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Refugees wait for hours in the cold and rain for the border to open. People in Need began providing support for Czech volunteers helping the refugees in Serbia

Foto: Alžběta Stropnická / PIN

Berkasovo/Bapska (October 22, 2015) – Thousands of refugees stand in a muddy field, temperatures at night fall close to zero Celsius, women press small children to their chests. In the rain, cold and wind, they wait for hours for the Croatian border to be opened, so they can move another step farther on their flight across Europe. Syrians, Afghanis, Iraqis and others are often escaping war and persecution. They have weeks of traveling behind them and a perilous voyage across the Mediterranean sea. Their way is now blocked by the inability of European countries to agree on a common strategy – the slow intake of refugees in Slovenia causes Croatia to also allow fewer people in, and often to block their entrance altogether.

This is clearly visible at the Berkasovo/Bapska border crossing between Serbia and Croatia. The situation became critical on Sunday and Monday when three thousand people were waiting on the Serbian side of the border in the rain and had nowhere to hide. “People stood here in the mud and rain for twelve, fourteen hours, children were sleeping on wooden pallets covered only with plastic sheets or blankets. At the same time, Serbian buses kept bringing more people,” the coordinator of humanitarian aid from People in Need, Jan Pejřil, describes the situation.

Refugee aid on Serbian-Croatian border, 19.- 21.10. 2015

The situation has not improved much since then. “There are still 1,000 to 1,500 people here who are waiting at the check point with Croatia. Most people usually have no idea where they are and why they cannot keep going. They often do not have warm clothing or shoes. Families get separated in the crowd. At least it stopped raining now,” says Jan Pejřil. “What’s more, people sometimes collapse. We had to carry a person out on a bedframe. Last night we were helping a little girl who lost her parents and was wandering around the field, or a group of people who were helping a blind young woman,” he adds with the acknowledgement that with winter approaching things will get even worse.

It would be impossible without Czech volunteers

Although Serbian authorities are monitoring the situation, aid is provided only by Czech volunteers, who have been helping here for a number of weeks, offering the refugees tea, food, warm clothing, collecting the trash. They have also brought tents and lighting. Before the current slowdown in the intake of refugees, they also managed a system of stations that prevented large crowds of people rushing to the border at once, and so pre-empting possible conflicts with the police guarding the border.

Photos made by volunteers in Bapske, October 2015

“As volunteers we had a handle on the situation while this was a border crossing, which people passed through and did not linger. Now it is more like a refugee camp – last night 700 people slept here. We cannot secure their health or safety in these conditions. Crowds form, it is dangerous for small children and the elderly,” says the volunteer coordinator Jan Skalík. “We ask humanitarian organizations and state authorities to increase their presence. We welcome the Serbians pitching in. So far, they promised us the possibility to put up tents for mothers with children and are helping us with the cleaning up,” he adds.

According to Skalík, there are currently 42 volunteers, mostly from the Czech Republic. Their efforts mainly focus on keeping people warm and calm. At night, they pass out tea, clothing and shoes, they try to talk to the refugees and keep them calm them.

“Czech volunteers are doing a great amount of work. They are among the very few people providing aid here 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Most of the NGOs leave for the night. And it is at night that the greatest number of refugees arrive,” says Jan Pejřil from People in Need, which began to provide support for the volunteers on the ground. People in Need started working at the border crossing in the beginning of October. They bought a generator, phones and rented a house where the volunteers can sleep. “We have also set up a system of communication between the local government offices, the volunteers and the NGOs,” adds Pejřil.

People in Need also help with smaller issues, like water barrels, fuel for the generators, plastic cups for tea, lights or fixing the generators. “In the upcoming days we want to start providing the volunteers with financial support for operational costs, also to get more tea, plastic cups and sugar, or benches for the walk-through tents,” says Jan Pejřil.

One solution would be heated tents for the most vulnerable

Despite all the work, the situation for the refugees is still quite strenuous. “While they wait, people need, above all, heated tents with lighting and a sanitation system. It would help to organize a camp where people could find shelter. So far there are toilets that were put up by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR),” says Jan Pejřil adding that he is trying to rent out a plot from the local farmers, where the wash basins, tents for the most vulnerable or a contact point for separated families could be set up.

People in Need have been helping refugees in Serbia and Macedonia since September. Through local partners, they provide the refugees with food and sanitary packages, but most of all they provide legal and psychological help and basic information. “Only in Serbia, our partners have provided help already to three thousand people. In eight cases, for example, they helped a minor find their family. In Macedonia, our partner organization is focused on counselling, while starting in October, People in Need began taking care of the garbage clean up around the refugee camp near Gevgelija. We plan to start delivering blankets or portable stoves,” says the People in Need coordinator in Serbia and Macedonia, Emanuela Macková. People in Need have released 3 million crowns for immediate aid to refugees in the Balkans from the humanitarian fund of the Club of Friend of People in Need.

The situation remains grave. Only in the first twenty days of October, more than 100,000 refugees entered Serbia, according to local authorities. Women and children comprise a third of these people. “With winter approaching, the situation will get worse. In places like Berkasovo/Bapska the spread of respiratory disease is very likely. Which is why it is highly important to provide humanitarian aid, secure heated tents, medical help, access to sanitation, drinking water and food for the whole of the route,” says Emanuela Macková.

Aid provided by People in Need in the Balkans

People in Need have been active in the Balkans since the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo in the 1990’s.  In Kosovo, they currently focus on cooperation with organizations helping blind and deaf people, as well as promoting rights of people with mental disorders and supporting inclusive education for children from minorities. In Serbia, People in Need focus on providing services to people with mental disorders. It advocates the provision of special protected housing for clients of institutions for the mentally handicapped in the town of Veliki Popovac. In Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Serbia they also helped during the floods that hit both of the countries in May 2014.

For more information, please contact:

Emanuela Macková, refugees aid coordinator for PIN in Macedonia and Serbia, +420 778 489 537 Emanuela.Mackova@clovekvtisni.cz

Jan Pejřil, humanitarian aid coordinator for PIN on the Serbian-Croatian border, +381649395957 Jan.Pejril@clovekvtisni.cz

Marie Heřmanová, press officer and corrdinator of Czech volunteers (Prague), +420 603 206 655

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