Notes From The Camp: 1


Leaving for the Serbian-Hungarian border I knew I will face a reality completely different from what I have lived until now. In advance I knew I will share with a larger audience what I’ll see, hear and experience, so my impressions and experiences will take the form of this blog “Notes from the Camp”.

In presenting everyday life in and around refugee camps in Serbia, relations with the local community, ideas for solving the crisis, my commentary will inevitably include how solutions are not implemented. 

Making the decision to work in a refugee camp is not an easy one, but once made a sense of mission and pure satisfaction follows. Informing people about it, not so much as incomprehension is be the standard reaction. In my country, Poland, I also faced hostile and racist arguments. An assumption that my goal at the Serbian-Hungarian border is to open it widely for migrants seems to dominate, and my explanations that the project is all about food distribution brings only new adverse arguments.

So shall we start with my motivation then?

So many complain about “the young generation with no ambitions and no great challenges” that our parents and grandparents had to face: fighting communism, and surviving the First and Second World War. In my view, the refugee crisis is the big challenge of our “generation without ambition” living in the visual culture. The kind of Europe we and future generations will live in depends on how we are going to solve this matter at the political, humanitarian and cultural level. Simple and obvious? Of course, but the crisis in Europe has been unfolding for several years, and the situation seems to only deteriorate. We fail at the political level. Are we at the purely human one as well? That is what I wanted to find out in Serbia.

Following the news I couldn’t resist the feeling that there is not enough information andwhat ispresented is very selective, too selective in fact. We face either extremely sad pictures of exhausted Syrian children or very hostile opinions about the potential dangers refugees represent. In Poland, the most common refugee context usually refers to Ukrainians. Not entering the political side of this dispute I want to notice an obvious fact, that ignoring the topic of southern refugees doesn’t mean it will vanish.

Refugees are coming to Europe whether we wish for it or not, and this fact will shape our societies well into the future. According to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) 270,547 people reached Europe by sea since the beginning of this year. A majority of them will settle in EU countries. Our influence on who exactly is it going to be is insignificant, butat this moment Syrians and Iraqis have the best chances of being granted asylum.

It is certain that completely banning this process is impossible. We can, however, influence the future process of refugee integration in Europe by treating people with dignity at the borders, by providing humanitarian and psychological aid as well as education in all camps.

Believing in everything I have written above I felt that my criticism towards political and humanitarian solutions is less credible if I myself, a person with skills, knowledge, and compassion am unwilling to sacrifice some time and effort for the cause I care about.

So I packed my bag and headed south.

I chose Northern Serbia because the situation seemed to be the least certain and the least organized. In Greece, where temporary camps have turned into permanent ones, the big international organizations are very visible, in cooperation with the government and many volunteers have put in place a system that seems to work. Of course, it is still a crisis situation, but the system seems to work. In contrast, the situation in Serbia seemed less optimistic.

I found Serbia interesting also from a political point of view. It struggles with a high level of corruption and poverty and other problems typical for that region, however already in 2009 it officially applied for EU membership. After pledging to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and sending the last war criminals to the Hague, in 2012 Serbia was granted a full candidate status. Serbian government understood that the refugee crisis can help the country with EU negotiations, therefore it presents itself as a state that copes with the situation better than many other EU countries including its neighbor, Hungary.

The biggest irony of this situation lies in the fact that Serbia argues this at the moment when the European borders start to close and it may be forced to admit tens of thousands of refugees while not even being in the European Union. It is not a comfortable situation for Serbia, nor for refugees, most of which only wish to transit through Serbia.

Since the construction of a fence at the Serbian-Hungarian border, passing to the EU is difficult but still possible. The system works in a simple way. After reaching the border region, refugees and migrants have to register and are assigned to either the official camp in Subotica or one of the two informal transit zone camps in Kelebija or Horgos.

Each day 30 people are allowed to cross the border: 28 family members and two single men. For the men, a one-month stay in a border detention camp is mandatory. I will describe details of this particular practice in a follow-up blog. The registration list changes frequently and nobody seems to know how it exactly works, but some rules seem to be in place. Priority has been given to refugees over migrants, and Syrians and Iraqis are usually on the top of the list. After crossing, they will be questioned by the Hungarian authorities and assigned to one of the camps just inside Hungary.

Refugees are well aware that Hungary is a hostile country for them. Many have witnessed brutal treatment at the border, but they speak highly about other EU countries, which is why they take the risk and continue their journey. Once inside Hungary, hardly anyone goes to the allocated camps. Most board trains or buses and head west toward other EU nations. Hungarian authorities do not even support the crowds that did not make it to the camps. They don’t want refugees transiting in their country, nor do they want refugees to settle in Hungary. As one can assume, only 30 passing through legally each day leads to a bottleneck at the border, and also serves as motivation for some to try illegal crossings.

Sonia Nandzik
Text first published on September 2nd 2016 on

Douglas Herman