Caritas Serbia staff discuss with refugee in Presevo centre - Picture: Ana Zivkovic, Caritas Serbia

At the end of February and beginning of March 2017, I visited Serbia and saw what kind of a humanitarian response Caritas Serbia gives to refugees and migrants in the country. There are already more than 7.000 migrants stranded in Serbia. Most of them still waiting for an appointment with the Hungarian authorities to enter the European Union.

The day I visited some of the reception centres in Serbia was cold and rainy. I saw that living conditions change from centre to centre. Most centres, like Presevo, Krnjaca and Principovac, provide dignified living conditions, but not all. Sometimes capacities are over exceeded, which makes it hard to meet at least minimum standards. There is lack of heating in tents and trash all around, sometimes even rumours of a mice plague.

The reception centres in Presevo and Krnjaca were reaching full capacity with approximately 1.100 persons staying in each centre. The living conditions in the Krnjaca refugee centre and in the Presevo admission centre are similar, with similar services and food provisions. The difference is in type of buildings where the centres are located. In Presevo, the accommodation is set in a former tobacco factory, which is a solid building with enough space for sleeping dormitories and rooms for workshops, praying, watching sports on TV, etc. Compared to Presevo, in Krnjaca the accommodation is in barracks, which were renovated recently, but which nevertheless have limited space for occupational and social activities. Both centres have central heating, organised medical service, food distribution, kindergartens, etc.

Since the influx of migrants started in 2015, there has been a change in the nationalities of the arriving migrants. Currently, the migrants are generally from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Algeria, Morocco, Bangladesh, Egypt and Somalia, and less and less from Syria.

When I interviewed some of the refugees and migrants, they expressed their satisfaction regarding the conditions in the centres and the way they are treated there. I could see how much they appreciate the support they receive from the Caritas team, particularly due to the personnel well-targeted and friendly approach.

The excellent work done by the Caritas psychosocial teams in both Presevo and Krnjaca and the high motivation of the staff also caught my attention. These teams are not only providing psychological support, but also animation, stress relief and other activities. Their work is focused on supporting families and single parents and on the mental development of children. The Caritas teams are also offering informal educational support to children and advice to parents. However, access to the formal education system is a must as their stay in the country is expected to last for a long time.

"Through our work in the camps, we are working on better understanding the cultural and religious differences in Europe compared to the homelands of the beneficiaries. We were also introducing different models of communication and helping the refugees and migrants to adapt to this multicultural environment,"said Miodrag Zivkovic, dioceses emergency coordinator in Presevo.

A few weeks after my visit, the Hungarian border was almost fully closed. According to the new Hungarian legislation, migrants who want to apply for asylum in Hungary will now be detained in new camps at the border and will have to wait there 3-6 months for a decision on their status. They will not be allowed to leave these camps and to move into Hungary, only to return back to Serbia. These are not very good news, and many migrants are considering to apply for asylum in Serbia.

In addition, unofficial sources revealed that a few thousand refugees and migrants, mainly Afghans, are in Bulgaria waiting to see what will happen with those already stranded in Serbia. Some smaller groups are trying their luck by crossing over Bosnia and over Romania.

During the last week of March, the Caritas team working at the central bus and train station of Belgrade did not notice any new migrants arriving. Currently, the number of arriving migrants remains steady.