Preševo is the southernmost town and a municipality of Serbia. With more than 90% of its inhabitants being ethnically Albanian, it is the culture center of Albanians in Serbia.
Preševo is also the Serbian registration center for refugees. On 15th October 2015, Action from Switzerland sent a group of 4 volunteers there. I am currently back in Zürich to recruit translators and raise funds whilst the rest of the team are still there continuing the good work – before rejoining them again next week.
The social dynamics of this town are extremely complex. Volunteers all over Europe (like us) , international aid organisations (UNHCR, Red Cross, Remar, Humedica and Doctors without Borders), the local police, the local bus and taxi drivers all form its social fabric.
To set the scene for the rest of the blog post: Upon disembarking the bus from Macedonia, refugees are met by volunteers at a tent set up as an information point. Most of them arrive disorientated and asked “Where am I?”
So here, refugees are provided important information about Serbia translated into Arabic, Farsi and Urdu by Action from Switzerland’s translators. Information includes the need to queue in order to obtain a 72 hour visa to legally travel and stay in Serbia, possibility of their fingerprints being taken (we get asked that alot – even in Röszke, Hungary) and other equally important information about medical aid, the next steps for their journey. Humedica and Doctors without Borders are located before the queue starts but due to the lack of resources, medical care isn’t always available around the clock.
All, and I mean, all of them say thank you. I am heartened to see some take photos of the information, most likely to share with their friends. We wish them luck and they walk on.
DEALING WITH TAXI DRIVERS
But not long after, before they could hit the queue or doctors they are often accosted by the taxi drivers offering rides and the promise of “registration papers”. This is why, it is crucial for us to inform the refugees that registration papers can only be obtained legally at the registration center. No where else. Or risk being turned back, wasting time and money in the process.
Now, this is where it gets tricky and I hear, sometimes hairy: When the queues are short and number of refugees are lower than it is on other days, there is insufficient “business” for the taxi drivers. Volunteers at the information point tend to bear the brunt of their frustration in the form of threats and harassment. I tend to turn a deaf ear. Ignorance (of the language) is bliss under such circumstances.
Due to volunteers being threatened on many previous occasions and to ease tensions, our current translated information can only inform the refugees they should take the bus after registration that cost 35 Euros.
QUEUE FOR THE REGISTRATION CENTER
Things naturally get tense when the queue is long. Why wouldn’t it? Wait times are uncertain: It can be either 30 minutes or up to 24 hours.
With fatigue being omnipresent, tempers fray and impatience often sets in. The situation worsens when the skies open. You would have read reports of hypothermic conditions.
Rule of thumb is simple: Once you are in the queue, there is no getting out unless you want to lose your place and start over. During this period, you are at the mercy of the elements. Volunteers have tried their best set up tents to shelter the refugees from the rain but there is simply no escaping the cold. Temperatures are constantly dropping as winter approaches.
For those who require urgent medical attention in the queue, volunteers have to call on the doctors who ascertain if they need to be taken out or help could be administered without them losing their place in the queue.
On my first night there, a young man passed out in the middle of the queue and was unresponsive. His friend called to me frantically as I walked past. Now, people call out for help when you walk past. With limited resources, it can be hard for volunteers to reach everyone. There was something in his friend’s voice that shook me. So I went over. When I saw him, I didn’t hesitate. I dont need to be a doctor to realise that he was in a bad way. I ran as fast as my legs could carry me to alert the Humedica team almost 500m away. And then back again with them. For the record: it is not because I am unfit (my only form of cardio is running after SBB trains here in Zürich) but that system was simply inefficient for emergencies.
Action from Switzerland initially brought 4 walkie talkies with us for our own use, and after seeing the importance of having them onsite, one of us, together with Borderfree Association, worked on speaking with the police about implementing a communication system for volunteers via walkie talkies. It took days before permission was granted. I am excited to get back next week to check out the system is working out.
INSIDE AND AFTER THE REGISTRATION AREA
Private volunteers have no access to the registration center unless under special circumstances (I personally have been in there when I asked the UNHCR for water and they kindly offered). Only UNHCR, Remar and Red Cross have access inside. Remar provides clothing and coordinates with the private volunteers when their stock runs low.
For us volunteers, besides being at the Bus Point/children center, most of our nights were spent by bringing as much hot tea and boiled eggs as possible from the free food and tea tent, to the queue. I dread to think what would happened if the the group Rastplatz from Basel didn’t set this up. Refugees who have completed registration can head over to the food tent for some sustenance before boarding the buses costing 35 Euros each, before they head for Sid. There is also a wifi and charging station set up by Refucomm.
Before they can actually get to the food and wifi tent, they are hounded upon exit from the registration center by the bus drivers to board their buses. “Free WIFI!” “My bus! come!” “how many people you have? I give you good price!” were some of the regularly used phrases I’ve heard.
If you are tired, it can be confusing and terribly overwhelming. It annoys me whenever I see that happening but other volunteers have shared that there are actually some bus drivers who do offer rides to those who dont have enough money. They even contributed money for food.
Mood at the food and tea tent is usually slightly more relaxed. Vibes of relief mostly, as the refugees would have completed their registration, most likely arranged transport, and can be finally on their way. One step closer to their destination of choice.
Women and children are able to head to the Women and Children center (now taken over by Save the Children) to freshen up. There are 12 beds in there for those who wish to take a rest. For privacy reasons, the men, unfortunately have to stay outside. We had a full house and simply insufficient beds on the only night I volunteered there. It was the longest night of my life. We work with what we have. That seems to be how private volunteers work in Presevo. To provide what little we have to help the refugees.