While many in Serbia prepare for Orthodox Christmas, others in the country and neighboring Hungary are bedding down in freezing cold weather hoping to survive.
Temperatures in Hungary and Serbia have dropped to minus 20 degrees centigrade at night. Yet nearly 2,000 asylum seekers and migrants are sleeping rough in Belgrade, in front of Hungary’s “transit zones” on the Serbian border, or inside a tattered government-run tent camp in Hungary without enough aid.
In some cases, not only have authorities failed to provide humane conditions, they have also tried to prevent humanitarian organizations from aiding those in need.
When I was in Belgrade in late November, the Serbian government banned aid organizations from helping asylum seekers and migrants sleeping rough. Still, one aid group continues to distribute hot meals for more than 1,000 people, including children, stuck in abandoned warehouses behind the Belgrade train station. These people are stranded without heating, toilets, and showers. They burn whatever scrap they find to keep warm, inhaling poisonous fumes. To date, authorities have taken no action against the aid group, but the threat remains.
The Serbian government ignored several requests by aid groups in November and December, including from Médecins Sans Frontières, to build temporary and winterized camps. Today, authorities finally relocated 80 of the most vulnerable people in the warehouse to already overfull camps around Serbia, hardly an ideal solution given existing concerns about overcrowding.
Hungary’s government has made life miserable for asylum seekers. In late December, the government closed the largest, and likely best, refugee camp in Bicske. No official explanation was given.
Asylum seekers were dispersed to other camps, including a temporary tent camp in Kormend, close to the Austrian border. Kormend has no proper insulation, heating consists of wood stoves, and the tents stand on frigid, damp bare ground. The local priest took pity on the asylum seekers and offered them to stay in a community hall in his parish.
The situation is no better for those waiting to enter Hungary through the two transit zones on its Serbian border. Some 134 people are camping in squalid conditions, having been given only sawdust briquettes to burn, and blankets and insulation foil to keep warm.
Let’s hope the holiday season inspires Serbs and Hungarians to welcome these “strangers”. The EU, its member countries and those who want to join it – like Serbia – have a duty to ensure humane treatment for asylum seekers or migrants. Winterized accommodations are essential.