The Miratovac Taxi Problem: Profiteering from Refugees

I've been given the day off so I'm using today's post to describe one of the challenges that you get to see when you spend a few days working in these camps.

It is inevitable that wherever an opportunity to make money exists someone will seize it.

In the town of Miratovac, that opportunity is created by the fact that refugees have to walk about 3km from the camp exit to where the tarmac begins and the buses to Presevo can safely drive. The reason for this walk is that the road to the camp is presently dirt, and the weight of the buses (and the sheer number of them) would make a bad road rapidly impassable, especially in wet weather.

The result? Many townspeople have purchased "Taxi" signs that fit atop their cars and park, in droves, on the dirt road at the opening of the town but around the bend from where the free buses wait. In order to get refugees into their cars drivers engage in tactics that are pretty pushy (including, apparently, lying and saying there are no buses). This is all so they can charge the refugees for a taxi ride to Presevo, which is about 20-30 minutes' drive away. The charges for a group of four can be up to 50 euros! 10 rides in a day - something that's easy to do - net 500 euros; given that the cost of living is so low you can eat a fine dinner in a restaurant for 5 euros you can see the financial appeal.

You would think that the local administration would put a stop to this practice. Unfortunately that has not proven to be the case. The answer, of course, is paving the road; since the camp has only in the last few weeks moved to a new spot that allows it to expand and given it is now winter this will take place, if it does, in spring. As Serbia is not a wealthy country it may or may not happen at all.

Those who work in the Miratovac camp explain to the refugees that the buses are free and are within about 100 meters of the taxis. We reinforce this and make clear the taxis will charge an outrageous amount if they take them - and that these are not really taxis, but profiteering villagers.

Needless to say whenever a group of workers comes through we often get dark looks from the "taxi" drivers who have gotten wind of what we've been telling the refugees. You can imagine how little we are bothered by those dark looks. I'll update this post with some photographs soon.

The New Years Day Night Shift: Miratovac

Tonite I’m on the graveyard shift at Miratovac. It is -8c yet the trains and the refugees never stop. The camp is manned 24x7 by the Serbian authorities, IOM, Medecins sans Frontieres and the Catholic charities who provide food, and most of the others cover 18-20 hours of ever day.

We get text messages from the IOM teams in Greece and Macedonia when trains leave so we know how many are coming on each and approximately when they will arrive; we pass this along to everyone serving both camps.

We have a number of portable cabins for the staff, and several also for the migrants, where they can rest – and sleep – for a while before they walk the three kilometers to the buses for Presevo.

A colleague getting warm in our non-smoking cabin the previous day.

A colleague getting warm in our non-smoking cabin the previous day.

You get every kind of request you can imagine. Right after I arrived for my shift a Syrian family of 12 – from grandparents to grandchildren of perhaps 5 or 6 - arrived with a little girl in a wheelchair. We call a driver for the vulnerable but it will be a while; we only have one van at night.  In the meantime it turns out the wheelchair has lost a bolt holding part of the suspension together; we see this reasonably frequently and have a box of parts to hand and fix her up. The family is incredibly grateful, especially the kids, who come up and hug my colleague and me, yelling “Thank you!” and “Happy New Year!” and the little girl who uses the chair has the most incredible smile – it lights up the entire cabin they're waiting for the van in.

Later a Syrian in his mid-20s arrives near the front entrance and asks me in excellent English to explain how Miratovac and follow on transportation to Presevo and onwards to Croatia works. Once I explain everything he settles his family in a cabin and comes back and spends the next four hours helping everyone arriving that speaks Arabic what I’ve told him and acting as a translator for questions. We do have some staff on hand that speak Arabic, but not enough that we can station people everywhere when a large number of arrivals come through.

He and I get to talking and he explains that his family started their journey in October 2014. The violence in Syria was so bad that it took more than six months to get to Turkey as they kept having to stop and hide until the civil war in their area calmed down so they could keep going. He wants to settle in the UK but knows this will be difficult and said he routinely volunteers as a translator as he proceeds along the route to a new European home. He hopes that once he and his family settle he can work somewhere that will let him help others who are arriving get settled too.

My colleagues ensure that his family get a ride the 3km to the buses for Presevo – we would have given him a ride too as thanks for his help but the van is already full with a trio of elderly ladies who have trouble walking very far.

You can look at this entire situation and get really upset – or you can remind yourself that anything you do for these people, any small kindness, has a magnified meaning to them. If you weren’t here doing it, that little kindness might not have happened at all. 

In a way, I think the little things we do for total strangers matter far more than we realize, even in daily life. It is easy to be kind and thoughtful with those we know well, but how many of us really take the many small opportunities for little kindnesses throughout the normal day? I know I could do more, and when I don’t it is generally because I’m busy and let myself be persuaded that I have to rush off to whatever I’m doing. Sometimes it is true but it isn’t always. I hope when I get home this experience reminds me to stop, whenever I can, instead of continuing on by.

I feel incredibly privileged to be here. Spending your day helping people who are literally carrying everything they have to a totally alien continent with only a hope that life will be better is an incredible thing to witness. 

New Years Eve – Presevo: More than 4,000 refugees come through

It never gets above -5c today, and from 0800 until we leave at 1700 we have a continuous stream of new arrivals. More than 2,700 arrive by 1700 alone – and well over 4,000 by midnight.

I’ve never seen it this busy. This often happens if a strike or disruption of the refugees' route causes them to get held up for a day; everyone who would have come that day combines with those for the day after.

There are so many unique people and situations that come through every day. Some of them are dramatic: one family of about 20 had a little boy with them who was clearly ill, and not very reactive to anything around him. I took him and his older brother, who was leading the entire group, to the medical tent and then found a UNHCR Farsi interpreter for the medical team to talk to the boy. He got a shot, and was given some medication for the next few days and looked much better once he left. The family was really grateful. We get at least one, and often several, cases like this each day whom we have to take to the doctors – staffed by Medecins sans Frontieres and the Serbian Red Cross with some help, in the case of the kids, by UNICEF. Their job is tough – they keep getting colds themselves and then have to go on leave to avoid giving their own illnesses to their already-ill patients. 

I did get to spend a while chatting with Mr. Nikic, whom I mentioned in my first post of the trip.  I have some ideas for how the big technology companies I work with could help out – especially things like camp-wide WiFi access (right now it only works in a small area) and some apps that could provide information on the whole route for migrants on the services offered in each camp and details of the transportation along the route.

He – and everyone else – is clearly aware that the flow of refugees is not going to stop for the foreseeable future. I’ve heard private comments from some of the big NGOs suggesting that the numbers for all of 2016 – barring some major change in the war in Syria – could be double or triple those of 2015. That would mean 2 to 3 million people coming to Europe in one year. Given there are six million Syrians displaced yet still inside Syria it is – sadly – easy to imagine numbers like these though God knows what Europe will do with such vast numbers. How on Earth a Europe already divided over one million arrivals in 2015 will deal with so many more I have no idea. Clearly, our leaders, and all of us, have got to get our act together. 

We ate lunch in individual shifts. The registration tent only holds so many people and given the volume that meant we had a line that went outside of our (heated since the last week) tent into the cold, and we wanted to try and get the line inside to help reduce exposure of the migrants to the low temperatures. We didn’t manage that until about 1600.

I made a few runs to the Remar tent behind us for tea to keep my colleagues from IOM, and the police in the tent managing crowd control, warm. Even with the heat running it remained relatively cold in the tent; it is just too cold outside. Remar are really terrific: this wonderful, all-volunteer force of young people provides hot soup and hot sweet tea for the endless stream of people coming through – and those of us who work the camp. 

Just another day helping a few thousand more people on their way across Europe. It will certainly change Europe forever – as it will change those who are arriving. It is up to all of us - those arriving and us Europeans - to see to it that it is a positive change.


My introduction to Miratovac, the first camp refugees see upon arrival in Serbia

Miratovac (pronounced "MurAtowvutzz") is very close to the Serbian-Macedonian border - so close you can see the border stations on the motorway a couple of kilometers away.

Let me give you a tour in a few photographs. First here's a view  of the 'front door' of the camp, the view both staff and migrants see when they arrive:

Miratovac's 'front door' when I arrived for work in the morning.

Miratovac's 'front door' when I arrived for work in the morning.

Now, here's the view outward from the fence immediately to the right of the barriers that bring incoming refugees for scanning and paperwork checking:

Shot taken at sunset on New Years Eve.

Shot taken at sunset on New Years Eve.

And finally, a view of the camp taken from the same spot as the shot above, but approximately 180 degrees, to show you the route through the camp with services available along the path before you get to the exit at the end. What you don't see is the Remar tent at the end with their trademark hot tea and soup with a big tent where everyone can relax and get warm before they leave us:

"Main Street" of Miratovac, taken at sunset on New Years Eve.

"Main Street" of Miratovac, taken at sunset on New Years Eve.

In case you're wondering if the picture above is blurry because I'm a crap photographer, whilst that may be true in this case the blurring is deliberate: we don't take pictures of refugees which might allow any individual to be identified to protect them but also their friends and relatives still in their home countries who might face reprisals otherwise. In the middle-distance you can see refugees getting food (on the left) from the catholic and orthodox charities and on the right the DRC (Danish Rescue Committee) provides warm clothes and shoes to those who need them ( many do given the winter temperatures).

What do I do at Miratovac?

Naturally most of my time isn't spent taking pictures with my phone: We spend our time providing information for those who are coming through. Once again, my accent in pronunciation provides hilarity here just as it does at Presevo, and I'm rescued by the many Syrians who speak excellent English or other colleagues. I've also developed pretty impressive skills for charades: I know this because when those I speak/pantomime to pass what I'm "saying" along to others my Farsi/Arabic speaking colleagues tell me the information is generally correct.

I also take people to services: kids and their mothers to UNICEF for all sorts of things; many others to the DRC for clothing upgrades, and everyone who needs it to the doctors from the Serbian red cross and MSF. This often requires some encouragement: many of those arriving appear not to have seen a Western-style doctor in their lives, or only rarely. I'm told that it is common to need to persuade people, especially those who need it most, of the value of seeing the medical teams. Sometimes, people who very clearly need help simply won't accept it. We can't force them of course. You just have to hope that further along they relent.

It is a more varied experience for me that Presevo where IOM are dedicated to registration; IOM is the lead agency at Miratovac whereas UNHCR leads at Presevo. This is another reason why our duties are more varied: the other agencies rely upon us for broader responsibilities.

My colleagues are a great set of Serbians, most who come from this part of the country. Here's a view of some of them in our (thankfully heated) "office": 

Dusan (pronounced "Dooshan") is the one with the cigarette in the foreground. He's one of those irrepressibly cheerful people who make life more fun for everyone around them.

Dusan (pronounced "Dooshan") is the one with the cigarette in the foreground. He's one of those irrepressibly cheerful people who make life more fun for everyone around them.

Thanks to the sunshine and a relatively light load of incoming refugees it is a pretty easy day for me. I was about to find out that it was much easier than is normal...

Day 1: Introduction to Southern Serbian refugee operations

The day started with breakfast at my hotel in Vranje with Milovan, the coordinator of camp operations for Presevo and Miratovacfor the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

But first ... a bit of background

When I decided that I wanted to spend part of the holiday season in Europe’s refugee camps I called my friend Tom Attwood at IOM and asked if he had any ideas of where to go – I said of course I could just go to the Greek islands and start pulling people out of boats but if there was somewhere where I could do more good I was happy to do that.

He suggested that I go to Serbia instead and once his colleague the wonderful Svetlana “Beca” Sipetic of IOM in Belgrade got me clearance to go I packed my bags for Serbia, to be IOM’s only volunteer over the holiday period.

Back to breakfast...

Milovan gave me an overview of how the camps operate and what they do in each of them. Since this will help anyone reading this to understand what goes on I’ve made a post describing this which you can find linked to the sidebar to the right.

We agreed I’d start with the afternoon/evening shift at Presevo (1400-2200) later that day.

Milovan and I drove together to Presevo about 30 minutes from Vranje, and he told me stories of how things have progressed from the early days to today; Presevo only opened in July 2014. Clearly had I come even three months earlier the experience would have been far different – and far more difficult. He described for me the other side of the news stories from the autumn, where we heard about thousands of people on the move in periods of heavy rain and government leaders angrily and openly fighting with each other. On the ground, this period was a truly harrowing one: small children and older people wading through almost knee-deep mud in the cold, babies being treated for hypothermia – you name it; anything that exposure to bad weather can bring happened, but to thousands of people each and every day.

There’s an alphabet soup of different UN agencies, international organisations, and Serbian NGOs providing services in Presevo. From the 'big fish' like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), to the Serbian Orthodox Church and catholic relief organisations providing food, to Remar – an all-volunteer organization whose Swiss and Spanish chapters provide (delicious) hot soup and sweet tea to everyone in heated tents. Overall I think there are about 25 organisations involved. It is the job of Mr. Milenko Nikic of the Labour, Employment, Veterans and Social Affairs Ministry of Serbia to coordinate all of their activities. Both Serbia, and the refugees themselves, are very fortunate as Nikic is clearly very personallycommitted to doing the best that he can for this wave of humanity passing through his country.

I sat down in the big tent where every migrant passes through for the first of two steps in their registration in Serbia. This is where I would spend most of my time whilst in Presevo.

The view from where I sit - forms we fill in can be seen in the foreground.

The view from where I sit - forms we fill in can be seen in the foreground.

IOM is responsible for the first part, and the Serbian authorities for the final part and providing the official franked document that allows them 72 hours (extensible) in the country before those not claiming asylum in Serbia depart for Croatia.

And next thing you know, a Syrian family of four – parents with two youngsters – is in front of me, handing me their paperwork from Macedonia and Greece with a smile.

Mostly we can copy the information from the previous forms – though this is slightly tricky for me at first as the Greek forms are largely in Greek, with ASCII (the character set of English and Western European languages) for the details of the individual people, but forms issued by different parts of Greece are slightly differently laid out. There's something charmingly Greek about having three forms for one country instead of just one.

We do have to get some information not on previous paperwork from each person. One is what country they want to claim asylum in. This is often a source of amusement for my colleagues and the refugees, as I pronounce the phrase for this in appalling English-accented Farsi, or Arabic, or Kurdish (we have a ‘cheat sheet’ of phrases).  Sometimes I’m understood – other times my colleagues allow me two tries before they intervene with better pronunciation that gets the answer, and laughter both from the refugees and the colleagues. Other times, a smiling English speaker amongst the refugees intervenes to translate; this also ends in laughter over my bad accent.

Which leads me to recount the case of “No Cat”

Because the forms we fill in then go to the Serbian police in the next tent, most of whom don’t speak or read in English, I have to write the answer in Serbian for the country names. Serbian for “Germany” is “Nemacka” (with a little upside-down caret above the ‘c’). The literal translation for this is “No Cat” which I find very entertaining. None of my colleagues can explain why Germany relates to cats, or rather the lack thereof.

When you realize that three quarters of the one million refugees that entered Europe in 2014 –most of them in the last six months of 2015 - passed through Serbia you get an idea of the scale of the challenge that confronts this country on a practical, daily level. When you are one of four people who register each of them as they arrive it is personal, not abstract, as you spend time interacting with each new arrival. Given that we average about 2,500 people per day to imagine multiplying what you are experiencing by four or five is difficult to imagine, yet the people I’m working with have experienced months and months of exactly that without becoming immune whilst still caring and treating each person kindly and patiently.

I think every leader in Europe should be obliged to spend a few days doing the various different camp duties, from crowd control to registration to handing out soup and hot tea. It is one thing to think about refugees by the thousands at home, and a completely different thing to actually talk to several hundred of them a day.