmly - in good English she thanks me for taking an interest (my guide having explained that I'm involved in politics and trying to see the situation first hand).

But as we leave I take a close interest in the young people walking around. One child in front of me is barely 6 or 7. He wears blue trousers and a green shirt, he clings to a rubber ring about 8" in diameter as though it was the best toy ever. I think to myself that it was probably once a dog toy.

Under the roadside notices about trains and hygiene sit three men, crouched on their haunches. They gaze nowhere other than into the concrete and dust and my heart sinks into their silence and I feel a sense of gloom and despair on their behalf.

We walk round the corner to a sort of guest house. As we turn a corner, there is a father and his four children huddled close to him to get out of the wind and I realise that it is beginning to rain. As they huddle a brother pulls down a tarpaulin sheet above them and as they move I realise that they are in fact also huddled round a mobile phone charging point.

I'm seeing a lot, but in many respects all it is doing is enhancing my own sense of helplessness - and so I try and take in the details myself so I can share them widely back home. We go into the tea room of the guest house and there is a noisiness as this is where teenagers clearly hang out. My guide says that they are from Libya and so currently can't be processed. One of them apparently has tried to move on 5 times and been sent back 5 times by Croatian guards.

All along I have sought to avoid having an opinion on the handling by states other than to admire what Serbia is trying to do - but I ask my guide what he thinks. The worst were the Hungarians he says, and so having the fence at least means the asylum seekers don't get bad treatment as there is no access. But the Croats apparently are not great either - I move the subject quickly on, for fear of straying into deeper feelings and histories.

As we step back outside it is now trying to rain quite hard and the dark of the late afternoon is starting to gather - as we move towards the railway station to look round there, I see that people are pulling on coats, jumpers and warmer clothes. I am struck how many are wearing sports tops of football teams a long way away and I give thanks to those who stand in high streets and shopping centres gathering clothing to be distributed. These people here will never thank you personally, but take it from me, when it fends off the rain and snow of the Balkans, their gratitude is heartfelt.

But for them right now - they have left their homelands - thousands of miles away, few out of choice, they have been branded as economic migrants, they are now stateless, many have no papers, and they cannot proceed. And so they sit, huddle, chatter and hope and wait. I stand here and think just what sort of world is this and where are we and am I? Surely we can and should help? Sure we can do more?