A group of young Afghan men catch a train from Dimitrovgrad, Serbia, to Belgrade, where they will catch another train to Croatia.
By Julien Anseau, ChildFund Global Communications Manager
Julien Anseau has worked with ChildFund in Asia and specializes in emergency communications. In January and early February, he joined our assessment team as they traveled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia to take stock of needs among Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants, particularly children. In Julien’s final report, he continues the journey from Macedonia to Serbia.
Since the events described here, Macedonia and other European countries have limited the number of migrants allowed through their borders. This has caused a major bottleneck in Greece and occasional violence at border towns.
At least four trains arrive daily in Tabanovce, a Macedonian refugee camp near the Serbian border. But when we arrive, it’s deserted. The place feels eerie and empty, showing the transient nature of migrant camps.
Most migrants coming through here arrived from Greece, their landing point in Europe; they pass through Macedonia to Serbia and then, if they’re fortunate, on to Germany and other western European countries. Others take a route through northwestern Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia. Both roads are well known to smugglers, who often make the journeys possible — at a steep cost.
But also present along the migrants’ trail are ChildFund, our partner Terre Des Hommes-Lausanne, and other non-governmental organizations, which are trying to keep children safe on their journey.
“We focus on the special needs of children,” says Marija, a social worker with La Strada International, a group of organizations focused on human trafficking in Eastern Europe. Its member group in Macedonia staffs children’s centers at refugee camps in Tabanovce and Gevgelija.
“They come here to play, draw, sing and take part in games,” she says, “so that, for a while at least, they can forget the situation back home and the stressful journey ahead. It’s great to see smiles on the faces of children. It is important to allow children to express their fears and concerns; many are traumatized by war. For younger children, we provide diapers, milk, formula and blankets, as well as a warm place for mothers to rest and breastfeed in privacy. We also give information to mothers about preventing separation from their children along the journey. We ensure children know the full names of their parents and have copies of their parents’ identity papers.”
Often, Marija offers a listening ear: “We listen and support parents as they express the hardships they have faced along the way, the uncertainty of not knowing what to expect next, the fear that they will get stuck at a transit center, and anxiety of not knowing if and how they will keep going to reach their destination. Children’s stress often mirrors their parents’ stress.”
Along the Turkey-Bulgaria-Serbia route, we see migrants in Dimitrovgrad, a town in southeast Serbia near the Bulgarian border. They’ve walked through forests, over hills and across fields under cover of darkness to reach this point. Many migrants are men, but it’s not uncommon for women and children to travel this route, too.
Today, temperatures have plummeted, and it is snowing. I speak to a young man from Afghanistan who doesn’t want to be named. He is shivering, his pants are ripped, and his shoes are broken down. I ask why he has no belongings.
“My bags were stolen in Bulgaria,” he says. “A group of men took my bags, money and phone, and they beat me. Still, it’s better than braving the sea.” As of March 8, 444 people have died in the Mediterranean Sea in 2016, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The young man looks exhausted, but he continues: “I’m happy. I’m a free man now. I have a cousin in Germany. I don’t know which city he lives in, but I’ll call him once I arrive. I want to find work and settle.”
Later, we see 38 more migrants, including 14 children, arrive at Dimitrovgrad’s police station to get their papers stamped. We walk through barn-like doors to a large, open room with bunk beds covered by blankets.
There’s also a yard, just beyond the station. Clusters of girls and boys engage neighborhood dogs in play. Despite the harsh conditions they have faced, the children appear happy for a moment — a testament to their resilience.