A Syrian family walks towards the gate to cross between Serbia and Hungary. (Photo by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The refugee crisis, from Serbia to Wellington and back again

Sandra Ivanov and her family left Serbia in the 1990s to escape the wars that tore the region apart. She ended up in New Zealand, and this year went back to Serbia to volunteer to help the continuing wave of refugees passing through her birthplace. Here is her account of the continuing crisis. 

Thousands of refugees continue to arrive on boats to Greece, Italy and other nations across Europe. The flow of migration has not slowed down, but is increasing at a rapid rate. From February to June 2018, I was on the receiving end of the flow, helping out in refugee transit centres across the land-locked Balkan country of Serbia – now dubbed as the “dumping ground” for refugees. 

The so-called “Balkan Route” – which typically takes a refugee from Greece to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia or Bulgaria, to Serbia in the hopes of continuing through the European Union nations of Hungary or Croatia – is no longer open for business.

The Serbian border has become difficult to cross. Hungarian authorities stopped the admission of refugees from Serbia into their so-called ‘transit zones’ even though many remain on waiting lists as tensions and frustrations run high. Croatian authorities continue to force refugees outside of their borders. Alleged violence, harassment and robbery have been reported by refugees on both of these borders.

At any given time, there are around 4000 refugees moving through Serbia. Reports from UNHCR monitor that between 500 – 1000 refugees arrive in Serbia every two weeks. I was working in the largest refugee transit centre in Serbia, situated just outside the capital, Belgrade. Together with a team of volunteers, I was preparing, cooking, and serving lunch for between 500 – 800 single men living there. The drastic change in population numbers was noticeable. Every day I would be greeted by new faces, and sometimes after our lunch shift was over, a group of new arrivals would be registered, and we would stay behind a little longer to make sure they were fed with what leftovers we had. Today, the numbers at the transit centre continue to rise, reaching nearly full capacity, forcing authorities to move people to other centres around Serbia.

I was originally born in Serbia, back when it was called Yugoslavia, and immigrated to New Zealand in 1995 with my parents because of the war that tore up the nation. My parents sacrificed their careers and lives to find a peaceful and safe place where I could grow up and thrive with unlimited opportunities. It’s hard for anyone in New Zealand to imagine the conditions people live through during times of conflict – my father lost his job, and the company my mother worked for could not pay her wages in cash. Instead her salary would sometimes be a pair of shoes and two dozen eggs. Food was rationed out, my mother recalls waiting for hours knee-deep in snow to receive a litre of milk. It was the survival of the fittest.  

In 2015, I decided to escape the New Zealand winter to visit my family in Serbia. Standing at the main bus station in Belgrade, I was surrounded by people running across the street in mass waves, pushing through to get on the next bus to the Hungarian border. The park across the station was filled with tents and makeshift shelters, plugs piled with phone chargers – people desperate to keep in contact with family members or friends who made it across the border. I was standing in the middle of the ‘European refugee crisis’. For weeks afterwards I couldn’t sleep properly. The faces I saw, and scenes I witnessed constantly replayed in my mind.

Later that year, I was chosen to be part of a New Zealand delegation at an international youth summit specifically designed to address the issue of people profiting from migration. At the end of the summit, we, the young leaders from over 50 nations, presented our ideas and solutions to decision-makers. I had high hopes that governments would take the issue as seriously as we did over the course of the summit.

I had hoped that in these three years governments would react, and systems would change to enable people a safe passage to seek asylum. I had hoped that there would be no need for me to go and provide assistance. But help was needed, and it is still needed. I decided to leave my comfortable lifestyle in Wellington, and a promising career as a public servant in the government to do my part.

I found myself in a town called Obrenovac, 40km away from Belgrade. In Obrenovac, a single-male transit centre houses most of the refugees in the country, people mainly coming from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria. Working in this location was personally meaningful for me, because my grandparents were refugees from Sarajevo in Bosnia, who sought refuge with my parents in Serbia when the city became under siege in the early 1990s. My father would drive them to a reception centre in Obrenovac, very close to the transit centre I was working at, to pick-up their aid packages from the United Nations and the Red Cross. These would feed my whole family.

As a volunteer, my main responsibility was coordinating the distribution of hygiene and sanitation aid packages to transit centres where families were accommodated, easing the stress of parents providing basic needs to their children. It was an emotional experience travelling from place to place, assuming the role of a person who over twenty years ago would have handed over boxes to my family in their time of need. Ironically, we used those aid boxes to pack up our lives in Serbia and move to New Zealand – those boxes still remain in our garage in Wellington.

Currently, New Zealand is considering stalling an election campaign promise to raise the refugee quota and accept 750 more people. At the same time, the Balkans region is being overloaded with refugees, in countries still classed as ‘developing’. They are not equipped to deal with the flow of refugees or the fact that they are now essentially stuck because of surrounding border closures. Profiteers and people-smugglers have opened a new route from Serbia to Bosnia and Herzegovina, promising refugees the chance to cross into Croatia and continue their journey to Western Europe – a lucrative business for people across Europe.

One refugee in Serbia told me that it would cost him close to $10,000 NZD to be transported from Serbia to Italy – a journey not guaranteed to be successful, and would require him to walk through treacherous forests in order to meet the different smugglers along the borderlines. It was hard to believe that three years ago I was in a conference hall talking about how to stop people-smugglers, now I was talking to the people directly using their services.

The domestic situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is complicated, and the added strain from the flow of refugees has increased ethnic tensions within the country. Refugees are living in tents, makeshift shelters, even old dormitories and buildings that were shelled and bombed during the war. The current number of refugees registered in Bosnia is well over 7000, in comparison to the total number of refugees passing through Bosnia in 2017 which was under 1000. Even though the war in Bosnia ended over twenty years ago, the political situation is still not stable, and being able to respond to the refugee crisis as well as their own domestic issues becomes a difficult task.

I was in Sarajevo in May when the Bosnian government moved refugees from a public park to the first transit centre in the country. Not everyone could be transported, and people were left behind with no alternative plans for accommodation. A few refugees recognised me from the transit centre in Serbia and commented that their experience in Serbia was the best by far, with adequate resources being provided, and the authorities treating them with respect. They were disappointed as they expected the same kind of support to be provided in Bosnia. However, Serbia is reliant on funding from other European nations, inter-governmental, and non-governmental organisations to keep transit and reception centres open, to provide educational opportunities, medical support, legal assistance, and other basic needs for refugees. Bosnia and Herzegovina at this stage does not have the same assistance set-up which is causing pressure on locals and non-government organisations to provide for the mass amount of people entering the country.

Amidst the political chaos, the refugees I have been lucky enough to serve are regular people like you and me – with backgrounds in mechanical engineering, medicine, business management. They have been dealt a difficult set of cards, and they have risked their lives over perilous seas and border crossings to get to where they are now. The children I have encountered have endured so much hardship with their parents, but they still remain strong. It is deeply inspiring.

You hear some horrific stories, families losing loved ones, individuals facing threats from terrorist groups. Some even talk about returning home because of the brutality they have faced at different borders and the hopelessness they feel at a system which keeps rejecting them. They can be stuck in the Balkans for years, some people I know have tried to cross the borders over 50 times, coming back battered and bruised with multiple injuries from authorities – yet they still keep trying. 

We must keep reminding ourselves that the people that are fleeing all have a story to tell. Their homes became dangerous places to live in. Their basic human right of security was violated. Leaving their families and risking their lives was a last resort. They are proud of who they are and wish they did not have to leave.

It is time for countries to be held accountable and ensure refugees can have the opportunity to seek their right to asylum and enter the legal process. When countries tighten borders, delay or deny entry, individuals and families are in danger, and the business of people-smuggling and exploitation flourishes. Every day counts, and countries like New Zealand with the ability to welcome and resettle refugees must act in order to ensure that justice and fundamental human rights are delivered to those most in need.

I met one Afghani man in the transit centre, a quiet but hard-working man who enjoyed building furniture and decorations for one of the communal spaces. One day he left, and I was told two weeks later that he managed to walk all the way from Serbia to Austria to be reunited with his son. As long as the human spirit and determination remains strong, people will continue crossing borders, no matter what the price, to find peace and a chance for a new beginning.


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