Khatear and her daughter Yalta, born in exile on July 14, 2017. Credit : Julia Dumont.
Khatear and her daughter Yalta, born in exile on July 14, 2017. Credit : Julia Dumont.

Over the last two years, Serbia has seen tens of thousands of migrants passing through the country. After Hungary and Croatia closed their borders, Belgrade has had to become better organized to welcome them, whilst hoping that the situation is only temporary.

Resting on a bed covered in a large piece of grey felt, Khatear, dressed in a black tracksuit and a fuchsia scarf arranged carelessly on her head, still moves with difficulty. Six days ago, this 28-year-old Afghan woman gave birth to a baby girl. The noises in the corridors full of children do not seem to disturb her little daughter, Yalta, who is sound asleep. “I’d have preferred her to have been born in Germany,” Khatear admits.

The young Afghan mother arrived in Serbia 10 months ago with her husband and two older siblings. She now lives in a migrant centre in Adasevci while she waits for authorization to go to Hungary.

Located on the side of a motorway leading to Zagreb, the Croatian capital, the migrant centre was set up in the rundown hotel of a former petrol station. A one-hour drive from Belgrade, and with no shops or sign of life around, it seems lost in a vast no-man's land withering away in the scorching summer sun.

A board reading ‘One Stop Centre’ in front of the entrance to the building recalls that two years earlier, at the height of the migration crisis in the Balkans, Adasevci was only a crossing point towards Croatia. Thousands of people transited through, never staying more than a few days. The bedrooms of the old brick building were insufficient for everybody, so large tents furnished with bunk beds were installed outside.

The Adasevci centre was opened in a former hotel beside a motorway. Credit : Julia Dumont.

Two years later, 750 people still live in the center. A situation that was only supposed to be temporary has been prolonged, day by day. The majority of families, like Khatear’s, are housed in the bedrooms but dozens of young men sleep in the tents. When the temperatures soar to 35 degrees Celcius, like last month in July, the heat is unbearable.

Increasing number of psychological issues

The humanitarian organisations that regularly visit migrant centres all issue the same warning: that extending the waiting time in precarious situations brings about a multiplicity of psychological issues and the risk of violence.

In the centre in Adasevci, Aleksandra Stamenkovic and Ivana Ivljanin, psychologists for Médecins du Monde, have lost count of the numbers of migrants suffering from depression, anxiety and even post-traumatic stress disorder. “A lot of our patients have difficulty sleeping and talk about having flashbacks not only of what they experienced in their countries but also during their journey,” they say.

In Belgrade, the Psychological Innovation Network (PIN) collaborates with the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) in documenting the psychological issues that the migrants suffer from and in trying to find solutions.

Isidora Ilic, a psychologist at PIN, believes the situation started to seriously deteriorate in March 2016, when Hungary sealed its border and restricted migrants from passing through. “People quickly began losing hope,” Ilic says.

By opening the migrant centres, “The Serbian government has responded to the migrants’ primary needs,” the young woman adds. “Now, it’s necessary to take the time to listen to them. Sometimes, simply asking them ‘How are you?’ can sooth some of their pain.”

Families have settled into the bedrooms, like the ones captured in this image. Single men, meanwhile, sleep in the tents outside. Credit : Julia Dumont.

50 applications for asylum in June

The Serbian government is still trying to convince itself that the presence of more than 6,000 migrants, mostly from Afghanistan, is only temporary.

According to Anja Stefanovic from the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) for human rights founded in 1995, Belgrade is trying to reconcile two matters.

“In its speeches, the government continues to present itself as a transit country,” she says. “At the same time, there’s a sincere desire to manage the situation with humanity because Serbia is still marked by the memory of the waves of refugees [provoked by the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia] in the 1990s.”

The majority of NGOs present in Serbia think that the infrastructures for offering shelter to migrants are satisfactory, even if they lack the means to keep adults busy and to educate children.

One sign that the situation is becoming long-term is that increasingly more people envisage seeking asylum in Serbia. According to a report on Serbia by the UNHCR in June, 50 people applied for asylum in Hungary that month. This was up from only nine applications for asylum in May. However, the process remains extremely long and strict. Since January 1, 2017, only one person has been granted asylum.


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