Thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are enduring "appalling" conditions in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, and have been left camped in temperatures that have dropped well below freezing, aid groups have said.
Serbia is currently hosting an estimated 7,200 refugees, according to the UNHCR. Although the majority are being sheltered in government-run camps, aid workers estimate that around 2,000 are still on the streets or sheltering in an abandoned warehouse behind the main bus station in Belgrade.
The International Rescue Committee estimates "several hundred" of those trapped are children. One of those is 17-year-old Ajmal. The teenager has been living in Belgrade for a month after making the tough journey from Afghanistan.
"At the moment it is very difficult here, my life is very hard here," Ajmal (not his real name) told BuzzFeed News over the phone from Serbia. "It is very cold, I have so many problems with different things: the food, the clothing, everything."
Ajmal continued: "I sleep where I can. I am just homeless here. I don’t have a home or a tent to sleep here, it is very difficult. We are making fire every night but I can’t keep myself warm."
The teenager attempted the border from Turkey three times. He's desperate to move on, and to continue studying to be a doctor or an engineer to "help my country and all people." Ajmal was forced to flee Afghanistan after his school near Kabul was targeted by insurgents. "I didn’t want to leave but I couldn’t learn," he said. "If I go back, they will kill me."
Aside from the cold, Ajmal says getting food is hard. When he spoke to BuzzFeed News he said he hadn't had a proper meal in days. "Today I walked somewhere else to get food but when I arrived the food was already finished. I am very hungry now."
"I have a very difficult life," he said. "I am alone."
Gemma Gillie, a spokesperson for Doctors Without Borders, also known as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), described conditions in the warehouse as "unimaginable." Speaking to BuzzFeed News over the phone from Belgrade, Gillie said the warehouse — currently the only shelter available for the majority of new arrivals — was cramped, dirty, and missing a roof in some places. Yesterday, she met a 15-year-old boy from Afghanistan. He had just arrived in Belgrade with his 8-year-old brother. Despite the appalling conditions, the pair faced bedding down in -15°C as "there was nowhere else for them to go."
"There are 2,000 people sitting rough in 30 centimeters of snow and minus 15," she said. "It isn’t acceptable, by any stretch of the imagination."
Although the Serbian government claimed no women and children were still sleeping rough, aid workers on the ground said otherwise.
"There are a lot, and I mean a lot, of adolescents," Gillie said. "Half of the people we are treating in our mobile clinic are under 18."
Todor Gardos, Amnesty International's Balkans researcher, told BuzzFeed News via phone from Brussels that he had spoken to “quite a few” children under 15, one as young as 11, who were “completely alone” when he visited Belgrade last week.
“It is a really precarious situation there, especially for the children there.” As well as being more vulnerable to the weather, he said, the children were also in danger from traffickers and sexual exploitation. “It is absolutely horrendous,” he said.
Yesterday, doctors and nurses working in a temporary MSF clinic saw seven cases of frostbite – including one 60-year-old who could no longer walk after frostbite infected his leg. "Our medics are confident that by the weekend that number is going to be a lot higher," Gillie said. "It is really scary."
Serbia, which is not part of the European Union, is one of the main routes taken by many refugees and migrants into the EU. The Serbian government has attempted to crack down on these refugees, from November banning NGOs, volunteers, and civil society groups from giving refugees food or clothing — unless they're in an official camp.
Meanwhile, Aleksandar Vulin, Serbia's minister for labour, employment, veteran, and social affairs, says Serbian authorities have space inside the camps for everyone. Those choosing not to go to one do so at their own risk, CNN reported him saying.
But Amnesty's Gardos said many of those his organization spoke to had attempted to get into a government reception centre but had been refused by Serbian authorities. “They had been told ‘there is no place for you, the centers are full’, go back,” he said.