The refugees in the park in Belgrade seem to be part of a fracture zone that is becoming increasingly easy to trace; across Greece, Macedonia and Serbia and on through Europe, to the camps at Calais and beyond. And while this fracture zone is long it is also deep, underpinned as it is by a shadowy network of exploitation and corruption at one level, and political maneuvering on another.
By Bridget Storrie*
In the park by Belgrade’s bus station Imal, a refugee from Syria, is sitting on a blanket with his family. Imal is an English teacher and his wife is a musician. Their two boys are four and six. The family fled Syria some months ago and the six year old has vomited every night since the boat they were on sank and he was submerged in seawater.
Now Imal is worried that his sons are learning not to trust him. ‘They ask me how much further they have to walk and I tell them it’s just another half an hour’ he says. ‘But they know it’s not true.’
Imal and his family are among the thousands of refugees that have arrived in Belgrade this summer to spend a night or two sleeping in the park on their way north.
According to the UNHCR, since January over 80,000 people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have registered with the Serbian authorities in order to obtain the paperwork needed to pass through the country. The flow has been rising throughout the year, with the average monthly number of applicants doubling in August alone. Now hundreds of people, many of them families with young children, are sleeping rough in the park each night or sheltering in a nearby double-storey car park. Most of them are professionals – teachers, doctors and engineers – with enough money for travel and food (in some cases) but not enough for a room in a hotel.
Now that the intense heat of summer has finally broken the park is muddy and the floor of the garage is dirty and wet. Some people have pitched their tents but most are sitting in groups on damp blankets and bits of carpet. There are young babies, and elderly ladies wearing worn out shoes. There are young men sleeping the sleep of the dead among the noise and the chaos. As the UNHCR notes, the people arriving in Serbia now include more children, more pregnant women, and more people that are injured and exhausted. NGO volunteers are being asked for blankets, shoes, baby clothes, warm jackets, aspirin for headaches and advice on blisters, sunburn and mosquito bites.
In An Anthropology of War Carolyn Nordstrom describes what she calls ‘fracture zones’ – lines of instability radiating out from a specific focus of crisis. She writes, ‘fracture lines run internationally and follow power abuses, pathological profiteering, institutionalized inequalities, and human rights violations – actions that fill the pockets and secure the dominance of some while damaging the lives of others.’ For Nordstrom, the danger of fracture zones is that they institutionalise crisis and therefore make it enduring.
The refugees in the park in Belgrade seem to be part of a fracture zone that is becoming increasingly easy to trace; across Greece, Macedonia and Serbia and on through Europe, to the camps at Calais and beyond. And while this fracture zone is long it is also deep, underpinned as it is by a shadowy network of exploitation and corruption at one level, and political manoeuvring on another.
Moving along this line is problematic for obvious reasons; one of these is that as people pass through ostensibly ‘safe’ countries like Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Serbia they are inadvertently challenging the traditional notion of a refugee. Are they seeking safety or economic security? It is as if refugees on the move slip down some sort of moral hierarchy; the further they travel from the source of their trauma, the less deserving they appear to be. In The Guardian, Ben Doherty refers to a ‘false dichotomy of the “good” refugee – who waits patiently in a camp for the resettlement that might never come – and the “bad” refugee, who takes her chances on a boat’.
The issue is further muddied by the fact that this line of fracture is a conduit not just for refugees but also for a smaller number of people who are not fleeing conflict and who (arguably) have a choice that the refugees do not. Refugees and non-refugees have become fellow travellers and this makes it difficult to describe them as a collective. The most widely used term – ‘migrant’ is also the least useful, implying as it does a degree of agency most of these people do not enjoy. As Barry Malone writes for Al Jazeera ‘the word migrant has become a largely inaccurate umbrella term for this complex story.’ It is also one that seems to invite the public and policymakers to take an emotional step back. For Nordstrom, values as well as people and commodities are traded along fracture lines.
In the end, it is hard to imagine why anyone would make this journey unless they were desperate. In the park, Imal’s most pressing concern is an infection deep in his foot. He can’t bear weight on it easily but he needs to walk to find food for his family. When I ask him how I can help he looks around at the litter-strewn grass, the overflowing bins, the portable toilets, and the old sofa that someone has donated. ‘We’ve spoilt your park,’ he says. ‘We all try to keep it clean but it’s difficult. Will you apologise to the people of Belgrade for us?’
The next day he is gone, hurrying his fragile family north as best he can to cross the border into Hungary before the fence of razor wire designed to keep him out is completed. He’s hoping to join his sister who lives in Germany and he has a difficult and potentially impossible journey ahead of him. Imal, his family and the thousands like him have fled one trauma to find themselves caught up in another. Migrant or refugee, the fact that there is no easy way for them to find a safe life and some future prospects is a tragedy.
*Bridget Storrie is a conflict specialist, based in Belgrade, Serbia. She trained as a mediator with the Justice Institute of British Columbia, is completing a Masters degree in peace-building and reconciliation and has worked as a broadcast journalist in Russia, Bosnia and the UK.