Reflections from Nobel Women’s Initiative’s Manager of Policy & Advocacy, Diana Sarosi on the Opening Borders: #WomenRefugeesWelcome Delegation to The Balkans and Germany.
I spent the last three days traveling along with thousands of refugees from war torn countries looking for safety and security in Western Europe. Starting in Belgrade, Serbia we moved to Croatia and then Slovenia. Anywhere between 250,000 to 350,000 refugees have passed through these countries within the last few weeks. Official numbers quoted to us by authorities were varying from country to country by several tens of thousands, which clearly points to a lack of coordination and cooperation among the Balkan countries. However, these three countries have managed to come up with a system in the last month that moves 3000-7000 refugees a day through that region within a few days.
The system is far from perfect, but it is obvious that they are trying and are continuously improving their response—even taking gender specific needs into consideration. Yes, the numbers are overwhelming and there is no doubt that this emergency provides a logistical, personnel, and financial challenge. Considering the response from some of their neighbouring countries, such as Bulgaria and Hungary, this is commendable.
When Hungary was presented with this response, the government decided to respond by putting up a fence along its border, criminalizing refugees for entry with jail terms or deportation (which is in violation of international law), and spiking up xenophobic rhetoric to justify their inhumane response. Conditions in Bulgaria have been so horrific that international human rights organizations have published a report and condemned Bulgarian authorities’ attacks against refugees. Refugees have been chased down by dogs, detained, severely beaten, robbed of everything including their cellphones which they need for navigation, money and even clothes. We have also heard reports of extreme sexual violence. Both Hungary and Bulgaria do not see the refugees as humans.
The Balkan countries have shown a much more humane response. Instead of shutting down under the challenge, they have risen to it. They have set up a transportation belt that takes the refugees from the Macedonian/Serbian border all the way to the Austria/Slovenia border. Along the way, they receive humanitarian and medical aid all provided by volunteer organizations coming from all across Europe. As long as they keep moving everyone is happy.
Of course, there is much room for improvement, particularly when it comes to keeping women and children safe and refugees informed of what is happening at each stop. But overall the system works. Refugees hardly spend more than a few hours at each stop, transportation is provided (although in Serbia refugees pay exorbitant prices), and they have food and shelter. Croatia is the only country that has set up a winterized reception centre that can hold 5,000-15,000 people.
The system works, but only as long as nothing changes and borders stay open. The Balkan countries see themselves as transit countries only. This is not a system that has been developed with long-term intentions. It’s a system that provides an emergency response for right here, right now. Should any border close things will get ugly.
While we can focus on improving this system, and gladly some organizations are doing so, we cannot loose sight of the cause of this crisis and the need to address that cause holistically.
The refugees are coming from countries that have been destroyed by military might. The war in Syria is a catastrophic humanitarian crisis due to constant aerial bombardments. Refugees coming from other countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan are still suffering the consequences of bombardments and the ongoing violence. The bombings in Syria have destroyed the country’s infrastructure. Over 80% live without water and electricity. Civilians are targeted in these bombings, including medical facilities and personnel. No one is left to attend to their wounds.
The refugee crisis is a symptom of our leaders’ blind belief that military might will resolve political crises. Instead of focusing our attention on political solutions, we continue to stick to a military strategy that has proven disastrous over and over again. It makes me wonder, why do we not learn from history? There are so many examples to cite in the last 100 years. Clearly, we can do better than this.
So what can be done? The top priority is to end the aerial bombardments. We heard over and over again from refugees that that is the main reason they are leaving (a close second was avoiding conscription into military, militia and terrorist groups). Secondly, the entire region is in need of reconstruction. The Marshall plan rebuilt Europe after World War 2. A similar plan has the same potential to lift this region out of poverty and destitute. But most importantly, we must make the protection of civilians a top priority. And in the meantime, refugees must be provided with safe passage to Europe. Risking their lives on dinghies across the Mediterranean, which provides smugglers with a daily income of $9 million, is unacceptable. We need courageous and visionary leadership that puts on end to this crisis once and for all. As one wise woman noted today: this is not a refugee crisis, this is a governance crisis. And that can surely be resolved.
Check out our map showing the greatest risks to refugee women and children.