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Balkans, Serbia

"Some experiences will remain deeply engraved in my mind"

Jovana Arsenijević - MSF Assistant Head of Mission

    Jovana Arsenijević, MSF assistant head of mission in Serbia, witnesses the evolution in her work with migrants in her own country.

    What is the migration context in Serbia and in Belgrade? How has the situation evolved since MSF started working in Serbia two years ago?

    Migration context in Serbia has been extremely dynamic, with constantly changing nature and short term predictability, therefore MSF activities were flexible and highly mobile, responding to the needs emerging from the ever changing migration context. MSF initiated the mission in Serbia in 2014 to provide support to migrants and refugees transiting through the Balkans towards Western Europe. At the time, MSF was the only humanitarian organization providing support to migrants in transit. During the migration flow in late 2015 and early 2016 MSF has been providing medical and mental healthcare; distributing relief items; building winterized emergency shelter; water, sanitation & waste management; and transporting extremely vulnerable individuals.

    After signing the EU-Turkey deal, with the closure of Balkan route in March 2016, MSF continued provision of primary and mental health care to migrant populations residing outside of the official reception system in Serbia, mainly in central Belgrade and transit zones on the Serbian-Hungarian border. In winter 2016, MSF supported the government of Serbia in scaling up shelter and WASH capacities in order to evacuate 2,000 boys and men who were residing in dire living conditions in freezing cold temperatures, reaching -17 degrees. This year, MSF set up a fixed clinic in Belgrade, but kept capacity to be mobile and quickly respond to the medical and humanitarian needs if necessary.

    What are the main problems at the medical and humanitarian level?

    Currently, MSF patients are mainly male migrants traveling alone who have low/no access to health care, the majority of them being unaccompanied minors. Most common medical morbidities are skin diseases, respiratory tract infections and gastrointestinal diseases. In mental health clinics the most frequent symptoms are anxiety, adjustment reactions and depression.

    In mental health clinics the most frequent symptoms are anxiety, adjustment reactions and depression.

    Life in dire conditions, in abandoned train depots, with no access to WASH facilities, appropriate shelter, and desperation to continue their journeys towards countries of destination augments deterioration of medical and mental health of migrants stranded along the Balkans.

    Additionally, due to the border closures, people use more dangerous, deeper and expensive smuggling networks, putting their health and security at further risk. Attempt to cross into Croatia and Hungary is reported to be extremely dangerous and frequently resulting in violent pushbacks to Serbia, including severe beatings, dog bites and humiliations. The refugees are facing the extreme consequences of militarized migration policies and the rise of xenophobia. The ones who are trapped along the Balkans continue to be left at risk, sometimes being beaten by smugglers or by border authorities, and in the worst case, losing their lives.

    What is your role and the main challenges you are facing?

    I work for the operations department in the coordination in Belgrade (Serbia) of the MSF Northern Balkan migration mission. My role is to support the operations in the mission, but also other departments such as medical, logistics and supply. I’m also involved in several operational research studies with LuxOR. The main challenge, but also what makes my job interesting is the constantly changing migration context in the country and in the region. Therefore, mobility, flexibility and adaptability of MSF operations that are changing and shaping toward the needs in the field.

    What is your personal feeling about this situation in your own country?

    With the end of winter, the situation in Serbia continues to be worrisome and without any clear resolutions. More than 8,000 people are stranded in the country of which less than 7,000 live in camps, still overcrowded and not equipped for longer term shelter, leaving almost 3,000 minors out of school and suffering from increasing episodes of violence. Outside of the camps 1,200 people live in several small congregations and settlements, about 1,000 in the abandoned train depots in Belgrade, and fluctuating between 100/200 at both Hungarian and Croatian borders, scattered in many “jungles”, which regularly are raided by police.

    The situation at the border is very different, authorities do not always tolerate spontaneous support, especially for undocumented migrants.

    While in Belgrade plenty of volunteers continue to be active providing health, hygiene, sanitation, food and other services, the situation at the border is very different, authorities do not always tolerate spontaneous support, especially for undocumented migrants. With the influx of migrants, that still exists, current trend leaning to reduce exits and the reverse flow cause by push-backs from the neighboring countries; it is predicted that the numbers in Serbia will continue to grow. Whether in camps or outside there are no real alternatives for migrants stranded in Serbia.

    Could you tell an anecdote?

    Although most of our work tends to be sad and extremely touching, there are some valuable, irreplaceable experiences that stay deeply engraved in our minds and hearts and that make MSF field work different and special.

    About a year ago, we were conducting an exploration mission on the Serbian Bulgarian border. We were driving deep in the woods for a few days trying to locate the points where migrants cross from one country to another, in order to adapt our strategy accordingly and improve our response to the needs of the most vulnerable, crossing in extremely harsh conditions. At one particular part, extremely remote, even without phone reception, all of a sudden on the car radio we heard a migrant woman crying for help, saying: “Please help us, we have been stranded here for 14 days, women and children with no food or water”. At the time, there were four of us in the car, two extremely experienced MSF expats, myself, still relatively fresh in humanitarian setting and another first mission expat.

    Une anecdote à partager ?

    The two experienced expats said that is highly unlikely that migrants could make a radio and use the same frequency that we had in the car and even if they did that it is virtually impossible to find them in such dense endless woods, and therefore recommended to continue. However, the first missioner and I insisted to stay there as long as we didn’t locate the stranded migrants crying for help, and started developing theories on how we could find them. After more than hour of dispute with the experienced expats, and huge disappointment from our side, we agreed to move forward.

    Several hours later, and a few hundred kilometers further we heard the same lady repeating the same sentence on the radio.

    Several hours later, and a few hundred kilometers further we heard the same lady repeating the same sentence on the radio. At the time, it was clear to all of us that the radio signal couldn’t reach that far and that the message was recorded. Only then, we realized that the first missioner plugged in his phone to charge and automatically played a testimony recorded a year earlier.

    That day, from our famous experience, we learned that even though we support thousands of migrants in need each year, that sometimes our wish to help people is so great that we start chasing ghosts, but also that we should rely on the experience of our experienced MSF friends and colleagues.

    * Main image : about 1,000 people live in abandoned trains or sheds in Belgrade. © Miodrag Ćakić

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