Refugees brave Serbia's cold in hope of better future
Serbian authorities and UNHCR step up efforts to persuade children to move out of cold warehouses into government-run emergency shelters.
Eight-year-old Aziz, an Afghan refugee, tries to keep warm amid freezing conditions in Belgrade, Serbia.
© UNHCR/Daniel Etter
Eight-year-old Afghan refugee Aziz Jabarkheil has not slept in a real bed in almost a year. For now, he still sleeps on a pile of blankets in a complex of filthy, derelict warehouses behind Belgrade’s main train station. But his desperate situation might finally be about to change.
Since neighbouring European Union (EU) countries closed their borders in the spring of 2016 and started collective expulsions back into non-EU Serbia, the number of refugees and migrants stuck in the country has swelled from a few hundred to close to 8,000.
In response, Serbian authorities and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, together with humanitarian partners, have increased capacity at heated government shelters for refugees and migrants in Serbia from below 2,000 to close to 7,000 beds.
Thanks to these efforts, some 85 percent of refugees in the country, including all women and families, are accommodated in 17 government facilities. Meanwhile, a few hundred men and boys still squat in squalid and unsafe conditions.
The coldest winter for years has amplified the urgency of efforts to persuade all remaining children like Aziz to move out of derelict buildings into government shelters.
In recent days, over 400 refugees and migrants, including 200 children, agreed to leave the unsanitary, improvised shelter in Belgrade and move into nearby accommodation opened by the government in mid-January. Those who agreed to move say they are pleased to have done so.
“I had to leave, it was so cold and so dirty there,” said Kiramat Safi, a 17-year-old unaccompanied child from Afghanistan, who after four months outside volunteered to leave the warehouses and move into another government-run shelter at Krnjaca a fortnight ago.
“Now I’m feeling much better because it’s warmer here,” he added. “There’s no smoke and I can sleep inside.”
But until now, Aziz refused to move into a shelter. He was waiting for news of his father, who went missing for nearly three weeks following a botched attempt to cross the border. The eldest child of eight, Aziz left his family and home in Nanghahar province, Afghanistan, eight months ago, travelling together with his father, Habib Rahman, and uncle, Khan.
Aziz said they had been heading to join a second uncle, an asylum-seeker in France, but moved into the warehouses in late October after failing to cross the border into Croatia.
Again and again they tried to cross, but were repeatedly expelled back into Serbia.
Then, during their last attempt three weeks ago, disaster struck. The group were crossing a river in sub-zero temperatures when their raft sunk, leaving them soaking wet and unbearably cold. They called out for help from nearby Serbian border guards who took Aziz’s father into custody.
Letting the others go, police told Aziz and his uncle Khan to go and register at a nearby government shelter. But with no way to contact Habib Rahman and not knowing his whereabouts, they instead decided to returned to Belgrade to wait for him. Then, two days ago, Aziz’s father walked back into the derelict building.
UNHCR has, through its partners, since approached Habib Rahman and Aziz and urged them to move out of the unsanitary makeshift camp and into a government shelter.
“I was so happy when I found my son here,” said Habib Rahman, 31. “Now, we don’t know what to do. I want to go the shelter, but at the same time we want to try again to cross the border. We’ll probably go to the shelter but I don’t want to stay there very long.”
UNHCR continues to distribute leaflets and counsel those in the warehouse on their right to be accommodated in government shelters. It has worked hard to identify unaccompanied children sleeping rough in Belgrade and at other locations.
However, several hundred refugees and migrants, including a number of children like Aziz, remain unconvinced and are still camping out in the warehouses and surrounding buildings in downtown Belgrade.
“I’m the youngest living here now,” said Aziz, as he burned bits of scrap paper in a smoke-filled hall to stave off the freezing fog. “Before, there were other children younger than me but they have left for the shelter.”
Aziz said he has seen many horrors on his eight-month odyssey from Afghanistan to Serbia. But in many ways, he’s just like any other eight-year-old. He’s a big football fan and has even found a battered, deflated ball for the odd kickabout on the blackened, soot-lined floor of the warehouse.
“I like playing football and cricket, I know all the big stars,” he said. “At home I liked it better than here, I was with my brothers and sisters. I miss them. I left, but the others were too young to come.”
For now, Aziz, Habib Rahan and Khan still sleep on the floor of an old office room adjourning one of the empty warehouse halls. They are happy to have found a place where they can close the door, retaining heat and a modicum of privacy. Someone has donated them a wood-burning stove with a chimney, adding extra warmth at night without too much smoke.
“Everyone here looks after Aziz, he’s just a kid,” said 17-year-old Afghan refugee Ahmad Amadzi, who shares the room with the boy and his relatives. “It’s better in this room than other places here.”
Elsewhere, in a second warehouse, Afghan refugee Faysal Khan, 16, is worse off still. He spends his days huddled under a mound of donated blankets. The air around him is thick with toxic smoke from the scrapped railway sleepers residents burn around the clock to keep warm. But he’s adamant he will stay put.
“Once a day I get up and go outside to drink tea,” said Faysal. “Otherwise I stay just inside, here under the blanket, because outside it is very cold. There is a lot of smoke in here, but what can we do?”
Faysal said he was heading to join his sister, an asylum-seeker in Denmark, but his journey also came to a standstill in Belgrade four months ago. Since then, he has tried just once to cross the Croatian border but was expelled back into Serbia.
“I don’t dare do it again now because the air is so cold. What if I get lost?” he said. “When the cold is gone, we will go again, Inshallah. For us this is a good place. We won’t go to the shelter.”
Faysal, like Aziz and Khan, does not wish to apply for asylum in Serbia and is determined to push on with his journey. He said he will stay put in the abandoned warehouses despite the dangers posed by the smoke and freezing temperatures.
Meanwhile, young Aziz is looking forward to a more comfortable future. “When we leave here I can go and sleep in a bed,” he said. “In a house.”