Refugees in Europe: Seeking a safe haven

Dahlia’s facts finding mission: FYROM-Serbia, (October, 2015)

Written by Gilles Gasser

Dahlia has carried out a fact-finding-mission in Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia to assess the refugee situation, meet stakeholders and asylum seekers, and attempt to highlight issues that need to be addressed. (see an article by Gilles Gasser)

Europe is facing its largest refugee crisis since the end of World War II. It is a crisis of unprecedented magnitude that largely originates from conflicts in Syria and Iraq or instability and poverty in parts of Africa. Despite the challenges this poses for the EU, the sheer number of refugees, on a global scale and when compared to other crisis, are not as daunting. Hundreds of thousands of women, men and children have been forced to flee their homelands in search of protection and a decent life. The majority are risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea and take further dangerous routes to reach western Europe. The increased use of alternative routes in the central Mediterranean and the Balkans reveals that whatever “repressive” measures the EU implements, refugees will continue to come to the region, taking tremendous risks to reach safer soil. Almost nothing can stop people facing war, insecurity, violence or extreme poverty.

Countries in the western Balkans and elsewhere in Europe are struggling to cope with this influx of refugees and migrants. The Dublin III regulation, which requires that all asylum seekers be fingerprinted and sent back to their country of arrival in the EU, is effectively suspended. The Schengen agreement, that enables passport-free movement across most of central and western Europe’s internal borders, is falling apart. The lack of a coordinated EU policy and joint approach to the current challenges has provoked self-protective reactions by some governments and limitations of movement for asylums seekers. With the onset of winter, conditions for populations in transit will worsen. Yet, a coordinated human rights-based EU-wide humanitarian strategy is still missing.

Registration and vulnerable cases:

– Current registration doesn’t allow identifying most vulnerable individuals.
– Key information to identify people with specific vulnerabilities or protection needs are not properly gathered.
– The situation of minors traveling alone is particularly critical.
– Needs assessments are not systematically conducted.

The lack of regular migration channels and protection for refugees combine into an intransigent refusal to offer refugees, mostly Syrians, proper migration opportunities. This is pushing migrants to turn to smugglers and put their lives at risk. Europe’s police agency (EUROPOL) estimates that 30,000 people could be involved in the trafficking gangs charging refugees thousands of Euros for a perilous trip to Europe. Organized smugglers are profiting from the lack of regular migration channels. They have put in place a system that disregards the lives, dignity, and rights of migrants to facilitate crossings through precarious routes in exchange for significant payments. In Turkey, an adult migrant pays around EUR 1,000 to cross the Mediterranean while children pay about half that price. Between August and October 201, an average of 100 boats crossed to Greece from Turkey per day, each packed with 40 to 50 people. This amounts, more or less, to EUR 4.4 million in revenue for the smugglers.


  • According to the Dublin regulation, refugees are required to claim asylum in the EU member state in which they first arrive. At the time of Dahlia’s mission, Greece was criticized for its sloppy handling of the registration process. It was failing to track who was entering the EU through its territory before leaving for countries where most of the new arrivals are heading, mainly Germany and Sweden. According to a number of sources, if Greece undertook registrations following EURODAT standards, pertinent information could be shared with other Member States and countries implicated in the response, allowing for effective follow-up of vulnerable cases.
  • IOM Skopje explained their hope that a proper registration system using biometric technology, including fingerprinting and interviews, will be in place by November 2015.
  • In FYROM and Serbia, refugees and migrants are supposed to undertake a registration process before entering the country and continuing with their route. In both countries the procedure consists of applying for asylum in order to receive a document legalizing their stay in the country for 72 hours. Once this document is issued, their plan is to board any train, bus or private vehicle to reach the next border as quickly as possible.
  • UNHCR and IOM are assisting local authorities (via equipment, training, and personnel) in this process. Nevertheless, refugee registration are not always been enforced. This is mainly due to a lack of human resources and means. Many of the refugees and migrants met during the mission fear a bottleneck effect and consider that registration will slow down their route. Some believe that registration could lead to detention and ill treatment (rumours reinforced by real stories at the beginning of the crisis, mainly in FYROM’s Bazy Baba camp).
  • The current registration doesn’t allow the collection of key information to identify people with specific vulnerabilities or protection needs. There is no existing system to refer vulnerable cases from one stage to another and ensure follow-up. This is particularly critical in the case of minors traveling alone. Many have lost parents in the countries they have left, or lost families on the journey to Europe. Very few have access to support networks and most have psychological trauma as a result of their experiences, e.g. war or human trafficking.
  • In this context, no systematic needs assessments are conducted. Most of the time, the numbers of refuges and migrants reaching transit centres determine the caseload and magnitude of the humanitarian response.
  • In FYROM, registration was not systematic. If a train is departing while refugees are being registered, moreover, the police often allow migrants and refugees to go through without completing the registration procedure.
  • This lack of information on the most vulnerable cases comes together with the difficulty humanitarian actors have in planning operations and foreseeing contingency needs given the increasingly chaotic and unpredictable nature of this crisis . There is no anticipation of flows from one country to another, nor are definitive migration routes clearly established.

Information and communication:

– There is a deficit of basic information disseminated.
– There is a deficit of interpreters or facilitators to spread information
– The absence of timely and reliable independent information is propitious to the development of rumors.
– This refuge crisis is probably the first one fully of the digital age with refugees developing their own information networks through smartphones and social media.

Facebook groups offer critical advice for those thinking of fleeing or those already on the road. Some groups help connect traffickers with refugees or offer “how-to” guides written by those who have made it to safety. Some refugees upload videos to explain how and where to cross a border. Humanitarian actors should analyze and “socialize” with refugee and migrant networks, feed them with information, and encourage two-way communication.


  • Access to communication is imperative for these refugees and migrants. This also underlines the need for timely, adequate and reliable information. In the transit camps visited during the mission, there was a deficit of basic information being disseminated. There is an absence of boards with practical information (security, aid, routes, next steps, etc.) in Arabic or Farsi, and an absence of maps and accessible information on logistics (schedule of trains or buses, prices of tickets, etc.). In the camps visited there was also a deficit of interpreters or facilitators to spread information via speakers, by answering questions, or by assisting during interviews/registration procedures, etc. UNHCR explained that a loudspeaker system will be installed for information to be passed on in English, Arabic, Farsi and Urdu (UNHCR, FYR Macedonia, Needs overview Gevgelija reception centre, 17 September 2015) One NGO suggested using students from Egypt, Pakistan or Bangladesh currently studying in Belgrade.
  • At the border between Serbia and Croatia (Sid and Presevo), two large hand-written paperboards were deployed with information in Arabic and Farsi for refugees. After the mission, we found out that these were poorly written, probably by a non-Arabic speaker using Google translate. The Arabic board read: “Silence please. From Croatia you go to the other countries with the trains and buses. Smiling in this moment. If possible please be patient and cooperative and we will do what we can. Thank you”.
  • The absence of timely and reliable independent information is propitious to the development of rumors (e.g. of new fences; border closings; the idea that Croatia doesn’t allow crossing if a migrant has not been registered in Serbia; poisoned water; buses stopping midway to a border and abandoning people in the countryside, etc.). This breeds misinformation and panic in a population already extremely tired, anxious and nervous. This especially affects the weakest and most vulnerable refugees.
  • Generally speaking, refugees and migrants do not seem to entirely trust the information given out by official sources. They rely more on their own networks of information sent by individuals they already know. Information management, cross-border information sharing, and information procedures (including leadership, messages, 2-way communication, follow-up, etc.) are thought to be missing by most actors in the field.
  • This refuge crisis is probably the first one fully of the digital age. The lack of a structured information system is counterbalanced by the refugees’ capacity to develop their own information networks through smartphones and social media. Each nationality develops its own network according to language and social media support/habits.
  • Technology is a blessing for refugees. Smartphones are sometimes the only belongings they travel with. They keep these safe, often protected in plastic bags and with rubber bands. Some refugees have received local SIM cards or purchased them from locals on their road.
  • They make their way to their new lives using GPS coordinates posted on Facebook, Viber, Line or What’sapp by those who have gone before. They share basic real-time information on border crossings, smuggler rankings, best routes, local police, aid and transport.
  • Most of the refugees interviewed lacked information on available transport and associated prices. They are worried by inflation. For example, the price of the train tickets from Gvegelija (southern FYROM/border with Greece) to Tabanovce (north FYROM/border with Serbia – 170 km) can be EUR 10 per person one day, but EUR 25 only ten days later. People who can afford taxis pay EUR 100 per person.
  • Smartphones and digital tools are clearly determining exodus routes and deployment.
  • Smartphones create an endless need for electricity and Wi-Fi. When refugees reach transit camps, one of their first demands is a power point, a socket to charge their phones and briefly call their families back home. In these camps, UNHCR has installed dozens of charger stations. Phone batteries are taped to socket walls with black and white wires flowing in every direction.
  • Most of the Syrian refugees encountered during the mission seemed to be educated, to have some funds, and to have clear abilities in using smartphones and a range of applications.
  • In Belgrade, aid workers and volunteers have built a web-based application for the Miksaliste aid station. This provides refugees with accurate information about essential services, with lists of the correct costs of taxis, locations of toilets, places to buy food, and other useful information in English and Arabic.

Proposed action:

The findingsof Dahlia’s mission highlight the existence of significant gaps in terms of information available, its usefulness, and access by asylum seekers. This has serious consequences in light of the fluid situation now unfolding, characterized by increasing restrictions and more desperate moves by vulnerable population to adapt to un-confirmed rumors. This puts them at risk and increases the opportunities of smugglers to offer unsafe and illegal services.

In addition, there is a worrying lack of awareness and information on migrants’ rights and ways to claim.

Dahlia’s mission’s findings suggest that immediate action should be taken in the following areas:

Serbia’s population and Government have demonstrated great solidarity with refugees, providing them with aid, food and shelter. Serbian citizens still remember what it means to seek refuge from war, as they experienced this just 15 years ago. Additionally, Serbia is a candidate country for EU accession. The refugee crisis is one occasion for Serbia to demonstrate its commitment to those values that are now under critical scrutiny in other EU Member States.


  • A system should be developed to spread information from the starting points of migrant’s journeys, and throughout their transportation in trains or buses. Leaflets, posters, pre-recorded messages, facilitators or speakers should be used, and adapted to the different language-needs of refuges.
  • Posters and banners in adequate languages (Arabic, Farsi, English, etc.) should be installed in all key locations (train stations, transit camps, power stations, food and NFI distribution points, etc.) with information on routes, maps, key messages, registration, aid, rights, security, etc.). UNHCR in Gevgelija transit center developped series of actions to assume its responsibility on accountability to affetc populalations (ref. UNHCR Thematic update. FYR Macedonia. Accountability to Affected Populations. October 2015)
  • Information management and cross-border information sharing must be improved.
  • Mobile teams should be deployed, possibly with interpreters and equipped with Wi-Fi, both to inform the migrants and to monitor and assess their vulnerability and needs. Mobile teams are particularly needed at the border between Serbia and Bulgaria (next to Dimitrograd-Negotin-Bosilegrad).
  • A system of Wi-Fi posts could also be developed with Telecoms without borders or a Wi-FI plan share with refugees using their own networks (Facebook, Instagram, etc.). Bottom-up networks could be used to channel information from official sources, in order to add to its credibility.
  • Humanitarian actors should analyze and “socialize” with refugee and migrants’ networks, feeding them with information and encouraging two-way communication. They should also coordinate with aid workers and local NGO’s that are already feeding refugees with information through their own social media, web page and volunteers.
  • A 24/7 protection hotline should be established with various interpreters and a proper outreach campaign.
  • A protection monitoring and tracking system should also be implemented by UNHCR. Information on rights and how to claim them in the different countries should be made available to refugees.
  • Many NGOs advocate for the development of a more visible and transparent strategy and response plan to the refugee crisis. This plan should include multiples scenarios such as the closing of borders, harsh winter conditions, the evolution of refugee flows, new routes, contingency plans, etc.
  • The EU should develop a coordinated human rights-based humanitarian approach and strategy. With the objectives to save lives, to protect, and to manage borders and mobility. This would enable the development of safe migration channels, reduce the market for smugglers, and facilitate resettlement.
  • This approach should lead the EU to adopt a global leadership role in response to the humanitarian crises (mainly the Syrian one) that is causes the current “exodus” of refugees.
  • A real, operational EU consensus on how to handle this refugee crisis is urgently needed. This must encompass the earliest stages of migration routes (e.g. transit centres in Greece) as well as where refugees should go, how they will travel safely, how documentation will be granted, etc.

Human migration is a complex issue that touches European citizens’ nerves on immigration, economic security, national identity, etc. Anti-immigration parties spreading misinformation and fear politically hijack these burning issues. The key word is “misinformation”. These complex issues require EU States to respond in an informed and sophisticated way, using all available evidence to support action. The EU should also better communicate to its citizens the principles of solidarity, responsibility, and full respect of its values and international obligations. These must guide its response and full-scale mobilization to welcome refugees.
Dahlia will continue to monitor the situation and strongly advocate that the gaps identified be addressed. We call on mandated agencies and national governments to provide required and relevant information to those in need. A system able to assess information needs and ensure two-way communication should be put in place. Moreover, its performance and usefulness should be adequately measured.


Interviews were carried out with:

-ASB Serbia
-ECHO Serbia
-DRC Serbia
-Help Serbia
-IDC Serbia
-UNHCR Serbia
-Legis FYROM
-The Association of Young Lawyers FYROM
-Camp Management Team FYROM

Field visits and interviews were carried out with refugees in Gvegelija, Tabanovce, Sid and Belgrade’s train/bus station.

Dahlia wishes to express its gratitude to Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund Deutschland for their support.