Treating refugees: How NGOs are supporting refugees in Serbia

Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan have already passed through Serbia as they continue on their trek to EU countries such as Germany, Austria and Norway. Despite the fact that weather conditions are rapidly deteriorating, the numbers are not decreasing. We spoke to Bojana Trivuncic, a psychologist and project manager at the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims’ (IRCT) Serbian member centre International Aid Network (IAN), which has been providing medical first aid and psychosocial support to refugees through a Mobile Team Unit in parks and shelters in Belgrade and at the Croatian border.

“I have an image in my head of a 16-year-old Afghan boy, who is travelling alone. He was beaten by ISIS on the border of Iran and Pakistan. He has just 26 euro and a ruined pair of shoes. I keep thinking about that boy. How is he going to pass through two or three more countries without money?”

Bojana has many similar stories that have stayed with her. She has been working as a psychologist with IAN’s Mobile Team Unit, along with a medical doctor, nurse and field manager since July, dealing with some of the many refugees that pass through Serbia in less than 24 hours.

Refugees in Belgrade (Courtesy of International Aid Network)

Refugees in Principovac (Courtesy of International Aid Network)

As there are now just a small number of refugees in Belgrade, the Mobile Team Unit makes the four-hour round trip to the border each day.

“At the moment we are working with refugees at the Berkasovo-Babska border crossing. At the beginning we worked in a park in Belgrade, which was the biggest informal gathering place of refugees, and in Principovac, a refugee shelter near the Croatian border.”

While many organisations provide medical and legal aid to refugees, IAN is the only one providing psychological support. Bojana explains that the time the unit spends with each person depends on whether the border is open or not.

“If the border is open they are in the hurry to cross it. Refugees don’t have time to talk. But if they are waiting for the border to open or are settled in a shelter, the situation is completely different. They have a great need to share their story and are very thankful for understanding and sympathy.”

More than 218,000 migrants and refugees crossed the Mediterranean to Europe in October, according to the UNHCR. This almost equalled the number of crossings for all of 2014. Many of the refugees passing through Serbia have taken a boat from Turkey to Greece and travelled through Macedonia.

“They have to pay 1,200 euro per person to get on the boat. Very often the boats are overcrowded and sink, and sometimes they are in the sea for hours before they are rescued. Many smugglers throw their belongings in the sea, because the boat is too heavy. Some of them told me, ‘You look death in the eyes’, says Bojana.

The most common alternative path for refugees is through Bulgaria, especially for those fleeing Afghanistan. This has proven to be a dangerous route as many of the people Bojana has spoken to allege they have been put in prison for crossing the border illegally and the police have beaten them and stolen their money and phones. Unsurprisingly, many also allege they are victims of torture.

Refugees awaiting registration in Presevo, Serbia (Courtesy of Johannes Grunert used via Flickr creative commons license)

Refugees awaiting registration in Presevo, Serbia (Courtesy of Johannes Grunert used via Flickr creative commons license)

“Some of them were tortured in the country of origin and during their transit in Iran and Bulgaria. In Syria for example, many refugees were tortured in some kind of prison by members of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The methods are brutal. Many of them told me that they were tortured with electro shocks. In Afghanistan, many refugees were tortured by ISIS or the Taliban,” explains Bojana.

It is clear that these refugees need rehabilitation services, but for the time being their focus is on getting to safety and on starting a new life, particularly as winter starts to close in.
“They are helpless, looking for a better life, frightened that they are going to be returned (Afghans) or that Germany is going to close the border. They have only one wish, to continue with their journey and to reach an EU country,” says Bojana.

“When basic needs are not satisfied, like food, clothes and shelter, a person cannot deal with emotions or trauma. For me it is ok to be there for them, to help them with their basic needs, and of course to be there for them if they want to talk, to share their problems and traumatic experiences, and to calm them if they are fearful.”

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