Update from Presevo: Coordination of the Registration Process

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Lines for the registration centre continued to be exceedingly long today, even when there were drops in the number of arrivals. A continued lack of information has caused much anxiety, as no information is provided by authorities regarding the registration process, and volunteers struggle to assist asylum-seekers and police officers in managing large crowds. Last night, rain continued to pour over Presevo, where shelter is in very short supply. Waiting time in the line for the registration centre was on average 8 to 10 hours. Few raincoats were available, as well as dry clothes. Tensions arose with young men pushing the barriers, and police were seen hitting or violently shoving them back. Many asylum-seekers complained that they were hit by police both yesterday and today. Women and children suffer most from the pushing by young single men and responding aggression of certain officers, as they are caught in the crowd. It is critical to note that this is not the behaviour of all or even most police, nor of all or most young men.

In the majority of cases, officers have tried to manage the situation as best they can, diffusing tension with jokes or attempting to help the most vulnerable, despite being overwhelmed by stress, fatigue, and emotion. A volunteer reported following a discussion with a police officer that, living 400km from Presevo, he works 14 days straight, returns home to his family for 2 days, and returns to Presevo to continue working. Multiple conversations I have had with aid workers and officers reflected on their long hours and little rest. I have spoken to more than one police officer who is clearly heartbroken or on the verge of tears as they watch families struggle in the lines. Every Serbian I have spoken to reflects similar emotions, and in our limited shared linguistic repertoire, the conclusion is almost invariably the same: that this is a “catastrophe”. Serbia’s own refugee crisis was not so long ago, and even those in their twenties can remember times of war and displacement.

For aslyum-seekers, this is a time of shock and unease. Contrary to our experiences in Belgrade a few weeks ago, where we were told of police violence and struggles in Greece and Macedonia, those passing through now say that they have not encountered conditions worse than these in their voyage. The absence of information regarding the registration process has contributed to tensions and exhaustion. When crossing the Macedonian border into Serbia, asylum-seekers must walk 1km to a campsite, and afterwards another 2km down a dirt road in the middle of a large field with no lights or direction provided. The lack of assistance in this area means that those who are already weak or unable to walk properly arrive in Presevo cold, exhausted, and under the rain of the last two nights, soaking wet. Shelter and clothing are drastically needed, and volunteer are currently organizing the transport of supplies.

Outside the centre, three medical organizations have been present at different times: Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), Humanica, and Médecins du Monde. However, they have not as of yet coordinated their presence, so every night there are periods of multiple hours where no doctors are present at all. The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) is also present though not highly visible. Some other organisations have been seen in the area, including representatives of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Save the Children, and UNICEF. However, none of these are seen providing services to asylum-seekers, and it is unclear what their functions are. UNHCR is present inside the camp, as well as walking along the line, with an increased presence as of today. Their focus is on responding to the needs of the most vulnerable, specifically the sickest and weakest children and pregnant mothers. They are present in the morning and throughout the day, but have not been present in the nights, notably from 2am to roughly 8am. Concretely, this means that between the hours of 3am and roughly 6am, police officers and volunteers are the only ones on location outside of the centre.

It is our understanding that UNHCR are currently expanding their shifts to cover more times, and medical organizations plan to enter into communication to coordinate their activities. The general shortage of aid organizations in relation to arriving numbers is nonetheless evident, and the situation remains tenuous.

In addition to UNHCR, there are two organisations present inside the centre: SOS Remar, and the Serbian Red Cross; the latter’s role is actually unclear. They have not been seen outside the centre, and limited access to the centre means it is difficult to receive clear information on what goes on. From the information that has been gathered, however, we know that there is no doctor amongst their staff, but that they distribute food provided by UNHCR and Caritas. A local coordinator I spoke to explained that in Macedonia, the Red Cross and a local NGO Legis provide assistance to those who are sick or handicapped, by transporting them distances that others must walk. According to this source, the Serbian Red Cross appears not to be providing this service, or any services beyond the distribution of food inside the centre. We are told there are doctors inside the camp, but that they only treat emergency situations.

This morning, military officers began to operate on the line, controlling the movement of the crowd in assistance to police officers. While this appeared to have calmed some tensions, registration stalled again in the afternoon, as computers reportedly broke down in the centre, halting movement in the line. While attempts were made to draw women and children out of the crowd, a number of people fainted or collapsed from exhaustion and pressure, had panic attacks, or simply broke down. The organization of the line – by pens separating people into groups of roughly 50 – is at times chaotic as families are separated from one another in this process. Attempts are being made by volunteers to negotiate with authorities the creation of two lines, one for families and one for single men, to appease the pushing occurring in the crowds.

There is significantly less support from civil society here than we witnessed a few weeks ago on the Serbian-Hungarian border. While volunteers are doing all they can, as well as a number of locals from Presevo who have intervened at key areas to provide much needed assistance, the situation continues to ebb and flow between function, and crisis. While tonight so far has been calm, it is expected that the rain will continue to fall over the weekend, exacerbating these problems.

Marie & Sarah