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Volunteers cross borders to fill gaps in refugee crisis response

Scores of volunteers, many of them young Europeans, take part in growing informal refugee advocacy movement

BAPSKA, Croatia — The light and heat were draining from the fields on Croatia’s border with Serbia, and the refugees had no idea where they would spend the approaching night.

They had not slept properly for days, and the gathering cold and dark made them anxious. The Croatian policemen who watched over them, heavily outnumbered by the refugees and bamboozled by their many questions in Arabic, Farsi and some halting English, faced a tough end to their 12-hour shift.

When buses arrived to take them to a nearby transit camp, some refugees dashed aboard, while others hung back, uncertain. Relatives became separated, children started crying, the patience of some police officers started to fray, and the refugees looked with growing mistrust at the men in uniform all around.

In between nervous refugees and the frustrated policemen stepped volunteers clad in orange vests, calming people down, reuniting family members and generally oiling the wheels of a clunky and frequently changing system.

Polly Rola, a volunteer from Austria, talks to refugees about their onward journey to a state-run transit camp.
Dan McLaughlin

“It gets to a certain point where you can’t just watch and wait anymore,” said Polly Rola, an Austrian who is among scores helping out, far from home, at trouble spots on the refugees’ route through the Balkans toward Western and Northern Europe.

“We had some time and some money, so here we are,” said Michael Schuller, who traveled with Rola from Vienna to the remote village of Bapska.

They were speaking as European Union leaders met in the Belgian capital Thursday night for emergency talks on the continent’s worst refugee crisis since World War II —which has opened deep rifts between EU member states and their Balkan neighbors.

“I have a son and daughter myself, and it hurts me to see what’s happening to these children here,” said Schuller.

“If you believe that European values are not made up in Brussels, then they must be made somewhere else. We are doing it here.”

The EU has struggled to respond to the arrival of more than 500,000 refugees so far this year and, amid squabbling over how to share the burden, member states have flouted calls for solidarity and scrambled to protect their own interests.

In the ensuing chaos, EU members and other nations in the Balkans have spasmodically opened and closed frontiers and scrapped and tightened border controls. Hungary has built a 13-foot-high fence along its 109-mile border with Serbia and is extending it along the border with Croatia.

Major aid agencies like the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, are mounting relief efforts, but some of the quickest responders along the Balkan route have been civilian volunteers.

In addition to locals who have helped out in their cities or areas, young Europeans are venturing across the region to provide urgent, direct and sometimes essential help to struggling refugees.

For some it is an extension of activism at home, often with human rights, anti-capitalist and environmental groups. For others, it is a response to what they have seen and read about the refugee crisis. And for a few, the decision to help came when they were in the Balkans and could no longer look away.

German students Louisa Bahr, right, and Joana Nietfeld running a refreshment point for refugees.

“It’s hard to enjoy yourself when something so bad is happening so close,” said Louisa Bahr, a 20-year-old from Germany, who with her friend Joana Nietfeld scrapped the last days of their summer vacation in Croatia to help refugees at several trouble spots.

Bahr and Nietfeld were offering tea, coffee and hot chocolate to some of hundreds of refugees at the Opatovac transit camp, 10 miles from Bapska, having lent a hand on the Serbian side of the border at Sid and at Bregana, Croatia, on the border with Slovenia.

They were traveling light, having left most of their things in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, and borrowed equipment from other young traveler-volunteers to set up their help point at Opatovac.

Next to Bahr and Nietfeld outside the state-run camp — only staffers of major NGOs are allowed inside its wire perimeter fence — Fabian Ruf and Fabian Dingetschweiler from Switzerland cooked soup on a portable stove and whipped up fruit smoothies in a blender.           

The two drove from Zurich with a trailer filled with supplies.

“We managed to raise about 4,000 Swiss francs [$4,100] from friends, and we brought food, clothes, medicine and other things from Switzerland,” Ruf said. “I saw on TV what was happening with the refugees. I had time after finishing my engineering studies and before starting work, and so I decided to use the opportunity to help.”

At Opatovac and elsewhere, the major NGOs follow well-practiced but sometimes inflexible systems to provide basic care to refugees. The volunteers can be more imaginative and responsive and can offer less-conventional forms of help.

Along the Balkan route, they not only offer food and drink but also help set up Wi-Fi hot spots and places to recharge cellphones, using their technical savvy to offer cheap and quick solutions to refugees who rely on smartphones for information, communication and navigation.

As different bottlenecks and crisis points appear along the refugees’ route, volunteers coordinate efforts and direct one another to where they are most needed, using social media and interactive maps.

Earlier this month at Roszke, Hungary, on the border with Serbia, young Europeans slept on a closed highway with hundreds of asylum seekers after dozens of people were hurt in brief clashes between a small group of stone-throwing refugees and Hungarian riot police using tear gas and a water cannon.

The presence of the Europeans reassured the refugees that they would be safe that night and, when Serbian buses arrived the next day to ferry them to the border with Croatia, the volunteers promised to follow the buses to make sure they did not take their passengers back south to Macedonia or to a detention camp.

Basti and Ilias are two men you would want on your side in case of trouble.

They are big, they sport dark glasses and striking ginger beards, and their black T-shirts carry strident slogans. The back of Ilias’ shirt reads, “In this dying world we are the final resistance.”

“We saw how it was a disaster at Roszke … how groups like the Red Cross and UNHCR had too much work to do and too little organization, so we decided to get involved,” said Basti, from Regensburg, Germany, as he handed out bottles of water and his friends cooked food for refugees in two mobile kitchens.

Basti and Ilias declined to give their surnames, as did many volunteers who did not want to publicize their efforts or make their presence on the Balkans route known to relatives, employers, university professors or authorities back home.

Basti and Ilias’ group comprised about 20 Germans, and around them other volunteers worked in high-visibility vests stating where they were from — the Czech Republic and Austria, for example — and listing the languages they spoke.

Clean-shaven and bespectacled, with hair neatly parted and wearing a blue UNHCR vest, Ralf Gruenert cut a conservative figure among volunteers with a penchant for tattoos, piercings, dreadlocks and goatees, but he was appreciative of their efforts.

“Volunteers are often the first people there on the ground to help, and we can only support and welcome their engagement,” said Gruenert, the UNHCR’s senior emergency coordinator in Croatia. “This is civil society organizing itself to help, and we are very happy to see that.”      

Farther south on the Balkan route, Nenad Popovic of Refugee Aid Serbia has met volunteers from dozens of countries this summer — some foreign residents of Belgrade, where he lives, and many others who have arrived to help out.

The group’s identification badges are emblazoned with flags from some 40 countries — one for each country represented by a volunteer — including Antigua, Congo and Jamaica.

“Students come, and some people take time out of their holiday to help,” Popovic said in a small park beside Belgrade’s bus and train stations, a key transit point where thousands of refugees slept this summer.

“I will always remember working with some Swedish people who came here. Their work ethic and our teamwork were fantastic,” he recalled, speaking of a group of 15 volunteers who distributed almost $8,000 in aid in Belgrade and border areas.

Where these young, international and multilingual volunteers gather, their tents, flags, mobile kitchens and freewheeling attitude can conjure something of the spirit of an alternative music festival.

“Freedom of movement” and “Refugees welcome,” read banners flying at their camp at Opatovac. “Ain’t no border high enough. No papers — no fear,” declares the most striking, beside an image of orange butterflies flitting over barbed wire.

But the exuberance of these young Europeans is not a sign of frivolity.

Many are fiercely dedicated to their cause and furious about what they see as the EU’s inability to fulfill its practical and moral duty to people fleeing the world’s most dangerous and desperately poor states.

“Europe is failing and treating these people like animals,” said Clemence, a 20-year-old musician and Ph.D. student from Berlin who called for an overhaul of EU border and asylum systems that are in crisis. 

“They are putting riot cops and soldiers in charge of people from war zones who are being traumatized again as they go through these borders,” she said, as Croatian police sought to organize hundreds of refugees waiting to enter Opatovac.

“People in Europe need to do more. But not just like this, trying to make the best of the systems we have now and keep them going,” she said. “The systems are broken, and we have to change them.”

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