Reflections from Nobel peace laureate Jody Williams on Day 2 of the Opening Borders: #WomenRefugeesWelcome Delegation to The Balkans and Germany.
FOLLOWING THE ROUTE OF REFUGEES THROUGH THE BALKANS PART 2 – CROATIA
We leave the transit center on the Serbian border and drive to Sid (sheed) where we will stay for only a few minutes. We stop there to see the train station where the people on the buses we just saw in Serbia will come to get on the trains that will take them further into Croatia to the transit center, Slavonski Brod.
A train had left not long before we got there and the next wouldn’t arrive for some hours. Six trains a day take the refugees through Croatia and on to Slovenia. Although this is a regular train station, as you can see from the picture below, but the only trains that the refugees can use are the refugee-specific trains and they can only get on them if they have gone through a registration process in Serbia and are carrying the paper indicating that they have registered.
We walk beyond the station to the point where the refugees get off the buses and walk immediately through a gate and get on the train. The buses empty one by one and the people filed onto the train and then the next bus pulls up and empties the people and this goes on until about 1,000 people are on the train.
When we get to the loading point, we see a tent where some of the people are waiting. These are people who’ve been separated from their families and are waiting for them before they get on a train. There is always a lot of anxiety among the families on the move that they will be separated and not be able to find each other again.
We leave Sid and drive about an hour and a half to Slavonski Brod where we are met by the Croatian Minister of the Interior who to many is a hero. He is there every day. Has been for the past few weeks. Since communication between Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia about the refugee flow finally opened up in the past few weeks and there is a relatively smooth flow of people through these countries, as described before, the minister is the face of the Croatian government’s policy toward the refugees.
He stressed over and over was that the Croatian government did not want to see the Paris attacks used to deny protection and safe passage for the refugees.
The minister gave us a bit of an overview of the situation and then together with our delegation, we held a press conference before he took us on a tour of the transit center.
Croatia has streamlined its process for refugees entering and leaving the country.Unlike in all the other countries the refugees pass through where they must pay for anything and everything, once they reach Croatia everything is free. The trains are free, the food and any medical attention they might need is free.
When the trains arrive at the Slavonski Brod transit center, the refugees get off the train and pass through a registration process. Pictures, fingerprints, basic information – things now often required of tourists, for example, entering some countries – is taken from each one and then they go and rest until the trains arrive that will take them on into Slovenia.
For reasons that escape me, I didn’t manage to take many pictures of the large center. But behind the minister in the picture above you can seen the clean, crisp tents. There are separate tents for men, for women and children traveling alone, and for families. There is a medical area. They are all provided with food and clothes and shoes and other items if they need them.
Croatia is preparing ahead for the cold weather that is rapidly descending on the region after an amazingly warm November. Here is a big tent where refugees could stay if they had to stay longer than the hours they pass in Slavonski Brod. They can be heated. The transit center is planned to hold up to 5,000 people, but in a crisis could hold up to three times that number.
I’m not sure if you notice, but the camp beds are on a wooden floor a bit raised above the ground. It is designed to keep everything about wet ground in the case of rain and snow. We think back to the scenes at the Adacevci transit center at the Serbian border and it is like night and day.
We got there just as a train was leaving the center to head on to Slovenia. We saw lots of smiles on the faces of the people on the trains, even if the trains themselves were a bit dismal looking.
Compared to what we saw in Serbia – and what we know about the complete chaos in Greece and horrible experiences in Macedonia – to say nothing about those who risk the route through Bulgaria, Croatia is the “gold standard” of humane treatment of the refugees. At the same time, there are some things that could improve there too.
One of the things that the women’s NGOs we met with in both Serbia and Croatia stressed was that the refugees had a right to information. Especially until they get to Croatia, the vast and overwhelming majority really do not know much at all about what will confront them along the migration route.
They are essentially clueless about asylum possibilities in Serbia, Croatia or Slovenia. Many just want to get to “Germany” or to “Sweden” because these are the countries where they believe they will find safe haven, acceptance and security. Also, some have family members or other relatives who have gone before them and they just want to get to where people they know and trust are already living.
When we asked people at the transit center in Serbia about where they were going, a quite surprising number said that they didn’t know. They were just going. They just wanted to get away from the bombings and violence they have been living with for too many years.
Another issue we believe can and must be rectified is that once the “authorities” have taken over in response to what is now called the “second wave” of refugees, those who began arriving in massive numbers in the past several weeks, the NGOs and individuals who have been the only ones helping since the “first wave,” the refugees that came in September, are not being allowed access to the refugee centers or the refugees themselves.
Many of them were refugees during the wars that ripped apart the former Yugoslavia and they know in the blood and in their bones what it is to be a refugee. The kind of assistance and support they have given to the refugees is not something that can really be replicated by officials.
Especially in Serbia, for example, the refugees need the hands on support from people who know their experience. Keeping them away is a control mechanism to get the refugees through the countries as quickly as possible – even Croatia. “Tolerated but not accepted” is the phrase that keeps running through my mind, over and over and over.
Just as we are about to leave Slavonski Brod to return to Zagreb for the night, a train arrives from Sid. Some of our delegation go over to at least greet the people on the train even if we don’t have the time to stay and talk with them. Shirin comes back from the train smiling. The Iranian Kurds she talked to at Adacevci are on the train and they get to yell hello to each other. She’s happy they’ve made it one more step along the refugee river flowing through the Balkans.
Even in sad and horrible circumstances, I try to find moments of beauty to remind myself that despite it all, the world can be beautiful. I managed photos, most from inside the bus, as a sunset begins over Slavonski Brod that seems to last forever along the road and just gets more magnificent until night falls over Croatia.