Macedonia border closures have left thousands of asylum seekers stranded amid harsh weather.
Two-year-old Seraj from Syria is crying in the cold. Yesterday he arrived in Vinojug, a transit centre for refugees on the Macedonian border with Greece. He came with his parents, his cousin, his four-year-old brother and his baby sister. The family spent the night in a plastic shed with nothing to keep them warm but a few blankets as temperatures dropped below zero.
Now they are waiting, with hundreds of other refugees, for a train to take them through Macedonia to the Serbian border. But nobody knows when the train will depart. Or if it will depart at all.
Meanwhile Seraj clings to the legs of his father, 36-year-old Hassan. “He is afraid,” Hassan says.
His mother, 30-year-old Zeyneb, holds his baby sister, wrapped in a blanket. She is a tiny woman, and her dark eyes reflect the hardships of the journey.
“I am worried about Seraj,” she says. “When he was born, he suffered from a lack of oxygen. His health has always been fragile. And yesterday night we were freezing.”
It has been a week since they left their hometown of Quneitra in Syria. They managed to reach Greece by boat, but on the way they lost all their extra clothing, Zeyneb explains.
In Quneitra she used to work as a primary school teacher. Her husband taught maths.
“We lost our jobs during the war. Our house was destroyed,” Hassan says. “It was terrible.”
They hope to make it to Germany.
“In Germany there is good healthcare for Seraj,” Zeyneb says. “I want a future for my baby,” Hassan adds.
Sleeping on the ground
There are many children among the 3,000 refugees that arrive in Vinojug each day. Half of the Syrian refugees that now come to Europe are underage, according to figures from the European Ombudspersons for Children. But the refugee centre is simply not equipped to accommodate them.
Pregnant women and those with babies and toddlers are sleeping on the ground in tents or plastic cabins. There is no heating and it isn’t even possible to heat milk for a baby’s bottle.
The situation in the centre is chaotic. The train that people have been waiting for since yesterday has finally arrived. Hundreds of refugees throng along the railway. Children are crying, men are shouting, policemen are angrily ordering the crowd to form lines.
In the middle of this chaos, Marc Dullaert, the chairman of the European Ombudspersons for Children, is talking to mothers, fathers and children. His organisation recently established a task force to protect the rights of child refugees and he has come here to see the situation with his own eyes.
“I am deeply shocked by the conditions here,” he says. “Why do these children have to sleep on the ground in the freezing cold?”
He says this situation is not restricted to Macedonia: refugees encounter similar conditions in all the European countries they pass through. “There’s a total lack of coordination to offer child refugees a safe passage through Europe,” he explains. “These children are extremely vulnerable. They often go through traumatic experiences.”
‘A state of panic’
The gruelling boat trip from Turkey to Greece is one such experience.
“We were with 70 people on the boat. Twenty of them were children,” says 40-year-old Nouha, who is from Syria. “They were in a state of panic.”
She fled from Aleppo with her brother, her sister-in-law, her nephew and her five-year-old daughter, Rouha.
“Rouha was so scared. She was crying and shouting all the way.”
The journey took four hours.
“But there’s more than just traumatic experiences,” says Dullaert. “Many child refugees have become victims of physical and sexual violence or of human trafficking. And in the chaos of the transit centres they run a serious risk of being separated from their parents.”
He is particularly concerned about child refugees travelling alone. “The countries they pass through have all signed the UN children’s rights treaty. Which means they should be offering them protection. But the opposite is happening. I know of cases in Greece, Italy and Hungary where unaccompanied minors have been put in jail, among criminals.”
Now that winter has set in, the situation is becoming more urgent. Earlier this month, reports came from Greece of several babies dying of hypothermia after arriving from Turkey.
“The EU is not doing anything about it,” says Dullaert. “They are literally leaving these children standing in the cold.”
‘The cold is the worst’
In January, the Ombudspersons for Children will present a report on the plight of child refugees with recommendations for the European Commission.
“Nowadays, all the talk is about the numbers of refugees Europe wants to allow and about closing borders,” says Dullaert. “Whereas the biggest issue should be the situation of these children.”
“The cold is the worst thing now,” says 16-year-old Murhat, Nouha’s nephew. His round face is white and he looks exhausted. His arrival yesterday in Vinojug was a frightening experience for him.
“We were waiting here, hoping a train would come, but it never arrived. Then the police came. They told us to go into the tents and they pushed and hit us.
“We shouted: don’t hit the children, but they didn’t listen to us,” Nouha says angrily.
‘We are not prepared’
It is about 5pm and completely dark when the train packed with refugees finally arrives in the Tabanovce transit centre, close to the Serbian border in northern Macedonia. There’s no lighting in the train and the smell in the carriages is unbearable.
When the doors open, people stumble out, disorientated and dazed. One child has wet his pants and his father calls out for help. Families with very young children simply sit down on the platform to eat the bread that is offered to them.
In Tabanovce, there is only one heated space. It’s the child-friendly area set up by SOS Children’s Villages, an NGO that works to protect the rights of children. It’s a simple prefab cabin with a few toys and plastic children’s chairs scattered around the room. On the walls there are drawings – simple pictures of houses, trees and cars – made by the children.
Women with babies and small children hurry inside.
“I feel so guilty about not being able to do more,” says director Julijana Nakova Gapo. “A lot of babies are undernourished. Children are exhausted, they are coughing, they have temperatures. There are many women who are pregnant. We had several births here. But we can offer only basic care.”
Tears well in her eyes as she watches the mothers and children trying to make themselves comfortable on blankets on the floor.
“We had children arriving in summer clothes, in sandals and T-shirts. Mothers were wrapping their children in garbage bags. We didn’t have enough clothes to give to them, so we gave them our own socks.”
“We are simply not prepared for winter,” says Goran Stojanovski, the manager of the Tabanovce transit centre.
He makes no secret of his frustration.
“These cabins are designed for warm countries,” he says, tapping on the thin plastic walls of the sheds. “It’s too dangerous to put heaters in these cabins. And there are no beds. We had a budget of 10 million euros (almost $11m), but it’s already spent. Macedonia is a small country. We don’t have money for these kinds of emergency projects.”
‘Pray for me’
Not far from the children’s room, 11-year-old Mohammed, from the Syrian city of Dera’a, is waiting while his family decide what they are going to do. There is a dirt road that leads to the next transit centre in Serbia. It’s a 4km walk through the dark. Will they try to seach Serbia in the freezing cold or spend the night in a plastic cabin in Tabanovce? It’s a difficult decision to make.
“We have been 24 days under way now. I am very tired,” says Mohammed. He looks confused. “I really hope to be in Germany soon. I want to go to school. I want to live in peace.”
Mohammed stands a reasonable chance of one day reaching Germany. But things are very different for 14-year-old Mahmoud. His thin face looks sad and disillusioned as he hangs around an improvised woodstove.
“I am from Iraq. From Baghdad. I am escaping Daesh,” he says, using the Arabic term for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). But, judging from his dialect, it seems more likely that he belongs to the group of Moroccan boys and men who have been stuck at the centre.
The Serbian government allows only refugees from war zones such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to enter the country. Those who are considered economic migrants are refused entry.
Wrapped in blankets, the group of Moroccans try to keep warm around the woodstove, singing melancholy songs to pass the time. They are waiting for a chance to cross the border, but it will probably never come.
Mahmoud explains that his plan is to travel to Germany or Sweden, together with a man who says he is his father.
“I want to study. My dream is to become an engineer,” Mahmoud says.
“I miss my mother,” he adds. “She cried when I left. She said she would pray for me.”