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Europe

Winter bites Balkans but refugees keep coming

Despite the cold and snow and rumors that Europe will shut its borders, the influx of migrants along the Balkan route continues. Up to 2,500 people pass through Serbia every day, as Lidija Tomic reports from Adasevci.

The migrant route through the Balkans has become slightly more accessible ever since Croatia and Slovenia introduced new procedures for refugees coming from Serbia. Controls at the border have been reinforced and the transport is organized in a way to prevent overcrowding and other incidents. Only nationals of war-torn Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan - those most likely to be granted asylum - can continue the journey to western Europe. Before they board trains, the Serbian police have to submit to their Croatian colleagues a list with the migrants' names and countries of origin and a signed statement saying what their final destination is in the European Union. The rest, mainly from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Congo, are regarded as economic migrants and are caught in limbo.

After their initial registration in the reception center in Presevo, the refugees are sent to Sid, a small border town about 100 kilometers west of Belgrade, where they are put on a train to Croatia. Wintry weather has caused a surge in respiratory diseases among refugees, particularly to children and the elderly, but they refuse to wait to allow a full recovery. They just take the medicine and continue their journey.

"People are transported from Presevo to Sid by trains, costing 15 euros per person, or by buses which is 35 euros per person. They avoid long stays in camps and are usually in camps for a couple of hours up to a whole day. Upon arrival they are provided with food, warm drinks, clean clothes and medical assistance," Gordana Vukasin from the Asylum Protection Center told DW.

How long they stay in the camp depends on the field situation at that time. Croatian authorities are letting through only trains with up to 800 people with the required papers. Until the quota is filled the train doesn't leave the station.

a family standing outside a center Copyright: Asylum protection center, Presovo

Braving the icy conditions, large numbers of refugees are still pouring along the Balkan route

Last stop to the EU

A refugee center located in an old motel in the village of Adasevci has become a mandatory stop on the Balkan route. Despite its rough condition, this makeshift migrant hub is fully equipped for the needs of its new arrivals. Infirmaries for adults and children are located next to the entrance, as are the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration and NGO offices. What was once a motel restaurant now is a reception hall where the refugees can warm up with a cup of tea and soup, get new clothes and shoes, charge their cell phones and access the Internet for free.

Further on is a children's corner where mothers can change their baby's clothes in comfort and privacy. The room is bright, clean and filled with furniture, coloring books, stuffed animals and wooden toys. Still, the biggest impression is left by the children's drawings displayed on white, freshly painted walls. At second glance these bright and colorful little masterpieces quickly reveal all the horrors of war and the hazardous routes the children have been travelling on.

child's drawing Copyright: Asylum protection center, Presovo

Where there are children, there is hope

Help from the heart

Last Sunday morning the camp was empty. Only a day earlier, 11 buses arrived in Adasevci. The chilly temperatures and snow that covered south Serbia overnight only temporarily stopped the flow. Confused and tired, volunteers from Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Singapore and Serbia were slowly drinking their coffee in a tent set up in front of the center. Among them was Ali Salem, a young Syrian man who came to Serbia to study just a few months before the war started.

"I applied for a scholarship and got into the Faculty of Electrical Engineering in Belgrade. At that time no one expected that war will break out, especially not in my home town - Daraa. I thought that the protests that erupted after I left Syria wouldn't last long. But that was just a spark. Now, I am not sure that will ever stop," Ali told DW.

His parents stayed at home, while his brothers and sisters found refuge in nearby countries. "We are in touch, but I'm worried for their safety. I visited my parents twice in the last five years. Daraa is ruined, but luckily our home is almost untouched," he said.

After passing all his exams, Ali decided to join the Asylum protection center in order to help his compatriots and their fellow travelers. Soon, he will graduate and has plans to go to Germany. "Serbia is a wonderful country, but insufficiently developed in the field of telecommunications. I want to make the most of my knowledge and skills and believe that Germany can offer me a chance to prove it. Until then I will continue to help people in need," he said.

Hope never dies

It was around noon when the first group of migrants from Presevo arrived in Adasevci. Tired from the long trip, they slowly emerged from the bus as volunteers and translators bustled around them explaining the various procedures.

"Have we arrived in Croatia yet,?" asked a young man in a white jacket. His response to the negative answer was only a smile but his disappointment was clearly visible. "I came from Aleppo. A year and a half ago I was living in a camp in Lebanon and working 16 hours a day so I could save the money for the trip to Europe. Although I have finished college, I worked hard labor jobs and was paid only about $200 per month," 25-year-old Omar told DW.

man in a field Copyright: DW/ Lidija Tomic

Omar plans to head to Germany to work and get his family out of Aleppo

From Lebanon he crossed to Izmir in Turkey, where he bought himself a seat in an inflatable boat for $750 and headed to Greece. "The prices are drastically lower during the winter. For the same boat in good weather conditions I would have to pay more than $1,000. When you're alone and far from home everything costs," he said.

Omar, together with all the other passengers, slept for two days in an improvised cabin and waited for the sea to calm down. "The boat was full. Also the cold water splashed in from all the sides. I knew it would be hard. We were a step closer to our goal soaking wet and very cold, but happy and alive."

In Athens he got on a train, and, after crossing Macedonia, arrived in Serbia. There, new obstacles waited for him. From the border crossing to the reception center in Presevo he walked in wet clothes through the mud and in the dark. "The temperature dropped that night to minus 10 degrees. I felt very ill but I had no time to seek medical help. As soon as I arrived I registered and got on the first bus to Croatia. I don't know where I am currently and I feel exhausted but I'm not giving up," Omar said.

"I'm not thinking about returning and I don't believe that Europe will close its borders. I will enroll in master studies in Germany, study hard and save money until I have enough to get my parents and younger brother out of Aleppo."

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