A Migration Crisis
Recently, I have come to a point in my travels where I have landed in a completely new environment and been confronted with the current “refugee crisis” first-hand. I want to share with you what is happening here in Belgrade because before arriving to Serbia, and especially before leaving the US, I had no clue about the situation of the men and women traveling west. The movement was a topic I read about sometimes online but was never close to as real to me as it is now. I hope that writing about the happenings here will help to give people at home a clearer picture of the current environment in this part of the world.
When I first arrived in Belgrade five weeks ago, I was met with a group of men protesting Hungary’s closed border. They held signs reading “Stop War if You Want to Stop Refugees,” “Open Hungary Border,” and even “We Love Serbia.” At this point, these men were just faces to me and a representation of the crisis that I had never before seen materialized. I have since had the chance to get to know some of the people and have gained at least some small insight into some of the difficulties they’ve faced. One of the first things I learned was that the “We Love Serbia” signs were in comparison to the treatment they had previously received in Bulgaria – where there are accounts of the police beating the people, burning their shoes, robbing them, and using dogs as weapons before pushing the victims back to Turkey.
One friend described to me how he was taken into prison for three months in Bulgaria. While there, he experienced everything written above and on top of that had guards who would spit on him each time they changed shifts. In Macedonia, I’ve heard accounts of refugees being locked in shacks by smugglers and beaten until they find some way to come up with money they don’t have in order to leave and continue their journey. Consequently, Serbia has been seen as a safe haven after the terrors of previous stops.
Here, migrants face another challenge as they are trapped by the closed borders of Hungary. They don’t want to be in Serbia but they also can’t leave. Hungary lets in a mere 30 people per day, most of which are families, in spite of the 4,400 people waiting in Serbia. While up until July it took people about 3 days to cross to Hungary, because of recent legislative changes, it’s now verging on impossible. In the meantime, many people spend their days and nights in two of the parks in Belgrade – “Info Park” and “Afghani Park.” They used to have grass to lay on and space to relax but unfortunately that was ruined in my first weeks here. The government dug up the land in both parks citing the need to grow new grass – a difficult task in the heat of the summer I think. They also erected head-high orange plastic fences to make the areas impossible to reach. Anyway, those who preferred to stay in the park still somehow found their spaces to sleep.
After this, the government again tried a more straight forward tactic of removing the refugees by telling them to go to the refugee camps in Serbia or later to just leave the parks in general. For disobeying these orders, people were threatened with deportation back to Bulgaria or Macedonia or jail. After this action, the parks were hauntingly barren for a couple of days. A few people still hung around but not so many and those who stayed felt fear and were often checking over their shoulders for police. At this point, I as an American was allowed to be in the park (a public space); my friends from Germany, Switzerland, Russia, Serbia, etc as well. But any Pakistani, Afghani, Syrian, etc. was not welcome.
In these days, the alternative places people found to sleep were still found by the police who pestered them asking them for registration papers or telling them to go to camp – even kicking them and waking them up early in the morning. It seems anywhere that people gathered in groups, even out of sight from local Serbians, was a problem for the authorities. People in community are harder to control and manipulate than people scattered.
Since a “Park is For All” event about two weeks ago where the refugees were legally allowed in the parks as part of a registered event (an event to bring community and enjoyment back to the park with food, music, and art – http://parkjezasve.weebly.com/), the harassment and rules about being in the park have seemed to relax at least for the time being. People are once more in the parks as before, despite the increased constant police presence.
Still, the situation remains that there are fences surrounding all of the previously decent places to sleep in the park, people are sleeping on top of a parking lot and behind a bus station, they are bothered by both police and locals, and worst of all they are essentially trapped in the country and don’t know for how long. Often many try and fail to cross the border. They spend days walking through the jungle, attempt to pass through to Hungary, and return to Serbia with cuts, bruises, and more recently, dog bites. Chunks of skin are ripped out by dogs set loose by the Hungarian police even on people who say they want to claim asylum.
These people trapped by borders, bureaucracy and fences are the same as you and me. One of my friends here is headed west because he wants to see the world. Others want to go to Europe for better opportunity – to escape a bad situation, to reunite with family, or to get a decent job or education without fear of violence. I met a boy last night who wants to study medicine in France so that he can then return to Afghanistan and help those who are suffering there. Other boys 18+ must leave their families because they face recruitment by terrorists or torture if they stay home.
With all of the “islamophobia” or fear of refugees at this time, it’s important to remember that the people migrating west are fleeing the same bad guys that we are so afraid of. The fact is that whatever situations we face in the western world pale in comparison to the amount of terror that some of these men, women, and children are leaving behind. Some people worry about countries losing their culture or about people with bad intentions getting inside. But when you hear the stories and learn about the lives of people who are labeled as refugees, it seems absurd to imagine refusing them the right of movement to safety and security. The right of movement should extend to all – not just to those with North American or European passports.
I know there are many contrasting views on the migration of people and maybe this stance is offensive to some. But in the end it is based on a basic human respect for people. People should not be attacked by dogs. They should not be pushed around without any concern for their individual goals and desires. They should not be shamed for wearing certain clothes. And most of all, no human being should be repeatedly faced with the words or attitude of “you are not welcome here.” “You are not welcome here” because you are different from us or because you are threatening to our current lifestyle.
Instead of automatically assuming fear of a person who is different, I encourage curiosity and conversation. Ask about their families, their goals, their likes and dislikes. See that we’re all the same around the world. When you read something negative on the Internet, try to also think about the other side of the people involved. Think of all the innocent men and women who are becoming scapegoats for the violence committed by few. Try to imagine yourself in the same situation.
I don’t know the solution to everything that is happening but I do know that I was taught to accept others, to care for those in difficult situations, and, most importantly, I was taught that everyone is equal. These are the basic principles we should refer to while striving for a world in which we all can live.