Stuck in a limbo

Refugees on the Western Balkan Route
News20.04.2017Charles du Vinage
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When Theodora Jovanovic looks out of the window in Belgrad she sees a queue of young men from Afghanistan ready to enter this one story building in Gavrilo Princip Street. She is a social worker who started her job a couple of months ago for the social initiative of Mikser House. Day after day hundreds of people look for this flat building in order to be registered as refugees. “In comparison to what we did 10 months ago our situation has tremendously changed” says Theodora. While in June last year Mikser House was only accessible for young women and children it's nowadays exclusively meant to serve the purposes of young men. We are not allowed to provide food and clothes, says Theodora. “The city does not want us to be too comfortable to refugees” so that they might decide not to enter the official refugee shelters outside the city. Another change is the fact that refugees now entering Mikser House have a chance to learn languages: English, German, Serbian and Arabic. Furthermore there is the children's corner. And not to forget there is an extra corner for women.

“Women who travel alone often become victims of violence”. The air in the shelter is thick with the smell of shoes. Outside the temperature is dropping. Men sit in circles. They talk and recharge their cell phones. The room may appear like a big coffee house if it wouldn't be for the various posters with handwritings on it. It says: “We are all human beings so let's give us a chance to have a new start”, “Why can't I travel wherever I go?” asks another unknown writer. In between the smaller crowds volunteers and ladies with a badge of “Medecins du Monde” patiently answer questions of those waiting.

“This is the place where people register” repeats Theodora. After that they are free to go either to Belgrade based camp “Krnjaca” or to another refugee centre in Serbia. But some of the young men gathering here were already sent back from Croatia. “I crossed the border illegally” says a barely bearded man. “I reached the town of Vinkovci. When the police picked me up they sent me back to Serbia”. He will try again to cross borders until he reaches Germany.

There is another camp in Obrenovac. Theodora estimates that around thousand unaccompanied children found shelter there. What happened to this group of people during the flight is not known. But what seems clear after this short visit is the fact that no state is currently interested to take in new refugees. Refugees should be shied away from borders. Approximately 7500 refugees are currently in Serbia waiting for a passage to European Union countries. Around 6000 of them found shelter in refugee camps. Thousand five hundred are spread across the country hiding and waiting for traffickers to take them to Germany, France or Sweden. Questions remain in the surprisingly chilly air of Belgrade: Who bears responsibility? How could this group of people be best helped? Or is it a test for the open borders and thus the freedom of Europe?


Charles du Vinage

Project Director Western Balkans