Igor Mitrović, Country Director of ADRA Serbia, describes the center ADRA has opened to help the river of refugees passing through Belgrade as they try to reach western Europe.
Question: ADRA Serbia, along with partners, opened the Asylum Information Centre in Belgrade on August 24 to help the thousands of migrants traveling toward Europe. Can you tell us a little bit about the center? How big is it? How many people can you help every day? What kind of help do you provide? How many people visit each day?
Answer: Our project presently involves indoor and outdoor activities in the Belgrade region. Our outreach activities actually began August 10, and then we had the official opening of the Info center on August 24, so our indoor activities then began.
The premise itself is 130 square meters (1400 square feet) of indoor space. It used to be a bookshop, but was left unused for a year or two, so we reopened it and gave it a humanitarian and protection purpose. It is located some 200 meters from the parks area where most of the refugees spend their time in Belgrade, whether outdoors or in the hostels.
There are 100-150 people who visit the Centre on a daily basis, and approximately 100 to 150 more we reach out to and assist in some way outdoors.
The Asylum Info Centre offers basically identical services in the premises itself and outdoors: providing information of a legal nature (all about the asylum-seeking procedure in Serbia and how to undergo it), and a practical nature (where is the Asylum centre, what is the currency rate, public transportation or taxi rates, how to access medical services, etc), offering and providing psycho-social support, assisting in accessing police and medical services, and mediating in communication with officials, as well as advocating for refugees and escorting them to places they need to go.
All of this is to protect them in different ways, as they are vulnerable and exhausted from the journey. Many of them survived serious violence. Given that Serbia is currently kind of a safe space after a long journey, once they reach us they are aware that this is the time to recuperate before most of them continue the unpredictable journey.
Where did the idea for the center come from and how did it start? How did ADRA Serbia get involved, and what is ADRA Serbia's role in operating the center?
The municipality of Savski Venac, the one most affected one in the city of Belgrade by the influx of refugees, shared the idea with the UNHCR in Serbia, then with the NGO Belgrade Center for Human Rights, and NGO KlikAktiv.
However, it seems that only when ADRA entered the partnership did it became feasible. The idea was growing and is still. All of these organizations I listed are part of this coalition. ADRA’s role is that of key funder, and provider of skilled interpreters and the facilitator/coordinator of different ongoing programs. So, basically the real strength of this Centre is in the functional multi-sectoral partnership and in joining the strengths of all the stakeholders.
What are the main things the migrants (refugees, asylum seekers, etc) need when they reach Belgrade? What is the main way the center helps?
Obviously, it is humanitarian aid (food, water, clothes, footwear, hygiene) but also some kind of shelter (tents, basically) and — protection. The first two are usually assumed and several agencies are providing them. However, the last one, protection, is lacking and has been something ADRA with its partners has been focusing on. Distribution of relief aid is still there but protection is our focus of choice.
Protection is the standard humanitarian term referring to all activities protecting human rights and empowering refugees to be able to exercise those rights. It means that our teams of trained volunteers and interpreters reach out to the scattered refugees in the Belgrade parks and streets, approach in a warm, human way, asking about needs, making themselves available, and offering assistance in meeting those needs.
We especially watch for the most vulnerable ones — families with children, multi-member families, disabled people and others.
Opening of the Asylum Info Centre.
Where are most of the visitors to the Asylum Info Centre arriving from? How long do most travelers stay in Belgrade? Where are they headed?
Most of them are from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq. They also come from Eritrea and Nigeria.
Since mid-September, almost no Syrians have come to Belgrade (because instead they seem to go from the southern and eastern borders directly to the northern and north-western borders with Croatia, where they attempt to cross the border as soon as possible and continue their journey towards western Europe). More recently we have met predominantly Afghani, Pakistani and different peoples from Iraq.
However, during the most difficult period — from July to September — it was 65-75% Syrians. And while the dominant ethnic profile has changed, and the overall number of those reaching Belgrade has dropped (now about 100-200 are in the parks daily), it is interesting that almost all of those are extremely vulnerable individuals (EVIs): multimember families with observable challenging social backgrounds, elderly, unaccompanied minors, disabled, and so forth. It seems that those coming to Belgrade for recuperation are also those without sufficient resources to continue the journey. This makes our work and approach even more meaningful.
Very soon our Asylum Info Centre operations will be moved to the town of Preševo, at the Macedonian-Serbian border. This is the hotspot of humanitarian response presently and we are needed there. Three to five thousand refugees enter from Macedonia daily there.
How is the refugee crisis in Europe changing, and how has it changed since the center opened a little over a month ago? As EU countries bordering Serbia open and close their borders, is it difficult to offer accurate advice?
The number of refugees coming to Belgrade has dropped, mainly because the Hungarian border has closed and refugees had to shift their routes toward Croatia (further west). This is why we are moving our operations to the main critical point: where refugees are entering Serbia, at the border with Macedonia and in a smaller way border with Bulgaria. The winter period will bring some drop in the influx of refugees but not significantly. Still, the harsh winter conditions will make them additionally vulnerable and make provision of help more difficult. This is the challenge we will be facing and we are preparing for it.
Are local Adventist churches also getting involved in assisting refugees?
They are collecting humanitarian relief aid which ADRA then distributes, mainly in Belgrade. The churches have yet to get more involved.
Is this current crisis the main focus of ADRA Serbia right now? Other than this issue, what are ADRA Serbia's other projects? How big is your staff?
This is our primary project now, but we have others. Our other projects involve empowerment of Roma youth and developing psycho-social systems of supports in different contexts.
As for the Roma community, it is by far the most vulnerable ethnic group in Serbia. They are prone to constant mobility and economically motivated to seek asylum in western Europe. This only makes them additionally uprooted and unable to pursue education, and socially excludes and impoverishes them. We focus on educationally and professionally empowering Roma youth, and helping them with income generation in Serbia. Interestingly, it seems that migration has been a "specialty" of ADRA Serbia, either related to Roma or to the larger refugee crisis. This know-how helps in both projects.
Psychological support in collective and individual catastrophes is our other programmatic focus. The first refers to psycho-social support to individuals and communities who survived large catastrophes, like last year’s floods in Serbia. We have organized mid- and long-term activities which involve public lectures helping surviving communities to understand the process of recovery, groups of support and individual meetings with extremely vulnerable ones. (See the book by ADRA Serbia "Psychological support after a disaster" - http://www.adra.org.rs/publikacije/. Free paperback can be ordered on email@example.com.)
The second (psychological support in individual catastrophes) involves different programs, but the psychological aspect of palliative care is what we focus on presently. (Palliative care is a multidisciplinary approach to specialized medical care for people with serious illnesses. It focuses on providing patients with relief from the symptoms, pain, physical stress, and mental stress of a serious illness—whatever the diagnosis.) The Serbian medical system is still struggling to find ways to include psychologists in palliative care, notwithstanding their critical role. One could say that the holistic understanding of the human being undergirds ADRA’s approach in this respect. This is why not only physical wellbeing is on our agenda but also mental, social and economic.
How long have you been country director of ADRA Serbia? What do you most like about the job? What do you find most challenging? Where else have you worked for ADRA?
I first joined the ADRA network when I became ADRA Serbia country director in 2011.
I like how it gives exciting opportunities for embodying the theology I have been immersed in since my undergraduate and graduate studies. I worked as a pastor for 12 years before joining ADRA, and have been an associate undergraduate lecturer in biblical studies and Christian spirituality at the Belgrade Theological Seminary. Even while pastoring churches, the community-building work was very close to my heart and I found myself in the middle of it.
Then I somewhat unexpectedly moved to ADRA. It turned out to be just the right place and a call I felt at home with. Even before I came to work for ADRA, I saw what a unique space ADRA is for combining robust Christian and Adventist feeling for the wellbeing of people, communities and the environment, and finding ways to be directly involved in building it or restoring it.
Basically, I like the width of the field of work I am in. ADRA turns out, at least in my experience, to be the perfect ground for experimentation in small, local steps toward restoring individuals, communities and environment. I love it.
What can people living in other parts of the world do to help the refugees in Europe?
Press their own governments to be responsible, human and proactive in doing what they can to uproot the causes for the conflicts in these refugee-producing countries but also to react in human and humanitarian way once refugees do come to their countries. Many, especially western countries, can do a lot.
Raise awareness among their circle of influence on the drama and suffering going on in the lives of thousands of refugees. There are many prejudices about the background of these people. Naivety about the complex issues behind the crisis, and xenophobia, are both problematic.
Our primary responsibility is not to turn a blind eye to the suffering and to react immediately and responsibly.
Third, donate and support the work of professional and well-performing humanitarian agencies. To support ADRA, go to http://www.adra.org.rs/donate/. Thank you!
To financially support the work of ADRA Serbia: http://www.adra.org.rs/donate/
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