The world is at war. Despite countless hours of harrowing news footage, it still feels like it’s happening “over there,” somewhere else. And we watch from our sofas, comfortably removed.
But the people being bombed, struggling with poverty and extremism, need to save themselves if they want a future for their families and children. So they are on the move. And they’re heading this way.
But who are they? What do they want?
I was offered the chance to go to Belgrade, Serbia with the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian organization working on the frontlines of this crisis. I wanted to take the opportunity to put a face to this tragedy, and give a voice to the unheard.
Since the borders closed along the western Balkan route back in March, an estimated 6,000 refugees have become stranded in Serbia. With the onset of winter, it is clear that many will have to endure appalling conditions as they cling to hope.
Warehouse in winter
Behind the bus station, opposite a swanky new riverside development, a derelict warehouse presents a stark image of the reality that is the European refugee crisis, winter 2016.
It’s early in the morning when we visit the huge bunker-like structure, the place that 700 refugees — in this case all adolescent boys and young men — call home.
Entering the building required wading through rubbish piled high in the surrounding wasteland. Outside there is a tin barrel and a tap for washing. It’s a cold tap — and it’s 7 degrees Celsius. I can’t imagine wanting to wash in cold water during the winter months but I am moved by the fact that it is in use, by people hanging on to their self-respect despite the conditions they are in.
Inside it is very cold and dark, with acrid smoke from the small fires the residents are lighting to try and keep from freezing and to cook a pot of whatever food they can find.
With the onset of winter, it is clear that many will have to endure appalling conditions as they cling to hope.
The common meal is a stew of onions, tomatoes and eggs — and maybe a bit of chilli — shared among small groups huddling around their fire or in their cramped sleeping quarters, fashioned from discarded planks and furniture.
People are burning what’s available to them, often plastic and painted furniture, resulting in a thick fog of smoke over the small groups. The patchy roof allows small rays of sun here and there, though it looks like it could crumble onto the residents at any moment.
Despite the appalling conditions, the fires which pose major safety concerns but are vital for warmth, the makeshift beds and the absence of toilets, the atmosphere is calm.
We are regarded with interest. The aid workers from IRC’s partner organization the Novi Sad Humanitarian Centre are familiar faces who spend a lot of time with these young men — who accept all the help and kindness they can get.
The second wave
Until my visit, I was less aware of the imminent dangers facing people in Afghanistan and Pakistan, wondering if those who had made it to Europe were refugees or economic migrants — the difference being vital in cases of asylum. But as we spoke to the young men from these countries, the challenges confronting them at home became clear.
Waseem, from Pakistan, spoke to us in perfect English. We asked his age but he shrugged, “The journey has aged me.”
He told us why he was here. He is from the mountainous tribal region in the northwest of the country, on the border with Afghanistan. The area has made headlines as a focus of the United States military’s search for its most wanted in the war on terror. He told us that he had been working for an aid agency in the region, but had been threatened several times, and that his family was scared for his life.
Acting as translator, he told us about the other men with him in the warehouse. Most were from the Afghan cities of Kabul and Kunduz.
They described their dreams about their future lives in the west. Studying was a common priority. One man mentioned his passion for robotics.
The Afghan refugee population is the second largest in the world, only recently surpassed by those fleeing Syria.
A record half a million people have been internally displaced in 2016 alone, bringing the total number of people uprooted to almost 2 million, the highest number since the fall of the Taliban.
Amid the declining security situation, lack of prospects at home, restrictions on residence in Iran and Pakistan — which is putting mounting pressure on Afghans to return and in turn contributing to the displacement crisis inside Afghanistan — these men have taken a huge risk, walking to Europe in the hope of finding something better.
But things have changed enormously in the course of a year. The first wave of refugees had some means of support and family members already living in Europe, and borders were largely open. This current group — the forgotten second wave — are much more vulnerable. They were slow to leave because they didn’t have money or resources. Now borders have closed and no one wants them.
Boys among men
It breaks your heart to see the bravery and endurance of these men trying to live out their dream of safety, education and a better future. But there is something even more disturbing — many of the refugees are young, somewhere between the ages of 9 and 14.
It is difficult to imagine boys travelling for months alone, without their families to protect them. There can’t be much difference in age between them and my own daughter, yet their experiences are years apart. It makes me shudder.
It is hard to know how many unaccompanied children there are in Serbia, but a 2015 estimate put the number at 100,000 unaccompanied minors in Europe — each with his or her unique story.
It breaks your heart to see the bravery and endurance of these men trying to live out their dream of safety, education and a better future.
As we move to leave, it strikes me that, despite appearances, the men and boys in this warehouse carry themselves with dignity. Areas are fenced off to create little rooms and each space is tidy. Shoes are removed when entering the “rooms,” clothes are folded.
But I know their situations are only going to get worse. Aid agencies are ceasing food distributions in the parks following the government’s attempt to relocate refugees and shift services to the official refugee centers, and the local drop-in service is full on a daily basis.
Witnessing their living conditions, hearing accounts of the U.S. dropping drones on their villages, empathizing with their fears of Daesh (ISIS) and death, I am committed to telling their stories and advocating for asylum, or at least for them to have a chance to present their cases at a hearing. They are the forgotten victims of the crisis, out of sight and out of mind.
Many will wait it out, others will try to move north. But one thing is clear — winter is only going to bring more misery to this vulnerable mass of humanity.
Refugee crisis in Europe and Middle East: How the IRC helps
The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping people to survive, recover and reclaim control of their future. Founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, the IRC has works in over 40 countries and in 28 resettlement offices across the United States. Learn more about the IRC’s response to the refugee crisis and how you can help.
Find more refugee voices in the IRC’s Uprooted publication on Medium.