In partnership with Terre des Hommes, ChildFund Alliance has established Safe Spaces in Macedonia and Serbia to support children and families fleeing countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Here, people can stop to receive medical support, warm clothes, food and other essentials, before continuing their long trek into Western Europe. On behalf of the ChildFund Alliance, Carolina Ehrnrooth recently visited Macedonia to monitor the work being undertaken. This is her account of seeing firsthand the plight of those forced to leave their country of birth, and the perils they face during their long journey.
In Tabanovce, a village in the north of Macedonia at the border with Serbia, aid staff stand in a line as trains arrive from Gevgelija in the south. As people disembark the train, their emotions are mixed; some seem happy, many look tired and lost.
Approximately 3,000 refugees arrive on the four daily trains; around half are women and children. Sadly, almost every train carries a few unaccompanied children. There are also many families, groups of young men, elderly people, and individuals with disabilities.
People are helped off the train and shown where to go next. A few refugees say “doctor, doctor!” and point at their sick children. Mothers might say “pampers” and gesture towards their infants and toddlers; they are in need of nappies. In just a few moments, the whole place has turned into chaos.
Staffed by qualified healthcare professionals, the Safe Spaces are open 24 hours a day and provide some temporary respite to those on the move. There is also a tent set up as a children’s playroom, where children can play with toys and just be children for a few short hours. Mothers are provided with hygiene supplies, winter clothes and practical advice. This includes the importance of teaching children their parents` full names, and putting labels with contact information inside their children`s clothes, in case the worst happens and they become separated during the journey.
Mazen is 15 and is traveling with his uncle, who is just 19. They are from Syria and want to reach Germany, where they have family. They have a phone number, but are unsure which city their relatives live in.
ChildFund Alliance is partnering with child-focused humanitarian agency Terre des Hommes (TDH) to provide emergency assistance and protection to refugee families arriving in Eastern Europe, focusing in particular on the needs of women and children.
As weather conditions deteriorate with winter approaching, exhausted families who have undertaken the long and dangerous journey from their countries of origin are living in extremely precarious and distressing conditions.
To date, more than four million Syrians are now displaced and likely to remain in exile for the foreseeable future. Refugees are most commonly arriving in Europe by travelling the Oriental Mediterranean route. After reaching Turkey, families travel to Greece by boat, and then through Macedonia, Serbia, and further afield to those EU states receptive to asylum seekers. This is a journey of thousands of kilometres, and very treacherous.
TDH has established Safe Spaces at the exit points of Macedonia and Serbia, where families leave one country to travel to the next. These trailers and tents are open 24 hours a day and are staffed by trained social workers, psychologists and related health professionals. At any time of night or day, refugee families can stop and gain some respite from their journey, while also accessing a range of support services from TDH. This includes:
- emergency non-food items such a hygiene kits and winter clothes. The latter are vital with snowfalls now common;
- psychological counselling, medical support to those suffering health issues, and recreational activities for children, who have had little chance to play during their long journey;
- advice on migration rights and risks, maps of the region and communication services to enable refugees to establish links with their family and friends.
ChildFund Australia CEO Nigel Spence says: “With the Syria crisis now in its fifth year, families have little hope that a resolution to the conflict will be found in the short term. Millions have been forced to make the terrible decision to leave everything behind and travel towards safer countries. The majority of families do this in order to keep their children safe from harm.
“For children on the move, the risks are extremely high. Having survived the journey from their home, some children have lost their caregivers during transit and are at risk of of violence, trafficking and exploitation. ChildFund is glad to be able to partner with Terre des Hommes and contribute to global initiatives to respond to this worsening situation.”
ChildFund Alliance and TDH have also joined more than 50 international organisations, including UNICEF, Save the Children and World Vision, in calling for the European Council to ensure that the rights of migrant children are upheld in policy discussions and developments focused on the crisis.
ChildFund Alliance Secretary-General Meg Gardinier says: “Children represent one in four of all asylum seekers in Europe, so we are urging heads of government to ensure that all children on the move are afforded every possible protection.”