6 November 2015 – New measures by a number of Balkan states to allow certain nationalities only to cross into their territories are leaving hundreds of people in transit stranded at border crossings, uncertain of their rights and without sufficient aid, says international medical organisation Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
The governments of Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and the Former Yugloslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) are limiting entry to people from the Middle East and Afghanistan. At the same time, restrictions imposed by the authorities are limiting the capacity of aid agencies to provide shelter and support to those who find themselves stranded.
“Evan before this arbitrary triage was put in place, the situation for people in transit in the Balkans was already desperate,” says Stefano Argenziano, MSF’s operations coordinator on migration. “For months we have been calling on authorities for concrete measures to grant safe and legal passage for those in need, but there has been little response.”
MSF is concerned about the medical and humanitarian consequences of these new border policies, and warns that they are likely to force people into taking more dangerous routes and into the hands of people smugglers. MSF calls on governments in Europe and the western Balkans to comply with their protection obligations and to allow humanitarian organisations to provide assistance to those in need.
Greece: Panic attacks and self-harm
In the transit camp of Idomeni, in northern Greece, the situation is particularly tense, with some 1,500 people – almost all from nationalities barred from crossing into FYROM – stranded at the border. They have no information on what options are available to them, and their only food is being provided by volunteer organisations. With more busloads of people arriving each day, these numbers are likely to increase significantly in coming days. MSF has set up 12 large tents which are providing shelter to some 900 people and is preparing to set up a further eight tents. However, this scaling up of humanitarian assistance is currently being challenged by Greek national and local authorities.
MSF’s medical teams in Idomeni are working seven days a week and have already observed increasing health needs amongst the stranded people. In particular, our psychologists have noted a significant increase in the number of people experiencing panic attacks and attempting self-harm, which they say is a direct consequence of the desperate conditions at the border and people’s uncertainty about their future.
“Most people here have undertaken long and arduous journeys to reach this point, often risking their lives and losing everything they had on the way,” says Antonis Rigas, MSF field coordinator in Idomeni. “It is imperative that the Greek authorities do not cause further harm to these people by limiting the capacity of humanitarian organisations to respond and by preventing them from attending to people’s most basic humanitarian needs."
In Presevo, 10 km north of Serbia’s border with FYROM, dozens of people have been prevented from entering the registration centre because of their nationality, and are being forced to spend nights outside in low temperatures. They include a pregnant woman from Afghanistan without the right papers.
In the town of Sid, near Serbia’s border with Croatia, some 350 people were stranded following the implementation of this policy. Some say they crossed the border into Croatia but were forced back by police. Several showed signs of physical abuse and reported to the MSF team that they had been beaten, kicked and threatened by Croatian border police.
“These new measures of segregation by nationality are likely to have dramatic effects, says Stephane Moissaing, MSF’s head of mission in Serbia. “We fear that some of the people in transit will be forced to go into hiding again, where they will have no access to any humanitarian assistance. This policy forces people into taking more dangerous routes – effectively it puts them into the hands of smugglers and will subject them to further violence and extortion.”
An arbitrary triage with concerning humanitarian effects
Over recent months, MSF has repeatedly denounced the lack of coordination of the humanitarian response for people in transit through the Balkans, which remains unable to cover people’s basic need for shelter.
“Authorising transit across the Balkans has so far been the only realistic response to the failure of the European asylum system and to Greece's inability to offer people assistance and protection,” says Aurelie Ponthieu, MSF’s humanitarian advisor on displacement. “This sudden policy change – implemented without any consideration for people's needs for protection, medical care or shelter – shows once again the failure of Europe and the western Balkan states to provide coherent and human solutions to the needs of desperate people in search of protection.”
In Idomeni transit camp, Greece, MSF teams have provided some 10,000 medical consultations since starting activities in April. MSF is managing water and sanitation in the camp and working with other organisations to provide people in transit with hot meals and other basic assistance. MSF teams are also working on the Greek islands of Lesbos, Samos, Leros, Kos, Kalymnos and Agathonisi, providing medical care, basic relief items and shelter for the thousands of refugees and migrants crossing the Aegean Sea. MSF teams are also providing psychological first aid to the survivors of shipwrecked boats.
In Serbia, MSF teams are providing an average of 1,200 medical consultations per week, with a total of 28,232 consultations since December 2014. In Presevo, MSF has set up several tents for the use of the most vulnerable people, and also provides transport for families with small children, the elderly and disabled people from the border with FYROM. At the Croatian border, MSF is currently setting up a number of tents, each of 240 square metres, that are suitable for winter temperatures.