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Sonia Nandzik

Notes from the camp: The big challenge of the generation

Leaving to the Serbian-Hungarian border I knew I will face a reality completely different from those I lived in till now. I knew I want to share the things I’ll see, hear and experience here. My impressions gathered in this and the following blogs present everyday life in and around refugee camps in Serbia, relations with the local community, ideas for solving the crisis, as well as how are they and how are they not implemented.

Taking a decision about working in a refugee camp is not an easy one but once taken gives a sense of mission and pure satisfaction. Informing people about it, not that much. Incomprehension would be the standard reaction. In my country, Poland, I also faced hostile and racist arguments. An assumption that my goal at the Serbian-Hungarian border is to open it widely for migrants seemed to dominate. My explanations that the project is all about food distribution, brought only new adverse arguments. Shall we start with my motivation then?

The big challenge of the generation

So many complain about “the young generation with no ambitions and no great challenges” that our parents and grandparents had to face: fighting communism, First and Second World War. In my view, the refugee crisis is the big challenge of “the generation with no ambitions” living in the visual culture. The kind of Europe we and future generations will live in depends on how we are going to solve this matter at the political, humanitarian and cultural level. Simple and obvious? Of course but the crisis in Europe is on for several years, and the situation seems to deteriorate. We fail at the political level. Do we at the purely human one as well? That is what I wanted to find out in Serbia.

Following the news I couldn’t resist the feeling that there is not enough information and the ones presented are very selective, too selective. We face either extremely sad pictures of exhausted Syrian children or very hostile opinions. In Poland, the most common refugee context usually refers to Ukrainians. Not entering the political side of this dispute I want to notice an obvious fact, that ignoring the topic of southern refugees doesn’t mean it will vanish.

Refugees are coming to Europe whether we wish for it or not and will shape our societies. According to UNHCR 270, 547 people reached Europe by sea since the beginning of this year. A majority of them will settle in the EU countries. Our influence on who exactly is it going to be is insignificant. At this moment, Syrians and Iraqis have the best chances to be granted asylum.

Barbed wire at the Serbian-Hungarian border, photo: Sonia Nandzik ⓒ

Barbed wire at the Serbian-Hungarian border, photo: Sonia Nandzik ⓒ

It is certain that banning this process completely is impossible. We can, however, influence the future process of refugee integration in Europe by treating them with dignity at the borders, by providing humanitarian and psychological aid as well as education in the camps.

Believing in everything I have written above I felt that my criticism towards political and humanitarian solutions is less credible if I myself, a person with skills, knowledge, and compassion am unwilling to sacrifice some time and effort for the cause I care about. So I packed my bag and headed south.

Why northern Serbia?

I have chosen northern Serbia where the situation seemed to be the least certain and the least well organized. In Greece where the temporary camps turned into permanent ones, the big international organizations are very visible and in cooperation with the government and many volunteers have put in place a system that seems to work. Of course, it is still a crisis situation, but the system works. The situation in Serbia seemed to be less optimistic.

Official refugee camp in Subotica, photo: Sonia Nandzik ⓒ

Official refugee camp in Subotica, photo: Sonia Nandzik ⓒ

I find Serbia interesting also from the political point of view. It struggles with a high level of corruption and poverty and other problems typical for that region, however already in 2009 it officially applied for the EU membership. After pledging to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and sending the last war criminals to the Hague, in 2012 Serbia was granted a full candidate status. Serbian government understands that the refugee crisis can help the country with the EU negotiations. Therefore it presents itself as a state that copes with the situation better than many EU countries including its neighbor, Hungary.

The biggest irony of this situation lies in the fact that Serbia argues this at the moment when the European borders start to close and it may be forced to admit tens of thousands of refugees while not even being in the European Union. It is not a comfortable situation neither for Serbia nor for refugees, most of which consider this country only a transit one.

At the border

Since the construction of a fence at the Serbian-Hungarian border, passing to the EU is difficult but still possible. The system works in a simple way. After reaching the border region, refugees and migrants have to register and are assigned to either the official camp in Subotica or one of the two transit zone ones in Kelebija or Horgos.

A family in Kelebija refugee camp, photo: Sonia Nandzik ⓒ

A family in Kelebija refugee camp, photo: Sonia Nandzik ⓒ

Every day 30 people can cross the border: 28 family members and two single men after being detained for one month (I will describe details of this particular practice in one of the next blogs). The registration list changes frequently and nobody seems to know how does it exactly work, but some rules are in place. Priority has been given to refugees over migrants; Syrians and Iraqis are usually on the top of the list. After crossing, they will be questioned by the Hungarian authorities and assigned to one of the camps in Hungary.

Refugees know that Hungary is a country hostile to them.

Refugees know that Hungary is a country hostile to them. Many have witnessed brutal treatment at the border. However, they speak highly about other EU countries, which is why they take the risk and continue their journey. Hardly anyone goes to the allocated camp. Most board trains or buses and head west. Hungarian authorities do not even stand up for the crowds that did not make it to the camps. Neither they want refugees in their country, nor want refugees to stay there.

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Sonia Nandzik
Master in international relations from the Jagiellonian University and in sociology from the University of Silesia. She monitored EU policy for several years while working for the European Parliament and organising political campaigns. She promotes education projects and programs aiming at ending modern-day slavery. Those days you can find her in refugee camps in northern Serbia working on food distribution for refugees.
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