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Bishop fears for migrants in Balkans

18 September 2015

by Abigail Frymann Rouch


On guard: Hungarian mounted policemen patrol their border with Serbia, on Wednesday

On guard: Hungarian mounted policemen patrol their border with Serbia, on Wednesday

THE decision by Hungary to close its borders to refugees and migrants could spark a humanitarian crisis as the fierce Balkan winter approaches, the Suffragan Bishop in the diocese in Europe, the Rt Revd David Hamid, said during a mission to Greece.

Bishop Hamid said that charities and politicians at the northern border of Greece with Macedonia were warning that Hungary’s decision this week to close its border with Serbia could have dire consequences. There could be a domino effect, whereby Serbia and Macedonia also sealed their borders in order to avoid having thousands of refugees on their soil. "If that happens, there’ll be 15-20,000 people stuck at the Greek border," he said. In addition, he feared that a lack of legal ways to travel would drive people into the hands of criminal gangs offering to traffic them across borders.

Bishop Hamid was speaking on a three-day visit to Greece as part of a delegation from Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, who were there to explore ways in which British churches could respond to the needs of the thousands of migrants and refugees streaming into Europe to escape war, persecution, and poverty. The group met local politicians, aid workers, and representatives of the Greek Orthodox agencies helping migrants.

The diocese in Europe last week launched an appeal through the mission agency Us. (formerly USPG) for funds to provide emergency medical support, food, shelter, and pastoral care to refugees in Greece and Hungary.

On Tuesday, the delegation travelled to the Greek-Macedonian border, which hundreds of migrants are crossing each day, although numbers are down from the thousands of recent weeks. People in the area, whose incomes have suffered from their country’s economic troubles, have been providing hot meals and clothes for those waiting for their paperwork to be processed, and have constructed a play area for their children. "In that area of Greece, there are many descendants of people who were involved in the population exchange between Turkey and Greece in the early part of the 20th century; so there’s a real openness to refugees: it’s in their memory," Bishop Hamid said.

The delegation met people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. "One young man said death was quick in Syria because of bombs, guns, or machetes, but this was a slow death." Bishop Hamid said that people they met were calling the overcrowded, flimsy boats in which people attempt to cross from Turkey to Greece "death boats".

The Bishop said that some of the migrants they spoke to said that officials from the EU border agency Frontex had demanded they hand over cash and their mobile phones.

Bishop Hamid also welcomed Pope Francis’s appeal for every RC parish in Europe to take in a refugee family. "It would be a great thing for Church of England parishes to do — and my sense is that many would be willing."


HUNDREDS of migrants were forced from the border of Serbia and Hungary last night by Hungarian police using tear gas and water cannons, writes Hattie Williams.                 

Serbia’s foreign ministry has protested their use in Serbian territory. Migrants were seen throwing missiles of stones and water bottles in an attempt to breach the border.

World Vision has also condemned the use of water cannons and tear gas as “appalling” and “unacceptable”.

World Vision’s head of policy and public affairs in the UK, Gavin Crowden, said: “Every country has the right and power to patrol its own borders, but this kind of heavy-handed and aggressive response we are seeing on the Serbia-Hungarian border is not only appalling - it is unacceptable."

Refugees are having to find a new route through Croatia into northern Europe. Mr Crowden said: “It cannot be right that children who have walked for weeks on end to flee violence and bombs in Syria are being met with barbed wire and tear gas in Europe. These children need safety and shelter.”

Yesterday World Vision distributed aid at a camp in Horgos on the Serbia-Hungary border, where thousands of refugees are stationed. The charity’s rapid response team member, Joy Toose, who is based in Serbia, said: “There has been a growing sense of frustration in Horgos. In the past 24 hours, families have been arriving rapidly and they are getting more desperate than ever.

The charity has been supporting parents and carers of young children in the Serbian camps, with “family packs” containing basic items such as diapers, baby cream, baby soap, wet wipes, toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, and sanitary pads.

Churches Together in Britain and Ireland have also pledged their support for stranded refugees. CTBI trustees and staff visited the border of Greece and Macedonia, where refugees are also congregating, on Thursday.

The General secretary of CTBI, the Revd Bob Fyffe, said: “The refugees we have met were carrying their entire lives in plastic bags. How can that be a choice? As church leaders, we are at the soul of our communities. And we show solidarity with those who are working tirelessly to protect the dignity of the refugees, and save the lives of those forced to make the perilous journey to Europe.”

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