Refugee and migrant crisis in Europe: Life on the road

Jovana Savic | October 30, 2015

A family waiting to be registered at the registration center in Presevo, Serbia. Photo: Jovana Savic / CWS

A family waiting to be registered at the registration center in Presevo, Serbia. Photo: Jovana Savic / CWS

Since September I have been organizing the CWS response to the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe. This is a complex emergency. But the needs of the families I am meeting are not.

So often, the first request we hear is for bread. The road for these refugees is long and the children are hungry. CWS has been working with the Red Cross in Presevo to provide bread to refugees and migrants streaming into Europe. In Serbia, Presevo is the first stop refugees and migrants reach once they cross the border from Macedonia. There are no capacities in Presevo to produce food, but the town of Bujanovac, more than half an hour away, was from the onset of the crisis selected as the spot for bread production.

Every day, we receive an estimate of people who are expected to cross the border the next day and we make the amount of breed needed and deliver it to the registration centre in Presevo. It varies daily, from 750 to 2,000 pieces of bread, but colleagues and volunteers are working around the clock to make this happen.

I’ll just give you several numbers: on October 23 and 24, 15,085 people entered Serbia from Macedonia and were processed in Presevo. The UNHCR reported over the weekend that 62,000 refugees and migrants arrived by sea in Greece, the highest weekly arrival figure so far, so we can expect the substantial flow of people to continue.  As a comparison, the United States has only accepted 1,600 Syrian refugees since the very beginning of the crisis more than five years ago.

There are plans to open up an additional registration centre in Bujanovac, and if the plan materializes we can expect an increased need for bread and food for arriving families.  To meet this likely need, CWS is investing in the capacities of the bakery and making sure they are able to meet the current and future demand for food.

When I was in Presevo the other day, I spent some time in the Red Cross tent and container (many makeshift offices are housed in converted shipping containers) wanting to hear and witness what people’s needs are, what are they asking for. Almost every single person who came to take a food package was asking if there was more bread inside. We need to make sure the bread continually reaches them. Milk is also extremely wanted and needed for added nutrition and calories after long journeys.

To make things even more challenging, both Bujanovac and Presevo are among the poorest regions in Serbia. With the number of migrants and refugees crossing into Serbia increasing, the registration centre in Presevo is overwhelmed and currently has no capacity to properly shelter people during the increasingly colder and rainier days and nights.

Winter is coming. The second largest need is rain resistant winter shoes and coats, especially for children: including shawls or wrappers, caps and gloves, socks, all again especially for children. CWS plans to deliver customized packages of raincoats and jackets, with a focus on shawls, caps and winter boots and socks for women and children.

The need for shelter is strong. While we can’t meet all needs, one thing we have done is to adapt a shipping container to provide some relief. The CWS double container is a shelter for arriving refugees and migrants.

Currently, all migrants and refugees that enter Serbia exit at the Serbian-Croatian border. With our container now stationed there, we will be able to provide support at the exit point. The crossing to Croatia though still lacks adequate shelter.  A few days ago Croatia temporarily delayed entry to over 3,000 people, including many families with young children who had to spend the night at the border in the rain without adequate shelter and with minimal assistance. The harsh night caused several cases of hypothermia.  While CWS is assisting, more needs to be done to provide adequate shelter as families continue their journey through to Croatia.

Currently, the life on the road for families, elderly and disabled is particularly harsh. The majority of migrants and refugees move fast in fear that bad weather or yet another closed border will slow down their journey. The journey for families, especially those with many children, is slower and more difficult. With winter approaching, families are at times forced to spend nights and days in reception centers and border crossings without appropriate shelter and heating, a situation that especially impacts children.

We are working day and night to protect and serve the refugees and migrants. The children and their futures. Please join us.

On November 12th, CWS will host a cocktail reception in New York City, providing time for our supporters to engage with CWS colleagues as well as Syrian refugee families. Tickets are now on sale, the proceeds of which will go directly to help fund the support given to refugee families. Learn more. 

Jovana Savic is CWS’s Communications and Program Manager in Europe.