Reflections from Nobel peace laureate Jody Williams on Day 3 of the Opening Borders: #WomenRefugeesWelcome Delegation to The Balkans and Germany.
FOLLOWING THE ROUTE OF REFUGEES THROUGH THE BALKANS: Part 1 – Slovenia
We climb into our vehicles and drive about an hour from Zagreb and cross the border into Slovenia. We’re going to Dobova refugee center there. It’s the next transit site for the refugees coming from Slavonski Brod in Croatia. Robert Brezice, a police officer our colleagues in the Balkans have had interactions with is to be our guide for the relatively short time we are in Slovenia.
We start out at the pristine police station that has now been set up to deal with the refugee flow. Robert tells us that it can accommodate up to 5,000 people. It also has a small medical clinic for those who need care. He said that three babies had been born here, but many people are treated for dehydration. Estonia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and Germany have provided police officers as support.
We go behind the police station to see tents that have been set up for refugees. Even though we spend a lot of time with Robert before we return to Zagreb, I never was able to quite understand when these facilities have been or will be used. I think they’d be used in the case of cold weather and if people needed to stay longer than the hours they wait between trains.
Obviously people have been there, since three babies were born in the medical clinic there. But during the time that we are at the police station, before going to the station where refugees board the trains that will take them to Austria and beyond, we don’t see a single human other than police. The police station is quiet and the tents behind it stand empty, perfectly clean. Unused.
Robert explains to us lessons learned in the time between the first wave of refugees that came in September and the massive flow in the past few weeks. He says that during the first wave about 600 people a day crossed into Slovenia; now the number is about 12,000 a day.
The most important lesson, he says, is communication, communication, and more communication. He’s talking about communication between the governments on the refugee route, not necessarily communication with the refugees themselves. Of course the governments need to talk with each other to coordinate the buses and the trains to keep the refugees moving through their countries. “Through” being the operative word.
During the first wave, there was little to no communication between officials from the different countries on the refugee route. Because of that, they had no way to know numbers of people on the move, when they might arrive, if they’d be walking or on a bus or train. Preparations for receiving refugees were difficult to impossible.
But with the massive influx in the second wave, the only way that countries could try to keep chaos at a minimum was to talk with each other and streamline as much as possible the transit of humanity through the Balkans.
In the second wave, some 228,000 people have passed through Slovenia so far; only 80 have requested asylum. But then again, they’ve not been met with open arms, or presented asylum request forms and information about the asylum process in Slovenia. The people are moved off trains from Croatia, bussed to transit centers we will never see and then bussed back to the station to get on the next train out of Slovenia. They count their time in the country in hours not days. Efficient movement of people in and out is the focus, not trying to make them feel human and welcome.
During the first wave, it was NGOs and individuals who reached out to help the desperate people. They still do to the best of their ability, but once officialdom took over, the overwhelming majority have been sidelined in the Balkans. On the one hand, that’s very understandable. With the refugees always on the move, and the officials the ones moving them, where would those who had responded to the refugees for weeks and weeks fit now? If you want people in and out of your country as quickly as possible, adding NGOs and individuals to the mix just makes it more complicated. It also removes human-to-human contact and reduces information given to the refugees to that which the governments want them to have.
In re-reading the above, I realize that it might sound somehow nefarious on the part of the governments. It probably isn’t. Maybe it isn’t. But for those helping the refugees and who still want to be involved somehow in the process it is both infuriating and emotionally difficult.
The women who arranged our visits and meetings in the Balkans, and who accompanied us from the day we arrived until we left for Berlin, are very unhappy at being excluded. Some had been refugees themselves during the wars in the Balkans as Yugoslavia fell apart and know what the Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others fleeing war and oppression are feeling. They know how important people to people support is.
We ask about the barbed wire that has gone up along the border between Slovenia and Croatia. He says it was necessary for security and to streamline the movement of people. He reminds us of the refugees in the first flow, wandering through fields, trying to make their way to Germany.
Imagine, he says, people who want to help and maybe bring a basket of apples into the field. How can a basket of apples be divided among hundreds of hungry people? Only one man, he points out, was able to feed multitudes with five fish and a few loaves of bread. Got to hand it to Robert, he does have a rather dry sense of humor.
At one point near the end of our tour of the empty facilities at the police station, a member of the delegation says that we are being given nothing but a dog and pony show. She’s not happy at all. She says the people we should be talking with are the refugees; we shouldn’t be spending endless time listening to Robert describe the situation. We need to see it, see transit centers where the refugees are right now and be able to talk with them and make our own assessments.
For god knows what reason, I try to disabuse her of the dog and pony show notion. I say for god know what reason because I’ve worked with and around too many government officials, representatives and whatever else titles they have for over three decades now to not already have my sensors up, like she does. I say that he’s probably just giving us an overview and then we will be taken to talk with refugees and see the process of their transit through Slovenia.
Finally we are taken to the train station. En route, Robert tells us that while he accommodating, the officers at the station are not quite as flexible as he is so we must listen to them. We arrive at the station and still Robert talks and we are not yet allowed to approach the trains or the people. We can only take pictures from afar.
Before we will finally be allowed onto the platform, we taken away to see a tent, where approved NGO partners are allowed to help refugees and provide food and such if they need it mill around the empty area. It is very hard to tell how they could help anyone. They are not near where the buses stop to unload the people who are filed immediately onto the boarding platform to get onto the trains. The train, by the way, is filthy and stinks.
More buses arrive while we are admiring the tent. The picture below is taken from beside the tent site. Beyond the police tape and the fence, behind which I am standing several yards from the tent, you can see refugees getting off the bus and moving directly through a gate in a fence to line up to get on the trains.
The gate where the buses unload is but a few steps from the train platform. Given that the NGO tent is outside the fence line, I’m at a loss to see what aid and comfort they could give the refugees. I don’t see how they even might have access to them.
Below is a shot from the other perspective, from inside the fence. You can see people getting off the bus and moving in a line toward the train platform.
From the buses, which come one after the other, these exhausted people who have been days and days and days in near constant movement since managing to get out of Syria now line up for the train. I’ve seen no “disorder” anywhere along the Balkan route. And finally, finally we are allowed to approach them.
However as soon as members of our delegation try to talk with them as they move along the platform, this policeman below screams – yes, screams and screams and screams again – at the refugees to move, move, move. He is extremely tall and imposing, with a pistol on one hip and his very long billy club on the other. If he harbours humanity deep in his soul, it is not evident in any way.
He tolerates our presence because he knows he has no choice. I worry that he might even be worse once we are gone, in a perverse “retaliation” against people who paused for two minutes to try to talk with us as they moved forward to board the train.
This family stops to try to talk with a couple members of our delegation. The police official above screams and screams and screams again for them to move, move, move.
I don’t know why he needs to scream. There’s nowhere anyone could go. Nor much reason they’d want to. They know they are getting on a train that will next have them in Austria, ever closer to Germany. The only thing I can imagine is that they scream so the refugees will have no doubt that Slovenia is not a place they should think about for asylum.
The actual transit center where the refugees are coming from to get on the train is very near the train station. We hope to go there, but we leave and are taken to another pristine, empty camp that, it seems, might sometimes house refugees.
As we finally board our vehicles to return to Zagreb, I have to apologize to our colleague on the delegation for my inane comment about the dog and pony show. I guess even after my years and years of work, somewhere inside I want to think if an official talks nice to us, it means the system is “nice.”
Robert talks nice to us. Perhaps he even is nice. But he’s the PR man because he does know how to talk nice. It doesn’t change the very unpleasant things we’ve seen along the transit route through Slovenia the refugees must take. After all, we are never permitted to see the place where the refugees wait after getting off the train from Croatia and before being loaded on the train out of Slovenia.
On the train platform earlier, one of the Syrian men walking by me looked at me and said, “Thank you.” Somehow, I felt ashamed. I can’t get that out of my mind as I get back into the van to return to Zagreb.