This October I travelled to the EU-borderlines to help refugees on their flight to Europe and to witness the situation on site in order to be able to communicate my experiences truthfully and bluntly.
The following report is an attempt to describe and summarize a fraction of two weeks filled with experiences, impressions and evaluations. These are my honest experiences, however, I would like to emphasize that this report does not even closely nor comprehensively describe and encompass the full scope of the daily events from the different border crossings in the Balkan States.
A few weeks ago, I arrived in Berkasovo, near Šid, on the Serbian side of the Serbo-Croatian border. Just a few hours earlier, the closure of the southern border of Hungary to Serbia and Croatia had led to a diversion and rerouting of the refugee movement on the so called Balkan route. As a result, the flow of refugees was redirected from Serbia via Croatia to Slovenia. Therefore, I spent a bulk of my time at the Serbo-Croatian border crossing, where the conditions, particularly during the first days, did predominantly not support the conditions to ensure the respect of the human dignity of the refugees present. Thousands of people were deprived of their basic human needs and lacked access to aid including water, food, access to sanitary facilities, clothes and blankets which were only available in insufficient amounts or non-existent. These shortcomings had to be endured at temperatures around zero degrees at night, partly in the rain and fog.
Allow me to illustrate the setting: the border crossing Berkasovo-Bapska is surrounded by cultivated fields. Under different circumstances this region, with its vineyards and apple orchards would be picturesque and tempt anyone for a autumn promenade. However, this is were throughout the past weeks dramatic scenes took place. Busses from the Serbian-Macedonian and Serbian-Buldgarian border arrived consistently on an irregular basis. The buses stopped and dropped off the refugees approximately 2,5 kilometers from the actual border crossing. From there, the people had to march up the slight hill, despite when it rained, and through the obscurity of the night. This 2,5km walk proved to be a challenge following the exertions of the journey they had undertook up until that point. According to my own observations, this group of refugees were for the most part demographically constituted of (extended-) families with small children and not dominated by the said 90% single traveling men.
“Under different circumstances, the region with its vineyards and apple orchards would be picturesque.”
Once arrived at the top of the hill, they were greeted by absolute chaos during most times of the day. On the Serbian side, everything was pretty much dependent on whether the Croatian border was opened or closed and whether people consequently could enter EU-grounds or had to sit tight in Serbia. The latter occurred particularly throughout the first days, while the Serbian authorities did not even seem to attempt to conceal their urgency to relieve themselves of this task. As a consequence, especially during those first nights, thousands of refugees piled up on the single-lane road from Serbia to Croatia which was surrounded by freshly harvested, clayey fields. Initially, there were only few military transit tents which merely provided shelter from the night and the rain for a minority of the people. International volunteers, partly only 20 in total sharing the 24/7 shifts had organized a tea kitchen, and distributed bananas, biscuits, and dry clothes for the children, while the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Red Cross officials were hardly present and actively interfered with volunteers attempting to expand their aid.
The first days were notably strenuous. It had rained, it was cold, the border had closed for an undetermined amount of time, while the available blankets, water, food and tents remained inadequate for all the people. These are images that I will never forget; people sat down to rest out of exhaustion, slept on the wet street between piles of trash and on the muddy fields, partly without blankets nor shoes nor proper clothes. Children, the elderly, disabled and ill people tried to keep themselves warm with the few wet emergency blankets they had, and desperately asked us volunteers for something warm or burnable. Having to refuse help to people in need was amongst the hardest parts. A more degrading scenery than the many people which literally bogged between stinking piles of garbage, the plastic smoke of the many fires and human excrements partly in persistent rain, trying to look after their children or simply find a place to sleep and rest is beyond ones capability to imagine.
“Having to refuse help to people in need was amongst the hardest parts”
While we awaited the morning as that meant that the border would hopefully open up eventually with the rising sun promising to at least rise the temperatures by a few degrees, the tension became almost tangible. Just after sunrise a human crowd of about 3.000 to 5.000 people, which had in most instances already endured there since the early evening, would form just in front of the improvised border fence which the Croatian police knew to defend. Every once in a while, whenever a bus had arrived on the Croatian side, sometimes once and hour, other times twice, 50 people where allowed to come through. The fact that families were separated in doing so was disregarded by the authorities. As the day progressed, the people became increasingly unsettled, and the crowd created more noise while people started to shove. In the midst of this unrest, were many less mobile people, elderly, heavily pregnant women, small children as well as babies. Whenever a brawl would erupt or a successful breakthrough of the border seemed to be a threat, the Croatian police would push into the crowd bare-fisted or with batons. Their shouts were drowned out by the panicky screams of the many people and the cries of their children.
On mornings like these many people would collapse and lose consciousness from exhaustion. Partly every five to ten minutes, on average. An ambulance or doctor was most often not consulted. Those were only for the extreme emergencies. A man that was suffering from a heart attack judging from the manifested symptoms, urgently needed a doctor, yet a discussion on whether or not this was an ”extreme emergency” had to precede the life-saving phone call that was needed. Many children suffered from severe hypothermia which left them non-responsive and hanging inanimate from their parents arms. An ambulance was not permitted to be called. The entire time I would remember what a member of the Médecins Sans Frontières staff had told me: ”crying children are OK, the moment they stop doing that you know they are in a very critical condition.’ The doctors themselves were either not allowed or simply did not want to make their way up to the front of the crowd as it stood in the so called no-man’s-land, officially between Serbia and Croatia – a border which even the UNHCR staff was not allowed to cross on many occasions. Consequently, we tried to identify extremely critical cases and treat them through improvisation. I stopped counting the many hypothermic children that I wrapped into those shiny emergency blankets mostly in secrecy before they were forced to enter a bus. I would sneak a bottle of hot water underneath their jumpers which I obtained in an unwatched moment by using the Croatian police’s coffee water and could only hope that they would ’defreeze’ on the bus or receive proper treatment at the next border crossing.
On mornings like these many people would collapse and lose consciousness from exhaustion
The situation would escalate so that the moment a critical amount of waiting people was reached, they would eventually force open the improvised border fence by out-powering the Croatian police that tried to push back and keep the fence in place. The people would then start walking towards Opatovac, the set up military camp approximately 20 kilometers from the border crossing. The fact that plenty people got injured should be to no ones surprise. I am aware of at least two people that died these mornings on their way to the hospital. A baby that most likely got squashed. If you ask me, it comes close to a miracle that not more people lost their lives these mornings. Families were torn apart, from one moment to the other children were – hopefully only temporarily – orphaned. I will never be able to erase the sound of their panicky screams from my mind. Some children, paralyzed by fear, I put on my shoulders and ran with through the crowd, past the busses, in the hopes of finding and identifying their parents. Yet, I knew the entire time as any other volunteer that the chances were fractional. I never learnt about the denouement and whereabouts of most children.
No one could significantly provide reliable information on what really happened to the people after crossing to Croatia. Officially they were taken by busses to a camp organized by the Croatian military close to Opatovatc where they were supposed to get registered and then further transported to the Slovenian border. However, also the camp’s capacity was fully exhausted and I know both from refugees, as well as volunteers that not all people were registered but partly directly brought to the Slovenian border. Regarding the dimensions: approximately 4.000 to 12.000 people arrived in Berkasovo on a daily basis with the numbers fluctuating on a daily basis. The Croatian camp had a capacity of about 4.000 beds. Slovenia officially warranted 1.000 to 2.000 people per day to transit. The description ’bottleneck effect’ is a slight understatement. Croatia dealt with the problem in the following manner: they would have the people board busses and trains, partly without registration, and transport them to the a so called ’green border’.
The description ’bottleneck effect’ is a slight understatement
To illustrate this, the people were dropped off somewhere in the country side, in a forest, or on a field that was ’close’ to the Slovenia border and would be pointed out the cardinal direction in which Slovenia could be found. This is were the grotesque pictures of people crossing the borderline river at night and in the freezing cold were taken. Believe me when I say, they are, opposite to how it has been presented, not fake. Once on the Slovenian territory, one could only hope that someone found them in a timely manner. Slovenia itself is completely overwhelmed with the situation as a such, judging from what I have seen. To welcome people traveling with plastic bags with tanks, machine guns and masked soldiers is to display the fact that you have clearly misunderstood the circumstances.
Back to Berkasovo in Serbia: after approximately a week the situation slowly improved. Croatia managed to arrange busses without delays, which allowed only a few to have to wait for more than six hours on the Serbian side. Even Serbia started to increase their local presence by assigning a total of 20 police officers to be present at the border crossing. Additionally, incarcerated persons were send on a daily basis by the Serbian government to at least pile up the foulest pieces of trash such as wet blankets, cloths, lost shoes, bottles and more. Despite the improvements, the hygienic situation remained critical. There was no access to running water, for the first couple of days, the toilets were only emptied every other day, and a provision of 10 toilets for several thousand people is prone to fail. Consequently, a great amount of people including us volunteers would use the fields in which in the upcoming night families would sit down to take a rest. Moreover, whoever was in the midst of the crowd in front of the border fence was not allowed to nor could escape. It was of particular concern that several, most likely after receiving and consuming expired tinned fish which they must have obtained at an earlier border crossing, suffered from food poisoning. Perhaps the cold was to our advantage as diseases would have spread much quicker otherwise. Furthermore, the local authorities and the local Red Cross continued their efforts in prohibiting us volunteers to make good use of our full potential of providing aid by enforcing unreasonable protocols. Thus, we were not allowed to, among other things, hand out warm soup although we had the equipment. They argued that we ”could not ensure the hygienically standards out in the field” while ironically their responsibility to the toilet situation remained catastrophic. In addition, some days we were not even allowed to hand out apples, tea or packed chocolate milk drinks.
As time went by, the situation further improved slightly which almost exclusively needed to be attributed to the dry weather conditions, the opened border and the 60 international volunteers that tried to provide the basic needs. Eventually, I had to learn that there is no relying on the big international aid agencies. Those organizations, if in fact present, did not mobilize the financial means and the resources that they are said to have access to, nor did they provide the needed infrastructure to unconditionally – independent of the local political situation in Serbia/Croatia and independently of people’s origin – provide aid. To give few examples: UNHCR calculated to hand out about 1.000 to 1.500 0,5-liter bottles of water on a daily basis while it was certainly expected that up to 13.000 refugees would arrive on some days. During my first nights at the border crossing there was an absolute shortage of blankets, the entire UNHCR team had locked themselves from the inside of their heated container as they had again run out of their material to share while we had a supposedly never-ending flow of people arriving, and their filled warehouse was only about a seven minutes drive from the border crossing. They had estimated about 500 to 1.000 blankets per night, which were by far not enough for up to 5.000 people stuck on the Serbian side. UNHCR was unable to hand out water for about half a week as their next delivery was only scheduled for the upcoming week. Another supplier could not be consulted. To illustrate the inactivity of the Red Cross despite their physical presence: when I was desperately in need of medical treatment for a laceration on my lower leg after I fell on the border crossing stone, the Red Cross workers could not even find disinfection spray, much less a bandage. There were evenings and nights when there was not a single doctor to be found. While those are not only my own experiences but those of many volunteers spread over the Balkan route, this side of the story is alarmingly underrepresented in international media. We learned that we had to consider ourselves as ’lucky’ for some of the aid agencies actually being present during the evening hours, nights and on weekends as at many other border crossing hotspots they would only be on site between 9am and 6pm and consequently miss out on the most dramatic times of the day.
Currently, the situation is reassuringly quieter in Berkasovo as the border crossing was dissolved early this November. This however does not mean that the refugee crisis has been overcome. It is rather an indication that the hotspots have yet again changed. According to my information it is particularly dramatic at the Slovenian borderlines were a border fence is currently being build. Simultaneously refugees are still experiencing difficult circumstances and face violence in Bulgaria as well as on the Greek islands. As of mid-November, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia are only letting people pass with documents from either Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. The rest are being held in Greece or sent back to where they came from. It feels like many things happen based on complete arbitrariness along the Balkan route. Borders close, others opening up. Only few authorities actually seem to have transparent insights on the political events, the longterm planning and the actual underlying reasoning and intensions. This exacerbates the complications encountered in the work of all parties involved, including the police, the international organizations as well as the local authorities. At the end of my stay we received an emergency call from the Slovenian-Croatian border by fellow volunteers asking for more support. Few hours later, I left Serbia with a handful of volunteers that I had met in Serbia with five vans full of material including a tea kitchen, food, water and clothes. Desperate scenes awaited us at the Slovenian-Croatian border crossing near Ključ-Brdovečk: on the Croatian side, refugees were pushed to leave the country as quickly as possible simultaneously, a few meters on the other side of the river they were being cooped up on a muddy meadow, floodlit by several spotlights and closely-guarded by the heavily equipped Slovenian military with everything from tanks to machine guns. I struggle to find the words to describe how humanly degrading the handling was. They were partly forced to stay out in the cold for up to twelve hours, after which they were chased like a herd of sheep to march for kilometers to the next camp. Back then, volunteers were prohibited to provide people with the basic needs. Access to drinking water and sanitation facilities were partly refused. All of this occurred on EU grounds, not more than 800 kilometers from the place I called home – an absolutely despaired and shameful scenery. Today, almost a month later, the overall situation has – according to reports by the media and volunteers – hardly improved.
I quickly would like to comment on the topic ’whom to blame’. Pointing fingers at one or the other party would be an oversimplification. Particularly, at the Serbian-Croatian border one realizes how the people on the run suffer of the aftermath of the Balkan War between Croatia and Serbia in the 1990s. Cooperation was virtually unthinkable. Serbia is a very poor country. Croatia is a member of the EU. From what I have seen, the Croatian police made an effort to maintain stability as much as possible and only used force in extremely difficult situations; which is a huge difference to the methods of the Hungarian and Bulgarian authorities from what I have heard. I would claim to say that you find policemen more willing to resort to violence on quite some demonstrations in Germany. Please don’t get me wrong, I am by no means trying to defend any side. I think it is absolutely problematic that the EU’s external frontiers and domestic borders in general close their fortress to people seeking protection and I am against any form of violence. However, the countries that happen to be on the Balkan route are experiencing difficult circumstances themselves. The local authorities receive orders which they have to obey and are perhaps unlucky to be geographically situated in the wrong place at the wrong time while substantially wealthier states like Germany, France, Switzerland, England etc. are not affected simply because they are not located along the main route and can consequently remain relatively isolated from the affair.
Soon after I left, the first trains departed from Serbia directly to Croatia where the people were registered, changed trains and directly left for Slovenia – a huge improvement. However, I am an eye-witness to how quickly the entire situation can change from one moment to the other. One country changes their policy and decides that ”they’ve had enough”, such as Hungary in October, and the entire fragile set up of infrastructure collapses with a return to the starting bloc. Slovenia started building a fence in mid October, but ”no one has the intension to build a wall or close the border”. Being German, I guess I have heard that one before. Similarly, Austria, according to media reports, is considering to build a border fence. While the situation seems to calm down a little bit these past days along the Balkan route, the reason for that can be found right at the Greek-Macedonian border: currently, based on racial profiling, only people from so called ’unsafe countries’ are allowed to enter the Balkan route. Any non-Syrian, non-Iraqi and non-Afghani migrant without the correct documents are kept outside the Macedonian border – with no exceptions. Please help me recall the criteria to determine which countries are to be considered ’safe’ and which ones are not? I would love to see those in charge actually travel to Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan or Palestine and experience freedom, safety or security first hand. Apparently there is ’not enough war’ for migrants qualifying as proper refugees. Let me remind you again: this is not only discrimination 2.0, but even according to European Law, illegitimate.
During my time at the border crossing hotspots, I was allowed to gain insight through many encounters with people on the run and listen to their moving stories, which sound incredulous but are in fact true. We often forget that ’refugees’ are actually people fleeing war. Only few fresh war injuries and their stories remind us of that, not actual physical signs. Sure, there might be some freeloaders among them, but you find these everywhere, also in Germany. This, however, does not legitimize us to allege all asylum applicants of ill intentions and refuse their request for protection. The people that I was lucky enough to meet were incredibly thankful for the little we could give them. They would share their stories of their journeys, Syrians were most often on the road for four to five days when I met them in Serbia. Afghanis, Iranians and Iraqi journeyed for several weeks. For some, the flight had already started one or two years ago and only after being severely displaced within Syria, they fled to neighboring countries from where they were finally forced to leave once and for all. The latter is what I learned from most Syrian young men who were forced to quit their studies and make a living in Iran or Iraq to not have to go to war. This, to a certain extent explains the comparatively large proportion of young men, as they are tentatively recruited by one of the parties fighting the Syrian War to fight and face the risk of condemnation unless they manage to run for safety and leave the country. Women, children and the elder are still ’relatively safe’ in Syria at this point. The people tell stories from their journeys and how they made it to one of the Greek islands. Some were lucky, for others the approximately 45-minute boat ride turned into a nightmare. I for example, met two unaccompanied brothers traveling by themselves, seven and two years old, whose parents had drowned. As much as I hate playing the ’child card’ – they were no exceptional case. Others reached Greece swimming, were caught on their first attempt and brought back to Turkey, put into jail and made a second attempt the moment they got out, this time at night. They mostly spent three to four hours in the water.
The people I met fled war. It is imperative to understand that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land. The parents are often well aware of the fact that many boats meet turbulence at sea and about the difficulties awaiting them in Europe; however, they are unprepared for the continued deprivation of their basic human rights. They tell their children they are leaving for a vacation. We have a pervasive picture of refugees and poverty. People fleeing war are not necessarily poor. Some among the refugees are doctors, engineers and teachers. They leave their entire existence behind, which may include great wealth, travel with the newest iPhone packed in a plastic bag and show me pictures of their former belongings. Little reminds one of their prehistory. Cleaned up and dressed in proper, modern clothes they easily fit into any multicultural society. Only the panicked fear of the children of helicopters, the language barriers as well as the poor medical treatment of injuries gives hints of their previous origin.
I am still in contact with some refugees I met during my time at the border crossings, many with questions regarding the legal situation and general recommendations. This is my source of information in regards to the struggles that they experience in Germany. Soon after my return to the Netherlands, I went to visit several refugees that I had met in Serbia in one of the reception centers for refugees deep down in the Westerwald, a German forest. If I had not known better, I would not have guessed that they had just escaped war. One of them is my age, is fluent in English and started his law degree back home in Syria. Two years ago, he was supposed to join the army but decided to run for safety in Iraq. He has been in Germany since the end of October and still has little information on his long-term whereabouts. It took them a good four weeks to perform the medical tests required to officially apply for asylum. He is not impatient, not at all, he is thankful for being in safety, yet I find it hard to watch someone who could easily be one of my fellow students under such circumstances, to be so limited in his freedom of action and opportunities in Germany. He most likely will have to stay in the reception center until his three years valid asylum application gets processed and granted. The local authorities say it might take three to four months. Considering today’s one month delay, I am already unsure about the validity and reliability of that statement. He is not complaining, he says that now that he is in Germany, he has gained new lifetime, but I can see how the absolute isolation from the rest of German society on the former military training base in the Westerwald, is not doing the people well.
The standard question I have heard since I got back to Germany and the Netherlands is ”how was it?” Well, what am I supposed to say? I witnessed a criminal humanitarian disaster. Its agenda being to exhaust, burn out and to discourage the fleeing people through repression. From what I have seen, the physical suffering through exhaustion and the many exertions of the flight are agonizing for many people, particularly the families with young children and less mobile elderly. However, they were to some degree prepared for that. They knew the journey was not going to be easy. What remains unbearable to stand for most people is the contemptuous treatment and conditions unfulfilling human dignity and the constant rejection which they encounter throughout their entire flight: the antagonization by the police, being cooped up in open air ’fence stalls’ without sanitation facilities at degrees below zero, being chased in long human chains through the countryside. Often, particularly during the worst nights after we had run out of all our materials and had nothing left, not even tea to hand out, people were even incredibly thankful for experiencing some humanity and compassion from us volunteers. Although we could not actually physically keep them warm, they showed gratitude for the experience of friendly communication, to receive information regarding their whereabouts and the continuation of their journey, or to be greeted with a serenade on the guitar. Coming to this realization was among the hardest parts. It makes me angry, sad and shameful all together. I struggle a lot with dealing with the knowledge and awareness of the actual scope of the humanitarian disaster, particularly because I know about all the people still out their on the run and are in need. Yet, I am glad I went. It allowed me to offer support, even if only a fractional amount of the people on a section of their journey and negotiate with the local authorities and international organizations for better coordination and conditions. It allowed your generous donations to be mainly spent on food, water, rain coats and emergency blankets. Humanitarian aid along the Balkan route is provided, from what I have seen and heard particularly during the first chaotic nights after a new policy change, almost exclusively by international volunteers that mobilize private financial means, invest their own time, for some, their entire annual holiday and are willing to undertake risks in helping refugees which may be considered illegal in some places. In the 21st century, it is incomprehensible that such unacceptable humanitarian conditions exist not far from home. Furthermore, no one can claim to have not known about it in a couple of years from now.
I am still in touch with international volunteers, keeping track of the different developments via several online platforms where we are trying to coordinate international efforts and guarantee active support for refugees on the run in the future. This December I plan, depending on the situation, volunteer for another three weeks over christmas to wherever help is most needed to support refugees to a supposedly safe Europe. Provided that you are able to get involved in any way, may it be locally in your own community under the motto ’donate time, not money’, by providing housing to successful asylum applicants, by traveling to one of the border crossing hotspots yourself even if only for a few days or by financially supporting us volunteers, I would really appreciate that. Please feel free to get in touch with me in case you have questions concerning this matter.
Donations are still very welcome, desperately needed and much appreciated. The installed donation account*** is pleased about donation of any kinds, which go 100% beyond borders. As cliche as it sounds, even the smallest amount already makes quite a difference.
Account holder: Rebecca Berker
Payment reference: Refugee Relief
I am incredibly thankful for your incredible support and speak most likely on behalf of the many people that are currently on the run. Please feel free to share this report with anyone that might be interested. I believe it is important to document and share the actual events on site at Europe’s borders.
Lots of love, Rebecca
Contact: Rebecca Berker | rebeccaberker [at] gmail.com
*** In case a German charitable donation certificate is needed, please use the following bank account:
Account holder: Pangaea Deutschland e.V.
Payment reference: Refugee Relief & postal address
The money, regardless of the bank account used, will be spent even-handedly. The private bank account merely allows us to use the money more flexibly as additional bureaucratic obstacles can be avoided.
Topic related webpages
Updates on the current situation:
Refugee Help Map https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=zddfRUtGScOc.kQBgTQcoV5FM
SOSkonvoi Austria https://www.facebook.com/SOSkonvoi/timeline/
Liveticker Boder Monitoring http://balkanroute.bordermonitoring.eu
Networks & Volunteer Updates
Are You Syrious https://www.facebook.com/areyousyrious/
Help Konvois from Germany https://www.facebook.com/groups/416805008513952/
Kroatien: CCC – Croatian Coordination Centar https://www.facebook.com/groups/croatiancommandcentar/?fref=ts
Additionally there are separate Facebook groups of most individual border crossings which can be easily found by a keyword search.
(All pictures taken by the International Volunteers)