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.