- Who are you working with?
Refugee Aid Miksaliste
- What’s that exactly?
A mixture of things, really. Refugee Aid Miksaliste is a local NGO started a couple of years ago to help the refugees passing through the city. Now fourteen other NGOs are involved, either by sending staffers (like Save Our Children) or money, like Oxfam and UN Women.
- Who are the people you’re helping?
About 1,000 refugees live in an abandoned warehouse by the Belgrade train station or in the nearby park. Roughly 70% of them are Afghan right now. A few are Iraqi, even Pakistani, and only a small minority (right now) are Syrian. 30-40% of those refugees are family groups. While family groups make up the vast majority of the refugees in Europe, in Serbia they are typically housed in state-run camps. Because of overcrowding, teen boys (and a few other families) are left to find their own shelter at the train station or nearby parks.
- How many are there exactly?
Currently there are roughly 6,000 refugees in Serbia right now. They stay in Serbia until their refugee status papers are issued, which takes several months. Many refugees have been waiting for 4 months.
- And so what’s their plan?
Ideally, they want to make it to Germany, France, Sweden, or Norway. However, the Balkan route takes them out of Serbia and through Hungary, and Hungary closed it’s borders, putting up razor wire fencing. They have two transit points and only let 3o people through a day. There’s also talk of them deporting 18,000 refugees back into Serbia.
- So now what’s their plan?
At this point, their best bet it so travel to Bulgaria, which is a part of the EU, and work their way to a more accommodating country.
- Why don’t they just stay in Serbia? Isn’t that an option?
Yes, it’s an option, but one that few take. Serbia has a long history of political strife (Yugoslav war in the 90s), and while it’s calmed down now, Serbia (and most of the Balkan countries) are still deep in an economic recession that doesn’t show any signs of letting up. While the refugees could claim asylum in Serbia (as it isn’t a war torn country), most would rather save their chances to claim asylum once in western Europe or be resettled by the UNHCR elsewhere, like North America or even Asia.
- What are conditions like?
Honestly, not that great. The center used to be in a nicer building closer to where the refugees “live,” but the government bulldozed the building earlier this year to make way for a new shopping center, Beograd Waterfront. The nonprofit moved to a smaller, less-organized building and resumed work. Recently, per new government regulations, volunteers are no longer allowed to distribute clothing or food at the center. One other organization (Refugee Aid Serbia, I think) distributes food in a nearby park.
As for the refugees themselves, they are homeless. In good weather, some sleep in parks. Now that it’s winter, they huddle in an abandoned warehouse. Many of them are sick, and many spend all the time they can in the center where there’s electricity and heat. They only have what they brought with them from their home countries or what has been given to them here.
- So what exactly are you doing?
We are filling in wherever needed. Usually that means impromptu English lessons with whoever’s interested. Sometimes we also help in handing out lunches at the park. Because the population is ever-changing, both refugees and volunteers, and Serbian regulations can change suddenly, there’s not a lot of organization. So we’re just being flexible and teaching the English present continuous tense to whomever wants it!