Late last year – as hundreds of thousands of refugees were passing through Serbia on their way to Western Europe – we spoke to Bojana Trivuncic, a psychologist and project manager at local rehabilitation centre International Aid Network (IAN), about helping refugees arriving in the country. At the time of the interview, IAN was the only organisation providing psychological support to refugees transiting the country. Now, 10 months on, we have caught up with Bojana to find out if the situation has changed and if IAN is still reaching out to refugees through its mobile team unit.
WWT: When we last spoke, your centre was providing medical first aid and psychological support to refugees in parks and shelters. Are you still doing this?
BT: Yes, we still provide these services in the parks near the bus station in Belgrade. Unfortunately, we have fewer resources now than last year. Since April this year we’ve only received emergency funds from the UNVFVT [United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture], allowing us to only work once a week.
WTT: We are so sorry to hear that. Are you still using the mobile unit despite lack of funding?
BT: Yes, the weekly visits are through our mobile team. The team consists of a medical doctor, a nurse and a psychologist. The nurse also acts as an interpreter because she speaks fluent Arabic. Sometimes we also have a Dari interpreter, but we don’t have enough funds to finance two interpreters for every visit.
WWT: It sounds like the lack of funding really has affected your work with refugees.
BT: Yes it has. We aren’t travelling to the north where we used to work due to lack of funds, but there is still a great need for our services in the parks in Belgrade.
WWT: The issue of refugees traveling through Europe is no longer front page news. Now the focus is on those who have made it to countries like Germany etc. What is the situation like for refugees in Serbia?
BT: The closure of the borders didn’t stop the refugees’ transit through Serbia towards the EU countries. However, their journey has become more difficult and uncertain, given that most of them decided to reach their destination with the help of people smugglers. I don’t know the exact number of refugees who are currently in Serbia, but approximately more than 2000 refugees or migrants are here, mostly waiting to go to Western Europe. Many of them pay smugglers to illegally cross the Hungarian border, but many of them have been ‘pushed back’ to Serbia from Hungary. In June, the number of refugees allowed to start the asylum procedure in Hungary was reduced to 15 per day at each border crossing. This means that many refugees are trying to enter the EU illegally with the ‘help’ of smugglers.
WWT: Where are the refugees coming from and do they talk about why they are fleeing their countries?
BT: In the parks, the majority are from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Morocco, etc. They are fleeing armed conflicts, terrorist attacks or looking for a better life. There are also refugees from Syria and Iraq fleeing war.
WWT: Have any of them been tortured or ill-treated?
BT: There are torture victims who have been tortured in the country of origin, but many of them have also been tortured in transit countries such as Bulgaria and in Hungary. Some of them, when illegally crossing the border to Hungary, have been beaten and returned to Serbia.
WWT: What kind of physical and mental condition are they in?
BT: Their health problems are acute mostly. During the warm weather, they had stomach problems such as diarrhoea. They also suffer from skin infections, pain in their legs and body, allergies, insect bites, etc. When we talk about mental problems, they usually focus on their last experience, which is often something bad, like a bad experience with smugglers or authorities in transit countries. They want to share with us their thoughts, feelings and their stories.
WWT: I can only imagine that they must feel incredible frustrated. Are they still hopeful of a better life?
BT: Well, they are frustrated because they can’t cross the border legally and only a small number of people per day is allowed to start the asylum procedure in Hungary. One month ago a group of 100 refugees demonstrated and walked from Belgrade to the north of Serbia, close to the border to demonstrate and show their frustration with the fact that they cannot cross the border to Hungary.
WWT: You no longer travel to the border, but are you able to tell us what the situation is like there?
BT: The situation there is very bad. The refugees, including women and small children, live in tents in open air, in unhygienic conditions, close to one of the two so called “transit zones”, waiting to be allowed access to the asylum procedure in Hungary.
WWT: Previously you said the Serbian public generally had a positive reaction to the refugees. Do you think that is still the case?
BT: The issue of refugees is no longer front page news in Serbia like it isn’t in other European countries. In these parks where we operate, people are generally friendly towards migrants, or at least indifferent.
WWT: What about the Serbian government. Has it changed its stance on refugees?
BT: The borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria are still very much controlled by our authorities in order to prevent refugees crossing illegally. Since the law on asylum was established in 2008, 30 refugees have been granted asylum and 40 subsidiary protections in Serbia. In the first half of 2016, eight refugees have been granted asylum in Serbia and 14 refugees have been granted subsidiary protection. So the number is increasing and that is a good thing, but still the asylum procedures are very slow, and the integration programme is not very efficient. There is an absence of regulations facilitating integration of refugees.
WWT: Finally, is there a particular person or family whose story really affected you or was especially powerful?
BT: There are so many young boys who have left their families – so full of hope that they will find a better life somewhere in Europe and that they will be able to help their loved ones in their home country. For me it is very sad to know that they have such an uncertain future ahead of them and are not aware of it. They have been travelling for months. One boy was pushed back four times from the Hungarian border, one of the times he was beaten, and still he believes that something good is waiting for him in some European country… he is not giving up… it is so brave and so sad at the same time.
We would like to thank Bojana for taking her time to speak with us. You can find out more about IAN and the work they carry out by visiting their website.