On The Road Blog
Protecting the Unprotected
- By Joseph Bednarek on January 30th, 2014
- Category: Blog, Europe and Eurasia, Featured, Featured Blog, Home
The issue of migrants in Serbia is a relatively new one, but several active university students in Serbia became aware of this issue early on and in 2007 formed the Asylum Protection Center (APC) to serve this often intentionally forgotten and misunderstood community. This population of migrants includes a large number of unaccompanied minors. In some cases, as APC director Rados Djurovic explained to me, villages in places like Somalia or Afghanistan will choose children from their community to travel unaccompanied to destinations in Europe, where they will hopefully connect with the immigrant community there and send money back to the village. Along the way, these minors are subjected to intense danger and horrible abuses. Many migrants try to enter Europe by traveling to Turkey and then coming through Greece or Bulgaria, and they are often packed onto unsafe boats to sneak into these countries. Others are stuffed in cars or trucks for hours and hours without food and water until they cross borders and checkpoints. By the time migrants arrive in Serbia, they are often traumatized and deeply depressed that they have not yet reached their final destination.
The Asylum Protection Center works with migrants at one of several asylum centers set up by the government of Serbia. The APC team conducts a range of workshops for the migrants, tackling cultural differences and stereotypes, issues of identity and violence, and health issues. The team also often tries to include local Serbian kids at the workshops in order to stimulate dialogue and interaction with the local community.
I visited one such asylum center in western Serbia that houses about 60 to 80 migrants at any given time. I traveled with the APC team, which consisted of Rados, who is a lawyer; Jovana, a teacher; Jana, a psychologist; and Mihailo, an Arabic translator. Once at the center, Rados worked with the migrants to advise them on obtaining legal documents, while Jovana and Jana led a group workshop that was intended to help the migrants overcome the trauma of their journeys. The group that I sat with to included about six Afghans who came from Iran and thus speak Farsi, and about eight Arabic speakers who came from Morocco, Algeria, Syria, and Iraq. There wasn’t a Farsi speaker that day, so a young Afghan mother from Iran who spoke some English translated, while Mihailo translated for the Arabic speakers. Jana and Jovana took the group through activities that allow the migrants to discuss their trips that led to Serbia. I talked mostly with the Farsi-speaking group. In this group was the young Afghan mother who spoke some English and who had traveled with her 7-year-old son through Iran, Turkey, and Bulgaria before coming to Serbia. In Bulgaria, the mother and son were put into a camp, and one of the officers there beat the woman’s son when he dropped some trash on the ground. Most of the migrants have very negative things to say about their treatment in Bulgaria, and it’s easy to understand why: one of the other Afghans in the group, a 16-year-old boy traveling with his 15-year-old sister and his parents, told me that the Bulgarian authorities beat him and then subjected him to electric shocks. Poor treatment is not restricted to Bulgaria: another young boy, a 17-year-old from Afghanistan, explained that he was beaten for two hours by Serbian authorities when he first arrived in Serbia.
Rados Djurovic explained that the authorities in Bulgaria are trying to send a message to migrants to stay away and are using extremely brutal methods to do so. In light of these traumatic events, I was surprised that the young people in this group were able to share their stories, albeit cautiously, with a stranger like me. Jana and Jovana explained to me that even after a few short weeks, these individuals often open up to the APC staff, whom they trust to help them and keep their identities confidential. In fact, the APC staff told me that migrants now know about APC and often tell their families back home to seek out and call APC if they come to Serbia. I am also amazed that although these young people have been through so much, they are still determined to make a new life for themselves and are still able to occasionally smile and laugh a little bit among this temporary network of fellow migrants.
In the migrant community and network, migrants often move on quite suddenly. Two young men left the asylum center as we were leaving, and Rados said they were going tonight to make an attempt at the border. The APC staff often loses touch with the migrants once they leave Serbia. However, more and more, through grateful Facebook messages and texts, the staff is learning that these young people have successfully reached their destinations and their families. For APC staff members, this makes their very challenging work worthwhile.