So I'm here in Serbia again and this time it's out to the western mountainous uplands of Zlatibor - a part I do not know at all and have never been to. First impressions are leaving me excited and an early morning walk will be the priority tomorrow (beating breakfast I think). Having seen the deep rich farming fields of north western Serbia and the deep flow of the Suva and Danube this is a very different landscape indeed.

But the political and news landscape here in Serbia is also very different from last time I was here. Only last year the European news outlets were rushing to Belgrade to get images of the streams of refugees and the construction of the fence by Hungary and closing of Croatia's borders (temporary). But now the modern refugee 'silk road' takes a different route and the news agenda has moved on.


But this chasing of headlines for 24 coverage is, I think, revealing a fundamental and destructive effect on us all. The need for 24 news coverage is not giving us a better or deeper understanding of, for example the refugee crisis or issues here in Serbia. In fact quite the reverse.

Immediate observations by me:

  1. The refugees may have 'arrived' today - but they set out weeks, months and in some cases years ago. When this week the BBC reported arrivals in Greece and the Balkans as higher than ever before they failed to point out or even acknowledge that this stream of refugees set out over a year ago... When bombing of their homeland was stepped up by virtually everyone including now Russia (a country who has a significant role in political dialogue here).
  2. The majority of the refugees are young men is often used to suggest they should have stayed put and fought back - the reality is that most families faced with war, poverty, destruction, take huge steps to hide and protect their women and get their men folk out to establish a working base in another country. They know - as we know in our hearts - that western employment still favours men. And as one Iraqi refugee said to me last year - "what would your news outlets say if there were streams of young women fleeing?". Then we would describe them as cruel and heartless rather than yobbish and gang like.
  3. The way a country handles its refugees is to my mind the mark of its cultural conscience. Serbia is a tough country with a troubled past and reputation. But its handling of the refugee crisis, unlike so many others, has been broadly impressive - public spaces, tents, medical assessments, food and clothes where possible. I have been surprised and impressed and the compassion and core services that have been made available.
  4. The response to the flow of people out of troubled and destroyed countries should not be to erect fences and barriers - it is to help those home countries, assist those who have fled and in need and distress - provide pro-active solutions. I have few qualms about receiving and accepting refugees. But the element that makes me most angry is the lack of help folks get then, once they might be allowed in. I want to see clear integration packages from government and on-the-ground agencies that enables counselling, housing provision, language education, job creation and the development of the entrepreneurial culture that enabled these people to flee their own country and travel hundreds and thousands of miles to get away.
  5. An understanding of our own culpability and of our history is critical to having any chance of solving the problems. The truth is many of the problems that are unravelling today are due to our post-colonial meddling. If you doubt this then just look up the Sykes-Picot Agreement and you understand within seconds that the underlying problem has been created by the 'great powers' of Britain and France. Add to this the notion, perpetuated by David Cameron that his government will help only Syrian refugees. Does he really not understand the scale of conflict and disruption across the whole of the Middle East and North Africa? It's not only about Syria!

There, I feel better! Now to see if I can arrange a trip to the refugee processing camp on the western border of Serbia and Croatia.

And one last warning - just reflect on the effect of freezing Serbia out of the European discussion on how to handle refugees as is happening due to the actions of Hungary, Croatia and Austria. The last time Austria and Hungary were facing Serbia it was not a happy global consequence and Croatia and Serbia have a past that is not even history yet. So whilst the news agencies may have moved on, perhaps the rest of us can try and scratch beneath the surface and find out what is happening now on the ground and what we can constructively do to make a difference.