“We are the blue jackets, we are the protection.”

The European refugee crisis through the eyes of a UNHCR emergency field worker.

UNHCR Emergency Coordinator Francesca Bolleni greets refugees arriving at Opatovic, Croatia. UNHCR/Igor Pavicevic

Francesca Bolleni (pictured) is the UNHCR Emergency Coordinator on the border of Serbia and Croatia. She has been working on the frontline of the refugee crisis in Europe. We asked her what a typical day for a UNHCR field worker entails.

“I couldn’t tell you — there is no such thing. My days are always changing because every hour in an emergency something changes. I can say that the only thing common with all days is not sleeping at all.”


Thrown straight into the depths of calamity, Francesca’s arrival in September last year coincided with the closure of the Hungarian border and the diversion of thousands of refugees towards Serbia and Croatia.

“I was sent to the border in a very fast way. I was told I was needed in Serbia while I was working in Geneva and within 24 hours I was already at the reception centre, on the border at 6 o’clock in the evening,” Francesca explained.

Refugees wait in wet weather at Tovarnik, Croatia. UNHCR/I Pavicevic

“I worked into the night to see more and more refugees coming. I saw women, unaccompanied children, families, people with disabilities. In a few hours, I saw so many different people. The number of people was just so many and we needed to address the needs of everyone.”

It was 3am. There were 3,000 people in the middle of a field in the Serbian countryside. The word ‘exhausted’ couldn’t even begin to describe how they were feeling. The sky began to darken into a frightening shade of grey, which relentlessly continued until the first drops of rain were felt among everyone in the field.

“People were completely in panic, crying, for no one knew what would happen to them.”

“People were completely in panic, crying, for no one knew what would happen to them,” she said.

Many had walked days without rest to reach the border, only to be told the Centre for Registration had closed for the night.

It was the 29th of September and Francesca and her team of six were left to distribute raincoats and attempt to comfort thousands of people through the night.

Francesca described scenes of children shivering with hypothermia and a wheelchair stuck in the mud as she stressed how life-saving emergency relief items can be in moments of desperation.

“What is a raincoat?” Francesca asked. “A piece of plastic, but in a moment of urgency a piece of plastic can save your life.”

“We gave support but it was really heartbreaking because even though we were trying to do our best, we saw it wasn’t enough.”

Refugee families wait in cold and wet weather late in the evening at Presevo train station, Serbia. UNHCR/Daniel Etter

Unfortunately this haunting scene is not uncommon; in fact Francesca’s first night seems less appalling when she recounts the nights which followed.

“There were more than 3–4000 people coming every day — increasing every day, becoming 5,000, becoming 6,000. We were ready for a large number, but we weren’t ready or expecting such a huge flow of people.”

UNHCR reception centres on the border of Serbia and Croatia were already beyond capacity when Francesca arrived and as the days passed, the pressure continued to mount.


The silver lining in this dire situation was not silver at all, but a bright shade of UNHCR blue.

“I believe the effect of the UNHCR makes a huge difference to people,” Francesca explained. “The blue jacket for many people is a sign of protection, a sign of safety. It’s a sign that they found someone that can help them. We are the blue protector of people and every time I put on the blue jacket I feel very proud because it means that I’m ready and I’m going to help the people.”

“The [UNHCR] blue jacket for many people is a sign of protection, a sign of safety. It is a sign that they found someone that can help them.”

Despite the poor quality of a mobile phone line from Serbia, Francesa’s message to Australian donors came loud and clear.

“I want to say a big thank-you, for being together in saving lives. We all dream the world will be in peace tomorrow but unfortunately we are not there yet, so please continue to help us. Be together with us.”


Help UNHCR deliver lifesaving aid to refugees in Europe. Donate today.

Refugees take rest and shelter from the rain and mud in tents set up by UNHCR in Asotthalom, Hungary. UNHCR/Mark Henley
The UN Refugee Agency works to protect the 59.5 million people worldwide displaced by war, disaster and poverty.
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