Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Helping refugees along the Balkan Route (Part 2)


The following interview was done by Alexandre Fonseca of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. This is Part 2 of a 3 part interview. You can read Part 1 here.


Can you tell us a little bit about the bigger picture regarding refugees and the “Balkan Route”? What are the biggest challenges that refugees are facing right now in Serbia?

Sometimes, refugees just need someone to talk with them, about completely irrelevant topics, such as weather or cricket. Sometimes, they come just to participate in a creative workshop to draw and paint, but sometimes they open their soul to you. They talk about their families, mothers and sisters, show you photos and, very often, these are people, who are gone, who are killed in the war. You need to learn how to deal with such a story and how to be a professional in these situations.

But the biggest problem of refugees, right now, is that they feel that they are stuck here. So, a month or two ago, they had some hope that they could go further and that somehow they would be able to cross the Hungarian border, some legally, some illegally. Currently, only five persons per day, from Monday to Friday, on two border crossings, can cross to Hungary. And this is from a list which is made in the government camps, where most families are staying.

So only 50 persons per week are legally allowed to crossed the border to Hungary from Serbia?

Yes. It’s a very small number of people. They can enter Serbia, through Bulgaria and Macedonia, but it is still very difficult to continue, and they are just stuck, they feel they are stuck. Some of them try to cross the Romanian or Croatian border, but it is very hard, and very few of them manage. Some are even being caught in Slovenia and sent back to Serbia. Some of them are trying to cross the border themselves, some in small groups, some with smugglers, but it’s very dangerous, if they are caught by the police, especially in Hungary and Croatia.

Sometimes, the police are very kind and bring them water and tell them to try again, but sometimes they just beat them and take their phones, their clothes and shoes and send them back to Serbia. Some of them tried up to 16 times to cross the border, unfortunately, without success. I think that they now are getting more and more depressed and some of them you just feel that they are stuck here.

Outside they are smiling, but in their heart they feel pain, because they know that now the situation is critical and that they have a lot less chances to continue their journey. Those, who are in Serbia, outside the camps and live in the barracks, behind the bus station in Belgrade, they live their daily life in very poor hygienic conditions, violence has become more common and the situation is becoming more serious. Life in these barracks, if you can call it life, is not a long-term solution and something will have to change.

What is their impression of Serbia in relation to other European countries and do some refugees or asylum seekers want to stay in Serbia?

Some of them seek asylum in Serbia, but they are a minority. They don’t see future here and it takes a lot of time to get asylum, it is very hard to find work here and, because of that, they want to go to Germany, France or Austria, where they have relatives or friends. They have this dream that everything will be better once they are in Europe, Germany, France…

Sometimes when we speak with refugees about the situation in Serbia or we tell them how much is the salary in Serbia, they ask us: “Why don’t you go in Germany”? They have a pink picture about these countries, because they think that when they get to Germany or any other country in the EU, everything will be OK, but it’s not that easy. They crossed many borders illegally to arrive where they want to be and they will still be illegal there. So, we try to explain them how it works and what are the procedures, their rights and their obligations. It is very important to introduce to them the new systems, laws and customs in the countries different from their own. Today, for example, we spoke with some young guys about woman’s rights and marriage and we tried to explain to them the differences between Serbia and Afghanistan, on this topic.

Most, if not all refugees, find themselves in vulnerable situations. But women refugees may find themselves in a position of double vulnerability, not only because they are refugees, but also because they are women. How is it possible to deal with it?

That was the reason we made the women’s corner. Women are every time in group, almost always with their husband or other relatives. But, in the women’s corner, they can take a rest, drink coffee or tea, and at the same time, talk with someone. In such circumstances, we have a chance to gain their confidence and to help them, if they have problems.

Women refugees are very vulnerable, and because of that, it is necessary to provide them with services that will suit their needs. Sometimes, you have a single mom with three years old children, or you have the case of a woman who travels alone with four children, whose husband died in Afghanistan, and they try to go to Europe. During the entire road, she has a high risk of becoming a victim of human trafficking or other forms of violence – as well as her children – so it’s really difficult for them, and we need to have a sense for all this and to provide services, which will respond to their needs.

What about the children? What are their main difficulties and what measures can be put in place to minimize their suffering?

Children are also a very vulnerable group, especially if they are unaccompanied minors. There are many dangers for them and with children you have to work very carefully. In these situations, not rarely, you are not sure what is the best interest of that child. Whether to stay in the group with which they are traveling, or to separate him or her from the group. One of the most important services for children is to have a safe space. Separation from family and all what is happening leaves a very large effects on their health, both physically and psychologically. They lag behind in education and don’t have the opportunity to be only children. They are forced to grow up very quickly. Here, in Miksaliste, they can come and play and have English classes, but we have a lot of them who just tell us: “I cannot go to learn English, because my brain is a total mess. I can’t focus now on learning English or Serbian, because I’m thinking about my mother or my home or how can I cross the border.”

Alexandre Fonseca is currently a volunteer assistant teacher at the Nicola Tesla Technical School in Belgrade, Serbia. Before, he was working as an European Voluntary Service volunteer in Ankara, Turkey and working as a Customer Support Agent in Athens, Greece. He believes that this project is a way to defend the right for everyone to travel and seek refuge wherever and whenever needed. He will be an EVS volunteer next year in Novi Sad aiming to raise awareness about the refugee crisis in Serbia and around the world. The YPJ project was a great way to learn about this crisis through personal stories and by connecting them to the bigger, sometimes messy and chaotic, picture.

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