ADASEVCI, Serbia -- On a brisk November night, over 1,000 refugees and migrants paced the cracked pavement of a poorly lit gas station or idled in the decrepit lounge of an abandoned motel here.
Although the rest area was small, it wasn't crowded, because most of the migrants didn't even bother to disembark from the 20 buses that would eventually take them to Sid train station to reach other destinations in Europe. The Serbian government so far has refused to authorize NGOs to provide basic humanitarian services to the refugees and migrants, meaning they aren't legally allowed to set up tents or trailers to support people passing through the Adasevci rest center, the only one of its kind in Serbia.
The government's decision has gone largely unreported, partly because NGOs have avoided contacting the media for fear of losing their chance to gain authorization to help the refugees. But that hasn't prevented many organizations from launching small covert operations to provide some minimal assistance to those in need.
The thousands of refugees and migrants arriving in Adasevci each day often haven’t eaten for hours and are desperately hungry. Many need winter clothing, shoes, blankets, soap and toothbrushes. Babies and toddlers need wipes, diapers and warm clothes.
When I visited the rest center, I noticed two vans pull up nearby: One was an authorized Red Cross van allowed to work in Adasevci, while the other was a white vehicle from an unidentified nonprofit. The nonprofit employees handed over black plastic bags to the Red Cross representatives, who quickly loaded their van with the new supplies.
"They are giving the Red Cross additional food and nonfood items," explained the director of one aid organization. She had given me a ride to Adasevci, but asked to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardizing her NGO's bid for government approval.
The refugees' needs are too great for the Red Cross to bear alone, so the agency was reaching out to different nonprofits to request additional supplies. The exchanges always happen in this unofficial, "black bag" style.
At a November meeting in Belgrade, Serbia, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said the Serbian government was delaying authorization for nonprofits because it wanted to ensure that they coordinated their outreach to refugees and avoided duplicating services or leaving night shifts uncovered.
The UNHCR's explanation did not appease nonprofits. A representative from CARE, a prominent humanitarian group, stressed that it and many others were ready to start distributing supplies immediately, but were still waiting for approval.
Some NGOs believe the government is stalling because it wants to avoid providing any incentive for the refugees to stay in Serbia. They have tried to coax other governments to pressure Serbian officials on their behalf, to no avail.
The Serbian government itself has avoided addressing the issue publicly. The country is currently working to be accepted into the European Union and officials likely want to avoid the perception they are cracking down on civil society.
The people passing through Adasevci have made difficult and sometimes harrowing journeys. Nearly all of them endured the life-threatening sea crossing from Turkey to Greece in small, dangerously overloaded boats. Many of those who land at night have to walk more than 7 miles to reach the Macedonia-Serbia border because there is no transportation available after 10 p.m. Others sleep outside and wait for transportation the next morning.
A 19-year-old Syrian man -- who requested anonymity to protect him from repercussions as he applies for asylum -- said that the voyage wouldn't be so difficult if it weren't for the waiting and the lack of sanitation facilities, especially showers. In Adasevci, where the buses often stop for four hours or more before heading to the train station, there are 30 toilets for the thousands of people who pass through each day. There are no sinks and no running water, which makes it hard for people to wash their hands and faces or brush their teeth before heading to their next destination.
While the weather hasn't been too extreme so far, the heavy snows and sub-zero temperatures of the harsh European winter are on their way, and will be a shock to people coming from warmer climates who have never experienced them. Without help from nonprofits, Serbian authorities are unprepared to equip people for the winter and refugees will likely suffer health problems.
Many nonprofits are continuing their field operations without authorization, putting the best interests of the refugees first. During my three-day visit to Adasevci, one international nonprofit came to remove trash from the rest center. Serbians opposed to the often refugees complain that they leave trash behind. During my visit, I saw that the trash at the rest center wasn't any worse than what a similarly sized crowd would leave behind at a festival or concert, where people have access to trash bins and are not fleeing for their lives.
Staff and volunteers from several other nonprofits played with the children and organized outdoor activities like jump-rope, drawing and bubble-blowing. While the kids enjoyed a few moments of innocent fun, the adults finally had a chance to relax, smile and experience their children's joy in the midst of an exhausting and dangerous voyage toward a better life.
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