Refugee camps remain substandard in Serbia | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 26.10.2015
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Refugee camps remain substandard in Serbia

Across the Balkans, the number of refugees continues to rise and efforts to register new arrivals have created long queues in understaffed and underfunded areas such as Presevo, Serbia from where Diego Cupolo reports.

For Zmarai Muradi, an Afghan refugee from Kunduz, the hardest part of his month-long voyage to Europe was not the 15-day trek through Iranian deserts nor being sprayed by water cannons while crossing the sea to Lesbos.

"The Turkish police boat only stopped spraying us when we held up our babies," he said.

Muradi and his family suffered most when they arrived in Presevo, Serbia and had to wait half a day in cold rain to be registered at the local UN refugee camp. "It was the worst experience of my life," Muradi told DW. "My daughter is 20-months old and she was getting a cough, she was getting really ill, and my wife was sitting on the wet ground with nothing more than a blanket to stop the rain."

Approximately 8,600 to 10,000 people crossed the Serbia-Macedonia border each day between Friday and Sunday this past weekend. At the same time, the Presevo camp has just 12 toilets and limited heating capabilities, according to Stefan Cordez, the Southern Serbia Field Coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

A queue of people Copyright: Diego Cupolo

Thousands of refugees could be left stranded in places that are unable to deal with them

Domino effect

"We have the feeling that borders may soon close in different places and this will have a domino effect throughout the Balkans," Cordez told DW. "This means the refugees will get stuck in places that require many more resources, including heating, to avoid serious problems in the coming months."

One death was reported in Presevo last week after a Syrian woman suffered a heart attack near the camp. An unaffiliated Swiss volunteer found the body in a shower and contacted authorities, frustrating other volunteers in Presevo who have become fed up with the lack of institutional support in the area.

"People come here and ask us why the reception process is so well organized in Macedonia and such a mess here," said Daniela Gabriel, an independent volunteer working outside the camp. "There has to be someone who takes over coordination and organization, but we don't know why that's not happening here."

'Crappy shelters'

Gabriel said the informal groups of volunteers, mainly a mix of local Albanian-Serbs and university students from Western Europe, have been providing crucial aid at the camp, but lack accurate information sources and training to manage a crisis of such scale.

"It should not be our task to find crappy shelters in abandoned houses to keep people alive and out of the rain," Gabriel told DW. "We should be giving out tea and extra blankets. We should be acting as support to an established aid system, but instead we are dealing with medical and organizational crises on an hourly basis."

As she finished her sentence, a colleague interrupted Gabriel to tell her a Syrian teenager had torn some ligaments in her knee while getting off a bus. Gabriel scrambled to find her phone and ran off to get a wheel chair for the injured girl.

Clothes donations and funding to cover food costs have also been persistent issues in Presevo. A pair of German groups have used online crowdfunding to purchase food supplies in recent weeks, but the funding dried up after both teams departed and a sustainable financing system has yet to take root.

"Still, so far, it has always worked out somehow," said Alexander Travelle, an Australian volunteer. "Many locals are Albanians and have empathy for refugees because they were refugees not so long ago."

Where's the aid?

Throughout the weekend, groups of local Albanians arrived unannounced in vans filled with bread, peanut butter, marmalade, yogurt and water to be distributed to people waiting in the registration line.

people alongside a fence Copyright: Diego Cupolo

Little to no aid awaits these refugees

Travelle said focusing distribution on the queue was essential because refugees without medical emergencies did not receive aid from NGOs before entering the camp, and the wait often took between six to 12 hours.

After refugees received their Serbian registration papers, they were allowed to travel within the country. Bus shuttles from the camp to the Croatian border charged refugees 35 euros ($38) per person, but some refugees did not have cash on hand and were left to find alternative solutions.

Results varied, but two Moroccan males tried to resolve their financial problems by selling their boots at the camp entrance. They were able to get 15 euros each. Other refugees negotiated with local taxis, despite claims that some drivers rob refugees at gunpoint once they get outside Presevo.

'I can't go back'

Having left Kunduz just 10 days before the Taliban reclaimed the city, Muradi was one of the many refugees stuck in Presevo without money for a bus ticket. In the meantime, he volunteered as a translator in the camp.

While serving hot tea in the "Chai Tent," Muradi said he used to be a bank clerk and was working toward a Bachelor of Business Administration. Now he hopes to finish his studies in Sweden or Norway while raising his daughter in a safe place. When asked if he will go back to Afghanistan he said, "Never."

"I can't go back to Afghanistan," Muradi said. "I don't think the wars there will stop for 100 more years … I will miss my father, but he would've died in one week if he tried to make this voyage."