by Marie de Lutz and Kelsey Montzka-Böttiger
We’ve been here; we have the necessities: bread, water, air.
Determination and compassion our bread.
Tears our water.
Cigarette smoke our air.
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It’s been pretty calm these past few days, with a significant drop in arrivals and better coordination systems being put in place. For volunteers, this is particularly welcome, because it’s taken us all some time to begin processing what occurred in Preševo on Saturday night and Sunday morning. Some of you may have read updates on social media, others not, mostly because there’s been little media presence around here. So rather than write a report about the current situation, or attempt to analyse the dynamics of what’s occurring, we’ve come together with some of the volunteers to tell you the story of this tent you see above, and the conditions we faced on Saturday.
The night was rainy like the three days before it, and started out like any other. Large groups of people were arriving by bus from Miratovac village, on the border of Macedonia, and long lines formed in front of the registration centre, with police letting people through in groups of fifty at 20-30 minute intervals.
As the rain pooled, it resulted in sporadic power outages throughout the afternoon and evening; everything from houses, to streetlights, to the registration centre would go dark, meaning that processing registrations would abruptly come to a halt. The column backed up even more, as volunteers and Humedica, a medical NGO, responded to the basic needs of those waiting in the lines. By midnight, fifteen volunteers and a handful of police were the only ones left on the street, while the rain kept pouring.
As already reported, volunteers manage a number of activities and services outside the centre, and among them is the coordination of a small encampment of roughly 20 tents in a field that so far hasn’t been shut down by authorities, though it is not really permitted either. Laws in Serbia prohibit hotels and hostels from housing any foreigner, including asylum seekers, who have not yet received registration papers, so their options for shelter are limited. As such, the encampment is a buffer for the most vulnerable.
Some members of the local community have also opened their homes, some shops and storefronts allow people to sleep inside, and a local hotel has rented out a basement to an association, with 12 beds for women and children, though the latter is only for those who have already passed through registration. Other than that, on any average night, everyone sleeps on the side of the street or waits in the line until they get into the centre to process their registration. The line to get into the centre can take anywhere from an hour if you’re extremely lucky, to twelve if you’re not, and twenty four if you have to start all over again which people sometimes have to do.
Those on “the line” distributed tea, answered questions, coordinated with police officers who manage the line, and attempted to assist those in crisis. Others ran the tea stand, where they prepared chai and soup for people coming out of the registration centre, and distributed it down the line of those waiting to get in. Whoever was on shift acted according to need, switching between one role and another throughout the night. Yet others ended up in the fourth of the major roles: shelter.
On Saturday night, the hotel basement was full by 22h, or so we were told, and the particularly heavy rainfall and gusty winds meant that even usually dry places were wet. To make matters worse, most of people had to walk long distances before arriving in Preševo, with little to no rain protection.
Volunteers standing at the bus stop to provide information to newcomers watched as soaking wet families who had already walked 2km in a dark field in the rain made their way to the registration centre, and spent their down time cutting slits in trash bags which are regularly used as raincoats for lack of actual raincoats or ponchos.
There are, or were until nearly all of them were stolen Monday, about 20 tents in a field, hidden from the line by a series of sand dunes. In each you could put two people, four people, or a family of five or six with young children. But there are a few thousand people who pass through Preševo on an average day, at least from what we can estimate without more accurate figures, and many of these people arrive at night. So volunteers try to be judicious about giving out tents, reserving them for the most vulnerable (young children, pregnant women, the sick or otherwise weak).
At 3 am, the news came in. For whatever reason, the registration centre closed for the night. As usual, volunteers managing the line were given no prior notice, and it was up to them and police to tell the remaining trainloads of people (one train had already arrived at 1:30 am in Miratovac, and another at 2:30 am, but it takes some time to get to Preševo afterwards) the bad news.
“I’m sorry, the processing center is closed. It will reopen at 7 am, in four hours,” I said to him as he was herding his family through the barriers. He stopped and looked at me shocked, “So…now what?” he asked in disbelief, “you have nothing for us? In this rain? We’re soaked, we don’t know where to go.” I’ve never felt so much shame. I normally tried to stay on the squeaky clean side of our restrictions. No official residence for asylum-seekers unless they have papers; it could be dangerous for them if it resulted in them getting caught. But we had the tents. And it’s better to be arrested and alive than free and dead. “I am going to find Marie; we may have some tents. I will be back.”
As volunteers, we are authorized to identify Extremely Vulnerable Refugees (EVRs) and, after calling for clearance from UNHCR, accompany them to the centre’s gate either for medical care or, in a very few cases, to allow them to be registered. After closure, there was no chance for most the families to get into the registration centre, so we had only one priority: identifying children showing signs of hypothermia, getting them clothes, and putting them somewhere dry. Occasionally, police officers will take pity on suffering families and, shirking their orders, allow them into the centre; but this is a risky procedure and can wreak havoc both inside and outside the centre.
We also had to reserve this initiative for key crisis times, which occur between 2 and 6 in the morning. This is the result of a few key factors: first, it’s the coldest point in the night; second, it has tended to rain at these times; third, though medical organizations are working on establishing a 24/7 system and have adapted their shifts to cover more of the day, it is when there are no doctors on the street.
The flooding started in the early hours of the morning, covering the entire street at least at shin level, if not higher. This is when a few of us, who had attempted to hold back on getting people into tents until absolutely necessary, began to seek out the extremely vulnerable to provide them with basic shelter. We started with the top of the street, where those who had already given up on waiting in line were hiding under shallow building eaves or cowering under old tarps, or simply sitting in the rain.
These areas are also where people tend to leave their children, as one person, often the father, waits in the rain to process the whole family, which is technically not allowed and often results in families being separated, with those outside having little recourse as their important documents are inside with the original registeree.
Shortly after the closing of the registration centre, around 4 am, we found a family of five: parents, a teenage son, a three-year-old girl and a baby. The girl was shivering uncontrollably and her lips were purple, so we took them to our makeshift camp. Our campsite had also mostly flooded and only six tents remained suitable for shelter. Marie set off in search of these remaining tents, leaving Kelsey waiting with the family in a three-sided pavilion.
By the time we had reached the camp, the child had entered the second stage of hypothermia. I had already wrapped her in an emergency blanket, but it was doing little good, so I opened my jacket and drew her into my arms, wrapping my jacket around her too. Her soaking sweater seeped water into my clothes, and eventually, she slowly collapsed onto my lap, curling close to my chest.
We finally found a dry tent, went to get the few blankets and sleeping bags that hadn’t been soaked from our cache on-site and left again, looking for more people.
We then found a Syrian family: a mother who had to be assisted walking, her baby of not more than two weeks old, two young girls around 5 and 7 years old, and their father who carried all their belongings. Again we brought them to the camp, one of the volunteers taking the baby and all of us trying to find the least-soaked path to the field.
The volunteers clean the tents every day, disinfecting them as best they can and taking out the blankets and sleeping bags to clean them and dry them if necessary. It’s not up to the highest sanitation standards, but seeing as there are no other options, as one volunteer put it, “we work with what we got”.
We always ask people three things when we put them in tents: please don’t smoke inside, clean up after yourself, and leave the blankets in a dry corner. Unfortunately, without enough hands it is not always possible to watch over the encampment, so volunteers also can’t control if someone uses the tents without them knowing.
On Saturday, the only tent left that was large enough for this family had been occupied sometime during the day by someone who decided to smoke and have a beer, so it smelled quite stuffy and still had blankets in it. I cleaned and emptied it for them, and then laid down some blankets to soften the ground hoping, absurdly, that it might serve as an extra barrier against the cold and wet.
The father took off his childrens’ shoes one-by-one, and then their soaking wet socks, as I lit the entryway with a headlamp and watched their little freezing feet land one by one into the first dry place they’d felt today.
There is no explanation for such a sight. The shaking shoulders, snow white feet and purple lips of children are so easy to avoid, and yet here was another family who would have stood in a line for 3 hours in the deluge of rain before it would even start moving again, without the presence of a doctor, humanitarian organisation, UN agency, or other institutional or government representative to protect them.
After bringing them blankets, some clothes, and bananas, we left to see if others were in need. That’s when we found the tent. In it were an (approximately) 9 year old girl, 7 year old girl, 4 year old boy and 2 or 3 year old boy wearing nothing more than a diaper and shirt. Their tent had flooded just like the street it was on, so they were standing in what was essentially an open sewer, shaking from the cold. After finding a young man who could translate for us, we managed to gather that the mother had left 4 hours ago, that there was no father, that they didn’t know where she was, although we got her name.
We assumed, like many others have done, that the mother had left them there thinking they would be safe and protected from the elements while she waited in line for the registration centre. The younger boy was not shaking, but he was disoriented, extremely lethargic, and was barely responding to prompts. Knowing the only doctor in the area was inside the registration centre we weren’t allowed into, but where their mother likely also was, we carried the children in our arms to the police, accompanied by the young man who was translating for the children, and asked them to let us bring them in. They accepted, and we headed in, asking a centre employee for directions on the way.
When we arrived, the doctor looked at us nonchalantly and we left Kelsey with the children as another volunteer went to get them dry clothes and the two remaining of us went to the police to ask if we could walk around calling out the mother’s name, or use a microphone to diffuse the information.
They directed us to a superior who angrily showed us the door after reasserting that as foreigners and non-credentialed persons we had no standing to be in the area, a point we could understand from a systems point of view, but not from a human one. She then escorted Kelsey out of the doctors’ office, leaving the children alone in the medical centre.
Somewhat stunned, we headed back towards the tent, hoping that at least if the centre did not find the mother, she would return to the tent and we could bring her to her children.
Some incalculable time later, we saw a woman and two teenaged guys walk up. She immediately panicked, but I was close enough that I could within seconds grab a hold of her arm, look her in the eyes and tell her it was ok, that her babies were ok.
A bit suspicious but calmed, she followed us to the centre where we asked the police to allow her in to find her children. We waited some time at the gate, and eventually the family came out, reunited.
Having received calls that help was needed at the bus info point, Marie headed away from the area, as other volunteers continued on to the the tasks of the night, dismayed by what had just happened but relieved the family was together. With the hindsight of reflection, much needed sleep, and discussions amongst each other, we realised the situation could have been handled somewhat differently.
For one, a person in the second stage of hypothermia should not be moved, at least not abruptly, but rather put in a dry place and coaxed back to warmth. And although there were few dry places in the street, it would have caused less anxiety to the mother to find the children nearby (the children, on the other hand, were excited to be brought anywhere away from their tent). Third, a possible referral system had been communicated to us, though it had not been tested and the lack of presence on the ground at night to which volunteers have become habituated made it a second thought to the primary concern for the welfare of the children.
But this is precisely the problem. Volunteers are taking on a role which is not, and should not, be theirs. They are not just organising food or clothing distribution, or trash pick-up, or information points; they are actively identifying and responding to crisis situations in the absence of institutional support.
It must be understood that these levels of crisis in in Preševo are rather new; while the centre has existed for four months, the registration process has only been enforced for a week or two, and everything is still in its nascent stages: for the registration centre, for the volunteers, and for the coordination between the different actors present.
Nonetheless, while humanitarian organisations conduct assessments on the needs here, the temperatures are quickly dropping and the interim lack of efficiency means that a fluctuating team of volunteers is picking up the slack, while having to fight for the authorization to do so. This phenomenon is not unique to Preševo. Volunteers across Europe are ensuring that the basic needs of survival of asylum-seekers are being met. They are fundraising, ensuring logistics, manpower, coordination between different groups. They are managing to create sustainable projects and effectively handing them off to new arrivals, as many are unable to stay for more than a few days or weeks at a time. They are providing critical information to people who so often hear rumours or lies. And most of all, they are representing a side of Europe and North America, from where the volunteers originate and to which these people seek to go, that is human and that cares.
Beyond the number of children we saw in the first and second stages of hypothermia on Saturday night, we also witnessed adults with hypothermia, panic and asthma attacks, broken ankles and legs (including children with injured feet or ankles), one man who was hit by a bus and had what appeared to be a dislocated arm, open wounds, a baby with a rash across its entire body who was taken to hospital with a 40°c (104°f) fever, and generalized coughing and fevers particularly amongst children, but also adults.
All of this occurred in a context where the street had turned into an open sewer. While institutions and NGOs like UNHCR, MSF, Humedica, and SOS Remar are working to develop more appropriate responses, like having a 24/7 presence*, it also occurred in the more generalized, daily context where the lack of services means volunteers are acting beyond their training, where the lack of material goods means there were nights we had to triage trash bags, telling adult after adult that we only have them for the children, where there are no translators to assist people in manifesting their needs, where Afghans in particular are unable to get money from Western Union for lack of passports and thus struggle to get onto busses, where everyone is ill but needs to be even more ill to receive help, and where the only ones present 24/7 are working double or triple shifts, with no psychological support except each other, in the face of it all. They are doing it in a context where they have no credentials, so they at times feel both illegitimate, and responsible for ensuring the protection of asylum-seekers.
These people are representing you. They are the ones redeeming the image of a continent that seems not to make up its mind on whether it cares to adhere to the principle that a person has a right to life, and to safe haven. They are a handful in every border town and transit point across this region and they are saving lives on our doorstep, lives that shouldn’t need saving.
This article was a collaborative work written by Marie from Gauge and Kelsey Montzka-Böttiger, a volunteer/teacher/student who blogs. Photography by Marie de Lutz.
*After being made aware of these conditions, a number of actions were initiated: MSF is currently liaising with local medical providers to clarify referral systems, they and Humedica are working on providing 24hour presence, and UNHCR has since implemented a shift system to provide 24hour presence at the registration centre. However, it is still unclear what role the Serbian Red Cross is playing beyond the distribution of food provided by Caritas, and a note on the Serbian authorities’ management of the crisis, as well as Interpol and the EU’s role in directing their actions, merits a significantly more thorough analysis than can be provided here.