In 2016, 65.6 million people were forced to leave their homes, and these people are known as refugees. Refugees are usually forced to leave their countries for one of three reasons: victimization, violence or war. Refugees everywhere face immense hardships, and the challenges facing refugees in Serbia are widespread.
Serbia is mainly viewed as a stop along the way for refugees hoping to reach countries in central Europe. In 2015 and the first part of 2016, over 920,000 refugees traveled to Serbia. According to the European Commission, the shutting down of the Western Balkans migration route left 4,146 refugees stranded in Serbia.
Kimmie Whicher, a student at George Mason University, traveled to Serbia on scholarship from Boren. There, she worked with a small non-governmental organization (NGO) to provide food and clothes for hundreds of refugees in a camp in Belgrade, Serbia. In the nine months that Whicher was there, her NGO grew from feeding about 300 to upwards of 800 men.
Approximately 2.6 million refugees live in camps; many of these refugees are living in extremely harsh conditions. In Whicher’s experience, here are some of the challenges facing refugees in Serbia.
1. Poor Living Conditions
One of the challenges facing refugees in Serbia is poor living conditions. According to Caritas, eight out of 10 refugees in Serbia stay in government shelters, the rest must sleep outside in public parks. Among the hardships that come with living outside is the extremely cold weather. Whicher recalled the winter weather in Serbia: “The cold is absolutely ruthless. Our organization that cooked for these men would take hot kettles of boiling water and when we tried to clean up after cooking we would pour it on the table and it would freeze the second it would hit the table.”
Winter temperatures in Serbia are often below freezing. Many refugees are left no choice but to sleep in public parks where they risk getting frostbite, among other conditions due to prolonged exposure to the cold weather. According to The Independent, many children don’t even have gloves or shoes to keep them protected from the snow.
2. No Protection by the Government
A common hardship for many refugees is the lack of safety and protection provided by the government. According to Whicher, “It was a very miserable place. A harsh reality for many of these boys was that this is the border of Europe, so when you’re living here and you’re trying to get through, if you go to a camp you’re probably going to get deported or the police are going to break your phone or take your clothes.”
Another one of the challenges facing refugees in Serbia is hunger. Refugees have to scrape by on whatever they can get to eat in a day. Small NGOs such as Whicher’s can provide some meals for the refugees, but the majority of those escaping their home countries are still underfed. According to Whicher, “One hot meal a day was our motto.” In this way, organizations can begin to help refugees by providing food and clothes, but they do not have the means necessary to help every refugee.
4. Worsening Physical and Mental Conditions
Due to these hardships, refugees struggle with new or worsening sickness. Due to the freezing temperatures in the winter, refugees in Serbia suffer from frostbite. According to The Independent, in order to escape the freezing temperatures, refugees light fires in their makeshift shelters, which further leads to respiratory problems from the smoke. However, physical sickness is not the only sickness refugees endure. Whicher recalled her experience: “You would literally watch them lose their minds… We saw this one man deteriorate to the point where if he were to go back to school, he would have to be in a special education classroom.”
Despite the harsh reality for many refugees in Serbia, organizations are making great strides to improve refugee conditions. Just by supplying food and clothes to these refugees, these organizations such as the one for which Whicher volunteered, are saving the lives of many.
– Olivia Booth