Jane Bradley: Travelling with trepidation on return to Serbia

One year on from her last visit to the scene of a refugee crisis, Jane Bradley is braced to witness a situation that has deteriorated significantly

Migrants and refugees wait for security checks after crossing the Macedonian border into Serbia, a year ago. This route has now been closed off, leaving many stranded. Picture: AFP/Getty.
Migrants and refugees wait for security checks after crossing the Macedonian border into Serbia, a year ago. This route has now been closed off, leaving many stranded. Picture: AFP/Getty.

This time tomorrow, I will be on my way to Serbia.

It is almost exactly a year since my last visit there, when I was sent to report on the refugees making their way through what is known as the Western Balkans route.

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When I went last year, I did not know what to expect - but I was pleasantly surprised. Conditions were obviously not great, but the situation was a lot better than I had feared.

This year, I know things have changed dramatically - and very much for the worse.

I am bracing myself for what we might find there tomorrow.

Last February, the refugees were very much in transit through Serbia. Many of them had endured gruelling and treacherous journeys from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, and had walked across Turkey and into Macedonia. Many of them had survived terrifying boat rides in tiny rubber dinghies captained by people smugglers. But once they reached Europe, the beginnings of what was a fairly slick transportation system to Germany kicked in.

Travelling by a specially-chartered bus or train, they moved through Macedonia, stopping briefly - sometimes overnight - at the Serbian border, where a well-organised group of international aid agencies handed out a clean set of clothes, blankets and a warm meal before officials checked their papers. The youngsters had a place to play and the mothers of young children had somewhere quiet to feed at the “child friendly spaces” set up in the one-stop centres on the borders.

After that they would, perhaps after spending a night in specially-created dormitories, board another train and go onwards to the north of Serbia, where the same would happen again and they would continue their onward journey through Croatia to Germany, where they would be placed in refugee camps and begin the process of claiming asylum.

It was, at times, unimaginably frustrating for them as they queued at stations, toddlers crying at their feet, with little idea of when exactly they would be moved on - although they displayed only the utmost patience and calmness.

Many of the refugees were exhausted. I met one family ranging in age from a one-year-old baby to a grandmother in her 90s - all of whom had travelled on foot across Turkey together.

Bizarrely, there was a nominal fee for the bus and train services, meaning that refugees who had been unable to bring money with them when they fled persecution in their homelands had an extra problem to deal with.

Heartbreakingly, many of them had no idea if they would be able to find - and reunite with - their families who were already living in camps in Germany. Some appeared to have no idea how big Germany was, or how many different camps their relatives could have been placed in. I was at a loss to reassure them.

But, sad though it was to see on an individual basis, the system, relatively speaking, worked.

Most had hopes of a future once they reached Germany, The children harboured ambitions to start school: to study to be architects, or doctors. Their parents could see a glimmer of hope of a normal life once more. Maybe not right now, maybe not that year - but in the foreseeable future.

Then a couple of weeks after my visit, the Macedonian and Croatian governments closed their borders. The Western Balkans route was shut. The refugees could no longer travel through their countries, they said.

Those already on their way through Serbia were stuck. Many of those who were there at that moment are still trapped, living long-term in camps which were designed to house groups of refugees for not more than a night or two.

Other sites, such as an army barracks in Belgrade, have sprung up to house more refugees, with over a hundred estimated to be travelling to the Serbian capital every day.

People who have volunteered out there over the winter have told me that the conditions are horrific.

A volunteer working with aid from Edinburgh-based charity Re-Act Scotland recently recounted stories of families living in a disused school in the north of Serbia, burning anything they could get their hands on in toxic metal drums which had previously contained chemicals - just to survive the freexing temperatures.

UNHCR, the United Nations’s refugee arm, believes there are around 7,000 refugees now in Serbia. As well as those who were trapped when the borders closed, others have come into the country through Bulgaria, and have been unable to move on.

Pictures I have seen from the country in recent months, as the temperatures plummeted to minus sixteen Celcius, are like nothing anyone could have ever imagined - just two short years ago - would be witnessed in Europe.

Lines of refugees, draped in just thin grey blankets, stand outside in the snow to queue for a meagre bowl of soup. The scenes are, to be quite frank, reminiscient of the Holocaust.

The refugees who are in the asylum system are mainly in camps, albeit with very basic facilities.

However others, whether they have slipped through the official net or who cannot find a space in a camp, are suffering even worse conditions.

In Belgrade, around 2,000 people are believed to be living in an abandoned warehouse, close to the main train station - a building with no heating, where the biting wind, snow and sleet whistles in through the broken windows.

Aid organisations have described the situation as not just a refugee situation, but a long-term crisis of thousands of permanently homeless people with no future and no hope.

Tomorrow, I will be travelling with trepedation. I am expecting to be horrified by what I will see. I hope my reporting - backed by charity Christian Aid, which will be on hand to show me the invaluable work that aid agencies are doing all over Europe - helps to explain to people the horror of what is happening on our doorsteps.

But, however difficult the next week may be, unlike the refugees, I am lucky. I can leave again. They have no idea when - or even if - they ever can.