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Is Balkan Sympathy For Refugees A Thing Of The Past?

  • Gordana Knezevic

An area near abandoned staircases at the Belgrade bus station was home for several months to more than 1,000 refugees and migrants, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, this winter.

Around 8,000 refugees, most of them from the Middle East, remain stuck in Serbia long after the European Union closed its eastern border to newcomers in an attempt to close off migrants' so-called Balkan route to Western Europe. And while their hardship does not appear to have diminished, the major reduction in migrant numbers from two years ago and our short attention spans have led to fewer headlines on the topic these days.

But Doctors Without Borders has registered more than 70 migrant deaths on the Balkan route between Greece and Hungary in the past year. Most died of hypothermia or as a result of drowning, road accidents, or suicide.

And after initially winning international praise for its reception and treatment of migrants, it looks like sympathy and respect for refugees is running low in Serbia.

Just two years ago, grassroots groups were providing meals and clothing for migrants who were escaping conflict or poverty. Some Belgrade residents even opened their homes to refugees during the harsh winter of 2015. Many Serbs were proud that their country -- still outside the European Union -- arguably had a record of caring for refugees and migrants that was at least as favorable as that of EU neighbors Hungary or Bulgaria.

Yet Serbia and Macedonia are prominent among the countries criticized for violations of humanitarian law in a recent Oxfam report based on aid workers' interviews with refugees. The report is based on data collected by the Belgrade Center for Human Rights and the Macedonian Young Lawyers Association, supported by Oxfam. It catalogues a long list of incidents of abuse of refugees and migrants (including children) by police in Serbia, Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Macedonia.

Migrants wait to receive free food near the Serbian-Hungarian border outside the town of Subotica last month.
Migrants wait to receive free food near the Serbian-Hungarian border outside the town of Subotica last month.

RFE/RL's Balkan Service in Belgrade reports that some Serbian (and Croatian) bus companies are refusing to transport migrants or refugees even when they have valid tickets and documents provided by Serbian authorities.

Employees of a Belgrade refugee center called Info Park say that despite valid tickets and assurances from ticket sellers, there is no guarantee that refugees will be taken to their destination.

"It has often happened to us that when refugees are assigned to the Presevo camp, we have no way of getting them there because the bus company...has refused to take them on board," says Info Park's Branislava Djonin, who routinely helps migrants buy their bus tickets and find their way to their assigned camps. (On the day she spoke to RFE/RL, she was accompanying three young Afghan men who had registered with Serbian police and been given a 72-hour deadline to appear at a refugee reception center in Presevo.)

"We would buy the tickets for them and someone from the [refugee] commission would accompany them to the station, carrying a certificate of their good health, but they would not be allowed on the bus," Djonin says.

RFE/RL's Balkan Service reports that the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) is aware of such discrimination not only by bus companies but by railway service providers as well.

These don't appear to be isolated instances. At the height of the refugee crisis, an RFE/RL correspondent on his way to Subotica, in the northern Vojvodina region on the border with Hungary, witnessed a bus driver directing refugees to the back of the bus, even though the tickets were for assigned seats.

"Unfortunately that is a reflection of our society: ignorance and the lack of a desire to understand other people and other cultures," Djonin says. "I think we all have to fight against prejudice together, and to help change the image of people [refugees] who are no different from us."

The camp in Presevo has seen the foundation of the first school for refugee children in the region.
The camp in Presevo has seen the foundation of the first school for refugee children in the region.

Meanwhile, on a more positive note, the first school for child refugees in the Balkan region has opened its doors at the Presevo refugee camp. Some 220 7-to-15-year-olds from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Kurdish region are currently being taught there, attending classes in the Serbian and English languages, as well as math, geography, art, and physical education.

The school's stated goal is to ensure that the children of adult asylum seekers are more easily integrated into Serbian society and the country's education system.

So despite the lack of headlines, the ongoing refugee crisis remains a stern test of the ability of Balkan societies -- a source even in very recent memory of their own war refugees -- to feel the pain of others.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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