Temperatures plunge as refugee army trudges across Europe
Standing in the long, single-file line, a woman has in her arms a great bundle of thick, unwieldy blanket. Her husband, Maan, gently parts the folds to reveal a newborn baby.
“Two days old. Girl,” he says before hiding the tiny pink head again in its white swaddling, careful not to touch her skin with his grey, frozen hands.
The cold makes his voice thick. At night the temperature is plunging to –10C in this northern Serbian town. Maan’s wife looks exhausted, her focus on the Serbian police ahead, who are checking people’s papers along the length of a queue that snakes off into a corrugated-metal shed. Behind a chain-link fence is the train that will take them from to Croatia, for €35 a head.
The people here are mostly Syrians, along with some Afghans and Iraqis. This is their fifth border crossing, and the wind has blown more icily at each one as the refugees move up through the Balkans towards Germany. Eight hundred or so are queuing at what is normally an industrial freight terminal in Šid, including many young children, but there is an eerie quiet.
Just over 600,000 refugees and migrants passed through Serbia in 2015. The government opened a military barracks in the south to house them, but no one wanted to stay so they allowed bus companies to move in and make some money, taking those who could afford it from one end of the country to the other. Between 14 and 20 January, 12,573 made the journey, 20 times as many as in the same period last year.
With one week of January to go, around 37,000 migrants and refugees have arrived in Europe by land or sea already, a figure roughly 10 times the equivalent total for the same month last year. The number of fatalities in the Mediterranean, , stands at 158, already far more than the past two Januaries combined.
Now the great fear is the weather, as cold creeps across the refugees’ routes. A snowstorm is forecast to hit the flimsy tents of Lebanon’s refugee camps on Sunday night. Across the Balkans, the temperature is expected to plummet further.
“I went from Turkey, to Greece, to Macedonia, I can’t remember where I am! Serbia? Three more countries to go? OK. Cold, yes, but the hardest part is over, thank God,” said Hannan, a Syrian travelling with her five children, all aged under eight.
“I thought we would be dead in the boat. The water came up inside the boat and we were all frozen. The kids were blue and they are still sick from that. When they were lifted out of the boat, the water was dripping from them.”
Men who have safely reached are now sending for their families, causing a growth in the numbers of women, children and the elderly on the migrant trails, a spike in the most vulnerable just as winter sets in. “I wanted to come fast. I need help with the children, I need my husband,” said Hannan, busy wiping five runny noses.
Her bus from southern Serbia has stopped overnight at a disused motel close to Šid, where aid agencies offer bread, warm clothes and even a safe area where the children can draw and play.
Ahmed Emadan, 26, is here with his friend Mahmeet, 19, to get some warmth. He represents another element in the “second wave”, moving on from camps in Syria’s neighbouring countries.
“I lived in Turkey seven months; him one-and-a-half years,” said Emadan, a deserter from President Assad’s Syrian army. “But it was no good. I had a job but they didn’t pay me. Turkey is impossible. Hard.” They lost their money and phones when the eight-metre boat they took, along with 53 others, hit heavy seas. “The waves took my backpack. So we haven’t money to travel on and have to stay here for now. I’ll try to find work. I’ll have to cope with the cold, but I would rather sleep on the streets and freeze to death in Europe than go back to Turkey, die than go back to .”
The tortuous relationship between Serbia and Croatia has been overcome sufficiently to run these cross-border trains – creating at least one smooth passage for the tired and traumatised. But this remains a Europe of bottlenecks and ever-changing rhetoric for these refugees, and for those trying to help them along the way.
At Šid, the 800 refugees will now make a 66-mile trip to Croatia’s Slavonski Brod refugee centre, where they will again queue to be registered and issued with papers, before making their way by bus and by foot 300km to the Slovenian border. Then they intend to get to Austria, from where they hope to go on to Germany.
Last week’s announcement by Austria of allowed into the country has intensified the sense of urgency.
Critics say it is the failure of the 28-nation European Union to produce a strategy over the crisis that continues to exacerbate the situation on the ground, allowing fractious politicians to throw up fences and shut borders, leaving other states and refugees to cope with a domino effect of chaos and people-jams.
Conny Lenneberg, regional leader in the Middle East and eastern Europe for World Vision International, is visiting staff and volunteers at the motel. She says there is a palpable effect on the routes and the numbers using them as soon as individual countries impose caps or restrictions, close borders or make military deployments.
“These ad hoc announcements just cause panic along the routes,” she said. “They will keep funnelling people on to the boats and getting on this perilous road into Europe because people start to fear the door is closing, will close, and so they have to go now. They see assistance from governments is diminishing, the political resolve diminishing. If we don’t shore up the confidence in people that the long term is not uncertain, that there is hope on the horizon, then that level of insecurity is certainly not going to slow down this crisis. It will accelerate it.
“Europe needs a comprehensive strategy. These people don’t have a choice – snow and sea pale into comparison with the horrors they are fleeing.
“I’ve just been in Lebanon, where Syrian refugees are very worried about the lack of education for their children, a myriad of ways the government is making things difficult, so they will go looking for a school elsewhere. They are making it difficult for men to work now, so we are seeing a rise in children being sent out to work,” she added, pointing out that most Syrian refugees remain in Turkey (2.2 million), Lebanon (2 million) or Jordan (1.5 million). “Syria’s neighbours have been extraordinarily generous, but kneejerk reactions from governments in Europe are going to prove catastrophic.”
Concerns over arbitrary policymaking are shared at the very top levels – German chancellor Angela Merkel has called Austria’s cap “unhelpful” and was horrified by Hungary’s razor-wire border fence, which the UN’s secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, also attacked as “extremely concerning”.
Kirk Day, the International Rescue Committee’s Europe representative, also attacked Austria’s new limits: “Introducing caps is not the right approach. Not only does restricting asylum seekers contravene international law and the Geneva refugee convention, it is a shortsighted policy and will only exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Europe,” he said. “Individual countries making arbitrary decisions about how many or who they welcome does not constitute a European policy.”
And while governments fail to devise a joint reaction, people get on with helping the refugees and migrants on a day-by-day basis.
“We can connect with their experience. We have people here who were once refugees. We had 250,000 refugees from Bosnia and Croatia in Serbia in 1995,” said a volunteer, Ivana Babic, who is in a garage at the back of the motel, bundling bread, bananas, tins of meat and tuna, and toothpaste into blue carrier bags for the refugees on the buses. The helpers here are frustrated by the fact that a pristine toilet and shower block cannot be opened for people to use – it’s waiting for official clearance. Instead people are offered wet wipes.
“People are very happy to get this food. We’re averaging around 500 per day now. It has been busier – about 3,000 a day – but I’m not surprised it’s less because of the cold. In spring it will increase, I’m sure,” said Babic.
In truth it may be that, rather than the cold, it was last week’s ferry strike in Greece that slowed the numbers coming through Serbia this weekend. But the strike only delayed people; they are still on their way.
Last year 1.08 million people travelled into and across Europe on marathon journeys that brought them from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, a fraction of the 19.5 million refugees displaced globally by war.
As the fifth anniversary approaches in March of the start of the civil war in Syria, with no resolution in sight, what many are calling the “second wave” of people seeking refuge in Europe seems set to break all records in this grimly escalating crisis.
“It looks like history,” said a young Serbian aid volunteer, gesturing at the single file of humanity shuffling towards the train at Šid. She had just brought a jacket to a young man who had been standing shivering in a jumper and sweatpants. As she turned away from his grateful handshake, she looked at the frozen ground and folded her arms: “I don’t know how much more of this sadness I can see.”