Monday, November 2, 2015

Refugee reflections

Each day 3,000 to 4,000 migrants and refugees cross Serbia’s southern border, and sometimes as many as 6,000. Most of them process straight through to Croatia without stopping, but a few hundred camp out in Belgrade for somewhere between an hour and a few days.

For a few weeks now I’ve been working with Centar za Azila (Asylum Protection Center). I continue to be impressed by CZA and its volunteers. Everyday people work at collection centers, sorting through donations, mending clothes, and distribute those goods to refugees staying in a camp in Krjača on the outskirts of Belgrade. The government professes this camp can hold 1,000 refugees but the derelict buildings are constantly overcapacity. In an attempt to make these sorry sights more inviting and to help the children feel like its their space, a few volunteers and I have been organizing art/theatre workshops for the kids. We did similar workshops in the park near the bus station where the refugees camped out before temperatures fell. Unfortunately, each week there are fewer volunteers and more refugees, and I’ve heard the situation is more dire in towns on the border. A few weeks ago a few of us Belgrade-based volunteers distributed food for refugees near the Croatian border because the volunteers there had temporarily run out, and it was quite a hostile environment since tensions between Serbs and Croats are ever-rising. Recently I've noticed more violence within the migrant community, too, especially among young men. (A side: I should note that the majority of the migrants I’ve seen are young men. There absolutely are families and children, but they are far outnumbered by men ages eighteen to thirty, at least in Belgrade. The news selects photos of crying children to appeal to readers’ pathos, which is probably the most effective way to catch the public’s eye and the more global attention paid to this issue the better (in my opinion), but the number of children to young men featured above the fold is totally disproportionate.)

Some Serbs think the EU will force migrants to stay in Serbia longer in part to test whether Serbia is EU-worthy, but mostly to manage the overwhelming number currently inundating Central Europe. There is a lot of open land in the Balkans so perhaps, if funded by wealthier counties, Serbia could set up temporary camps. However the refugees I've spoken with who speak English want to leave Serbia as soon as possible; it's a layover not a destination. (Another side: only a handful of the refugees I work with speak English because, I’m told, most of the wealthier migrants cut straight through Serbia – it’s something like 1,200 euro/person to go from border to border.) However, even if Serbia has the space, it doesn't seem right to force them to stay here if they are set on reaching Germany and have risked so much to get this far. It also depends on how long they're planning to stay. Many hope to be here for good and they see themselves as immigrants, but Serbs - and perhaps Europeans in general? - don’t regard them as such. And there’s the disillusionment that might set in depending on the opportunities that greet them in wealthier countries. I’ve met young men who made it to Germany and were returning to Afghanistan to be with their families because it wasn't what they had imagined. Serbia’s unemployment rate has been over 20% for years now, so the opportunities for refugees here are few and far between.

To me, we must integrate them into the economy in order for them to feel like they matter. They have the ability to contribute economically and socially, but we must help them help themselves and empower them to contribute. Europe has a hard task ahead of itself to integrate them into its work force. There's no end in sight and no convincing proposals for how to handle it. It’s just really tough every way you slice it.

Lastly, it's crucial to remember that the current refugee crisis is global. News coverage focuses heavily on the European refugees, but refugees are fleeing from Hondura, Haiti, Myanmar, and many other places. It's scale and severity, as many have pointed out, is unmatched since the Second World War. It's a worldwide problem, and we are either all implicated in it or none of us is; if it's anyone's problem, it's everyone's problem. We must internationally agree to share the responsibility and support refugee protection globally.

Staggering figures:
60 million people are displaced worldwide
More than half the world's refugees have been in exile for 5+ years
An estimated 700,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe this year; 3,000+ have died trying to cross the Mediterranean

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