PEOPLE-SMUGGLING into Serbia has left hundreds of refugees hiding n forests on the border, where they are vulnerable to attacks by wild animals, infection, murder, rape, kidnap, and plummeting temperatures, a Christian Aid partner has reported.
The charitable foundation of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Philanthropy, a partner of ACT Alliance, is working with other aid agencies to provide food, clothing, and hygiene supplies, besides healthcare and psycho-social support, to refugees in the government-run camps in the country.
Serbia closed its borders in March, in an attempt to ease the flow of refugees from the war in Syria and Iraq along the Balkans route. Its neighbour, Hungary, built a fence along its border in June. Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia all followed suit.
But the programme manager of Philanthropy, Marija Vranesevic, said that the closures had slowed, not stopped, the flow of people crossing Europe. They had also made the journey more dangerous. “People hide in the thick forests, where they are eaten by bugs or attacked by wild animals. The journey is much longer than it used to be, and people are more exhausted by the time they reach Serbia.”
The number of refugees in the country has risen to more than 7400, from 6400 in December, the UN Refugee Agency reported last week. But, while 83 per cent (6142) were picked up by police and moved to the camps, the remainder were counted sleeping rough in Belgrade, or at the border with Hungary. Thousands more may pass uncounted.
There are currently 15 camps across Serbia, accommodating about 7000 people. The camps are all heated buildings: old factories, motels, and schools. Serbia had been in a better position to respond to the crisis than its neighbours, Ms Vranesevic said, owing to structures put in place during the Balkans War in the 1990s.
It was a safer option than the streets of Belgrade, where smugglers would take refugees directly for an extra fee, she said. “Unfortunately, this is worse for them, because they end up staying in abandoned barracks, in train wagons, or under bridges, and it is getting really cold in the Balkans. They believe it will be easier to contact smugglers there, and continue their journey, but the borders are closed.”
Four more camps were due to open before Christmas, to cope with rising numbers. Philanthropy estimates that it has supported about one third of the 1.5 million people who have reached Serbia since May 2015 (News, 30 October 2015).