Over 4,000 refugees are estimated to be stranded in Serbia, following border closures of the EU-Turkey deal in March 2016. Dire living conditions and despair leave many of them with no other option than to attempt crossing the borders to Europe and face the severe consequences: suffering violence by police and border forces and being push back again and again.
In July, Marion Nourrisson, Communication Officer for MSF Luxembourg, supported MSF’s Mission in Serbia to record information and raise awareness on cross border violence and the situation of unaccompanied minors in Serbia.
Can you explain the context of the refugee crisis in Serbia?
The situation in Serbia seems frozen. As the days go by, thousands of refugees are blocked in the country with no legal alternative and no other option than attempting to illegally cross the borders.
In the first six months of 2017, the number of children and teenagers experiencing violent events has remained stable. Of all minors visited by MSF psychologists (125), 86 (69%) experienced traumatic events, 71 of which (57%) had physical injuries.
In the first six months of 2017, the number of children and teenagers experiencing violent events has remained stable. Of all minors visited by MSF psychologists (125), 86 (69%) experienced traumatic events, 71 of which (57%) had physical injuries. Many of them live in the woods – the so called “jungles” – or sleep in abandoned warehouses. Some of them are travelling by themselves, because either they have left their country alone or have lost their parents in their home countries or got separated along the way.
From Turkey onwards to Italy, refugees call their attempts to cross the borders “games”, a seemingly playful name for a desperate back forth of attempted border crossings and being pushed back. Playing the “game” comes at a high price: they are robbed, beaten by the police, humiliated, attacked by dogs, or sent to closed camps. During our psychological consultations, the most frequent alleged perpetrators of physical injuries were namely Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia and Romania responsible for 92% of such violence.
Playing the “game” comes at a high price.
It is both shocking and heart breaking to see people so badly mistreated and humiliated at our very European boarders.
How is MSF supporting refugees and migrants stranded in Serbia?
In Serbia, MSF is mainly focusing on primary health care, whether inside the official refugee camps, or in the so called “jungle”, MSF provides support to migrants and refugees living in precarious and undignified conditions, without any access to health care. The MSF clinic in Belgrade offers medical and mental health care, as well as screening for dermatological conditions due to unsanitary conditions and limited access to basic hygiene. MSF is also providing medical and mental assistance through mobile clinics in Subotica, at the border with Hungary, and Sid, at the Croatian border.
LuxOR, MSF’s Operational Research unit based in Luxembourg, is working hand in hand with the mission in Serbia to record and analyze evidence of this changing and volatile operational context.
What was the goal of your mission to Serbia?
I went to Serbia to support the advocacy team with filming a documentary video, gathering testimonies, and contributing to a report on cross border violence and unaccompanied minors.
I conducted several interviews with refugees, mainly minors, from Afghanistan and Pakistan. They make for the biggest group living outside of the camps. Talking to them helped me better understand their situation, their living conditions and the violence they are regularly facing. I felt like this step was essential to understand their situation better.
Refugees in Serbia have been largely forgotten. Much attention is currently on the Mediterranean refugee crisis; their situation and the cross border violence in the Balkans are silently deteriorating. It is important to tell people in Europe what is happening at their doorstep.
What were the challenges working with young migrants and refugees?
At the beginning I felt very uneasy to ask personal questions to refugees. Listening people sharing traumatic stories requires making sure that they are not too vulnerable and are feeling safe. It is difficult to establish trust when you just arrived and start knowing a person who has been through a lot.
It is difficult to establish trust when you just arrived and start knowing a person who has been through a lot.
The third week, we joined a mobile clinic going to Subotica with a cameraman. This is when I really noticed there were so many minors among the refugees we were helping. The aim was to gather some of their testimonies for the video. However, we had to be creative as we did not want to show minors’ faces on camera. We agreed on recording their voices instead, only showing their hands, their feet or their backs.
The volatile environment made things difficult for us. Asylum seekers and refugees are often trying to cross the borders and constantly move from one place to another. It was almost impossible to plan interviews in advance and we had to be spontaneous.
Where there any particularly remarkable encounters?
Everyone I met had a different touching story. I remember one 16 year old, quiet Afghan refugee. He stood on the side of the room and was shyly observing other refugees playing table tennis. We spent an hour talking about where he was coming from and what he had experienced on his way to Europe.
Everyone I met had a different touching story.
The following week I met him near the MSF clinic with his cousin, we sat and talked again. He revealed that he got separated from his father on the way to Europe, who is now in Copenhagen. This was the reason why he was trying again and again to cross the borders despite the risks and the violence.
When we were recording his story, I asked him whether he was afraid:
“Afraid of what?”, he asked me back. “Everything is horror, when you are underage and small and there is no one to take care of you. You lose your father on the way … you can imagine how hard it is.”
Of course, I couldn't imagine.
I knew that it can take several years to reunite families and that we couldn’t do anything to change that on the spot. My hope now is that recording the voices of the most vulnerable in Serbia will help raise awareness in Europe and gain further support.
Find the report
«Games of Violence»
Find the original article