The railway children

Published by The Mail on Sunday (15th January, 2017)

The snow lay a foot deep as I slid my way alongside railway tracks, covering the nearby piles of abandoned sleepers and dishevelled huts in a thick white coat.

In front of me were two decrepit wooden carriages, with smoke seeping from a home-made chimney stack poking out on one side.

I parted a stained brown rug hanging over a doorway. Inside were eight teenage boys, some huddled beneath blankets for warmth in temperatures plunging to minus 15 degrees.

One coughed repeatedly, telling me he was sick. Another stared disconsolately through the steamed-up window. A third had no socks despite the bone-chilling cold, while a fourth wore just a thin sweater and cotton trousers.

The pitiful scene was eerily familiar from so many films. Yet this dreadful sight of human desperation was found in the heart of bustling modern Europe, not a war-torn continent from decades earlier.

Charities estimate that up to 2,000 migrants and refugees – many of them minors – are clustered around this derelict railway depot in central Belgrade as Serbia becomes a new front line in our continent’s long-running migration crisis.

These were child refugees and migrants from Afghanistan, sent by their families to seek new lives away from the conflict, chaos and poverty engulfing their own country. The youngest said he was just 13.

Some had spent five months in these appalling conditions. ‘My shoes are broken,’ said one 15-year-old. ‘They fell apart so it is very cold when I walk about.’

In the adjacent carriage, sharing a pan of eggs and a loaf of bread, were ten Afghan men.

Hundreds more migrants wandered nearby, swathed in blankets or eating their single daily meal of lentil stew handed out by volunteers. One man squatted in the snow to shave, seeing his reflection in a broken car mirror.

Others heated water in cans over open flames, then undressed to take makeshift showers using plastic bottles held by friends as more snow fell.

Yet more stripped off to wash their only set of clothes – then pulled soaked jeans and jerseys straight back on again despite the freezing weather. I shivered just watching in my warm anorak and thick sheepskin gloves.

I found pre-teenage children sleeping in warehouses, melting snow dripping from huge holes in the roof. Inside the air was thick with acrid smoke from burning tar-coated sleepers, set alight in the desperate struggle to stay warm.

Among them were eight-year-old Nasir and his brother Aziz, ten. ‘They are so hungry and cold, crying at night,’ said their older brother Gulagha, 30.

He said they were forced to flee after the Taliban shot dead their father, accusing the family of telling the authorities about a weapons cache. ‘My mother told me she would never forgive me if I failed to protect my brothers.’

With grotesque symbolism, the broken buildings crammed with migrants sit beside a luxury waterside development going up by the Sava river. Meanwhile, daily life in a thriving European city continues yards from these squalid scenes.

Doctors with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) told me they had treated ten incidents of frostbite, some serious, during the past week and that almost half the cases in their emergency clinic were people aged under 18.

The organisation rushed in generators to pump warm air into the warehouses when a big freeze struck Belgrade last weekend. It was so cold the machines only managed to raise the temperature to freezing point on the first night.

‘European policies cannot continue to neglect thousands of people in the Balkans,’ said Andrea Contenta, MSF’s humanitarian affairs adviser. ‘Whether they are refugees, migrants or asylum-seekers, they are still human beings in need of help.’

The problem is simple: people continue flocking to Europe in search of sanctuary or prosperity but neighbouring nations have sealed borders with fences, cameras, armed guards and dogs, while helicopters monitor from the sky.

About 50 migrants a day – but sometimes twice that number – are smuggled into Serbia. Most come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria, taking the well-worn Balkan route from Greece.

Serbs have been tolerant since the crisis exploded, aware most migrants pass through their nation. But now only 20 a day are allowed into Hungary and the visa-free Schengen zone.

The United Nations estimates there are already 7,500 refugees and migrants in Serbia, more than three-quarters of them in official camps. Relief groups believe the real figure is much higher – underlined by the distressing scenes in Belgrade.

‘Serbia is becoming a buffer zone, some kind of purgatory,’ warned Rados Djurovic, director of the Asylum Protection Centre, a local charity providing legal support.

Crouching in the bitter cold to eat his stew was Omar Mohammad, a teacher from Mosul, in northern Iraq, who was with his son Carmen, seven, and daughter Karben, ten.

He told me horrific but all-too-familiar tales of seeing Islamic State beheadings, children forced to shoot people, and kidnapped Yazidi girls sold in the street. ‘I want my children to have a future where they can go to school and have a safe life,’ he said.

The family spent almost £8,000 paying smugglers to escape from Mosul to Turkey, then on through Greece and Macedonia to Serbia. Now they have no funds left but are hopeful of being allowed into Hungary, before heading to Finland.

Many others are young single men who could be stuck in Serbia for years if they register with authorities and join official waiting lists for departure.

So most try to find illegal ways into neighbouring countries. Two weeks ago, security forces pulled over a truck with German number plates in central Serbia and found 41 migrants in its trailer. The same day, 36 more were discovered in another van.

A few days earlier, Croatian authorities found a van filled with 62 migrants, several passed out due to carbon monoxide poisoning. Two Iraqi men and a Somali woman have frozen to death in recent days in Bulgaria.

Wahab, a 16-year-old Afghan, claimed to have made it twice into Hungary and once to Croatia before being captured by border guards and deported to Belgrade. ‘The Hungarians were OK but the Croatian police beat us with sticks and took all my money,’ he said. ‘I had €50 but they took that and my mobile phone.’

One Afghan man, who wants to move to Italy, had failed in five border crossing attempts, having been deported last year after living illegally in Britain. ‘I don’t like London now,’ he said, ‘but I will keep trying to get through.’

Despite Serbia’s softer approach towards migrants, the government asked aid groups to stop distributing food and clothing three months ago, claiming that such handouts simply lured fresh arrivals.

‘We have to be discreet in what we are doing now,’ said Petar Bojovic, co-ordinator for Refugee Aid Serbia. ‘There is a fear that if numbers get too big then things could backfire badly.’

The government warning highlighted growing public concerns, despite the country’s own recent experiences of war just two decades ago.

‘Perhaps there was a greater level of empathy here,’ said Bojovic. ‘But people do not want the migrants to stay. Until now, most just wanted to reach the border but some are now wondering what life might be like in Serbia and if they could get jobs.’

One Belgrade cafe owner told me he had lost customers after serving migrants, despite only accepting those who were clean and decently dressed. ‘There are stupid people everywhere in the world,’ he said.

And a nearby child care centre for young migrants had received hostile letters from locals complaining about dirt and possible disease.

The spiralling crisis is costing Serbia more than £300,000 a week just to feed those in camps.

‘We try to do our best but funds are limited,’ said Ivan Gerginov, spokesman for Serbia’s Commissariat for Refugees and Migration. ‘We have become the bottleneck of Europe’s migrant crisis because our neighbours closed their borders. We are worried about the future because there is no unified European answer to this crisis.’

Gerginov is right. Europe has shown itself pathetically incapable of coming together to tackle this flood of desperate and determined people, with nations adopting wildly differing approaches.

The result – exemplified by the desolate railway children of Belgrade huddled beneath blankets – is scenes of human misery we might have thought were long consigned to history on our continent.

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