Serbia: amazing bravery of child refugee “superheroes”

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Belgrade is bustling with life. The main street is busy with the noisy mix of commuter traffic and rattling trams filled with people on their way to work.

Across from me is a small park offering respite from the stress and strain of city life. Benches line the paths that lead to the bus station at the other side.

This is Afghani Park, as it is known locally, and has been a temporary home to thousands of refugees since last summer when the refugee crisis began.

Barriers

These days, Afghani Park is relatively quiet. Now, refugees mostly stay at the camp on the outskirts of the city and take the bus into town each day.

Today, there are around 40 or 50 refugees, mostly single men, but also some teenagers, gathered around waiting for a hot free meal to be distributed from a small wooden hut.

The EU-Turkey agreement came into force back in March this year and has drastically reduced the number of refugees on the move through Europe.

Borders have closed and there are no legal routes out of Greece through the Balkan region.

Despite these barriers and the absence of any organised system of support, every day around 300 refugees find a way into Serbia from Macedonia or Bulgaria.

For many, smugglers offer the only opportunity to move across borders and find a place of safety.

A refuge for refugees

A short distance up the road from the park is the Info Asylum Centre, supported by Save the Children.

The centre is open 24 hours, seven days per week, and provides information and advice on the asylum process as well as access to the internet – an essential service for keeping in touch with family back home and for connecting with other refugees. Social media is a vital tool for sharing the most up-to-date information with other refugees.

Behind the information desk and up some narrow stairs, is a small mezzanine, home to Save the Children’s mother-and-baby unit, and a safe space for children to play and learn.

This area is a refuge for families, offering parents a chance to rest and seek help, and for children to play with each other.

Every day, new families arrive while others continue their journey towards the Hungarian border, the only remaining legal route from Serbia.

Just 30 people each day are permitted to enter Hungary, meaning the number of people stranded in Serbia is growing week to week.

Broken promises

I am told that earlier today a group of more than 60 people, including around 20 children arrived in Belgrade from the Macedonian border. They were transported by smugglers in an old ambulance, crammed into the back of the vehicle for up to five hours with hardly any space to breath. Some feared that they would suffocate.

They were dropped 40 km outside Belgrade and transported into the city by taxi drivers, all part of the smugglers network.

These smugglers are often the only way that families can travel from one country to the next in search of their final destination.

Smugglers charge huge amounts of money to transport people – one person reported 1,500 euros to go from Belgrade to Bucharest. Families have sold everything they have to pay the smugglers.

Sometimes everything they have is not enough, and sometimes what they have is taken by the smuggler with a promise of transport that is quickly broken.

Smugglers often exert control over families by separating children from the parents, making them travel apart from each other.

Terrifying ordeals

It’s hard to imagine how desperately traumatic this experience must be for a parent – the fear that would grip them, constantly fighting panic, knowing they are powerless to protect their children.

For the separated child it must be no less terrifying. Up to 60 children per day arrive in Serbia without an adult to care for them, sometimes as young as 12 years old, travelling alone or with other young people for protection.

These children are often more vulnerable to abuse and risk falling into the hands of traffickers. Right now, the children and families here at the Info Asylum Centre seem relieved and happy to be met with the kindness offered by Save the Children staff.

Sharing stories

Nearby, at the Miksaliste Refugee Aid Centre, Save the Children provides food, clothing, shoes and other essential items.

It’s a vibrant place filled with the lively conversation of people sharing experiences and stories. Here, children can take part in specially designed activities that help them to talk about their journey and the things they’ve seen and lived through.

In the child-friendly space, a colourful ‘superheroes of the road’ map shows all the places along the route from Turkey where children have had to be brave.

This is a safe way for children to talk about their experience in a way that makes them feel strong and able to cope.

The walls are covered with their colourful artwork, some showing scenes from their journey. The drawings give a sense of how many children have passed through here and gives reassurance to those that arrive that this is a safe place, a place where children can be children.

What it means to feel safe

Back in the Info Asylum Centre, I meet a family who has just arrived in Belgrade. With them is a child, barely one month old. She was born in a transit camp in Greece, her expectant mother making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea.

In her short life, this small baby has travelled hundreds of miles across difficult terrain and dangerous conditions, her family driven on by a desperate need to find a place where they can all be safe and where it’s possible to build a future.

As I prepare to leave, a young girl run towards me and motions to be lifted up. I reach down and swing her up into my arms – she lets out an excited giggle, looks at me and smiles.

This is what it means to feel safe and protected, comfortable and at ease with those around her.

As I put her down to leave, she grabbed my hand and wouldn’t let go. The smile had gone and, at that moment, the spell had been broken.

I don’t know what will happen to this wee girl. She is caught up in a crisis that she cannot escape. She is in a foreign land with no home or security, no chance to learn and play, and is at risk of violence and abuse.

Many think the refugee crisis is over, but in Serbia I have seen that the world has forgotten these children.

The days of huge numbers of refugees travelling through Europe have gone, but these children in Serbia and the Balkan region are more vulnerable than ever.

This article also appears in The National

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