Freezing temperatures for days, for weeks and even months, are what several thousands of immigrants and refugees have faced in Serbia. The country is perhaps facing one of the most brutal refugee and humanitarian crises at the moment. In March of 2016, the European Union (EU) and Turkey signed a £4.7 billion ($5.9B) deal to address the migrant crisis. The deal declared that all refugees and migrants traveling to Greece were to be sent back to Turkey if they did not apply for asylum or if their claims were rejected. But in return, the EU promised to welcome one Syrian refugee for resettlement in Europe for every person deported back to Turkey. As a result, multiple countries in the area, simultaneously, began closing their borders to such migrants. The fencing of these countries shut down the direct migrant path to central Europe, known as the Western Balkans route.Those that had failed to tread this path on time are now facing crippling apprehension. Those that are still brave and desperate enough to push through, end up in Serbia, a non-European country.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are between 7,000-7,500 refugees stuck in Serbia right now. Of that number, 1,500 are living on the streets and are mostly from Pakistan and Afghanistan. But the more alarming fact is that 60 percent of the refugees and migrants in Serbia are minors. Many families can’t make the trip to Europe but send their young ones in hopes for a brighter future for them. As a result, many children are on their own, navigating the roads or tagging along with amicable adults. Many of the minors try to apply for asylum and have been refused, while others carry around their expulsion papers. About 150-200 migrants enter Serbia every day, and of them, half are minors. The Serbian government is not handling the situation adeptly. It has prohibited the involvement of any humanitarian organization to intervene and aid the people, and with sub-zero temperatures and dwindling resources, survival is a struggle for many. To create warmth, the refugees burn whatever they can to start a fire. Thus they have become desperate enough to burn toxic materials such as plastics, which release insidious fumes that have given many respiratory problems. The main problem is keeping the migrants alive in unheated tents. They have neither access to electricity nor water, as the pipelines have frozen over, but access to food isn’t as big of a struggle since several donors have reached out and have supplied the refugees one meal per day. But warm clothing is hard to come by and the first to run out of supply.
Serbia is in the middle of a political game with Europe. A majority of the European countries disapprove of the way Serbia is handling the situation, but Serbia doesn’t want to succumb to Europe’s way of dealing with the refugees — which is by forcing them to go to camps. People are afraid to go to camps in Serbia, as the country is known to deport them off to Macedonia and Bulgaria. Besides warehouses, the camps don’t have much to offer in terms of safe lodging. The government is aware that it legally cannot take care of these mass amounts of people and in fact discourages them from flocking into the country, as people are only entering to pass through to go to central Europe. Central Europe is seen as "El Dorado," a sanctuary where migrants can obtain proper documents, schooling, a fresh start and some peace — which is all that a refugee wants.
With temperatures falling to as low as -15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit), Doctors Without Borders (DWB) has sent out staff to help with the situation. A doctor visits each of the sites twice a week and the usual reports include upper respiratory problems and frostbite. In efforts to help ameliorate the situation, DWB also set up several large tents without government authorization a couple days ago. This could actually be impactful, as the government would want to reprimand those that don't abide by the rules, but removing the tents would be "officially" leaving sick children and helpless elders in the cold, therefore forcing them to try and provide an alternative. But at the end of the day, I can't help but be skeptical. People, such as the migrants, are simply passing through and thus are treated indifferently, and the government tends to leave the problem for the next country, as history has repeatedly shown. I hope I am wrong, but I envision mass expulsions and an increased amount of traffickers handling the situation as it is a very lucrative business. In time, these migrants will leave the limelight and when that happens, we will cease to talk about them until the next unfeasible situation arises.
Harleen Singh is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year majoring in cell biology and neuroscience. Her column, "Got Rights?", runs on alternate Mondays.
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