A moment for children to be children

As the proportion of child refugees and migrants arriving into Europe increases, providing opportunities for children to be children again, and for mothers to rest and nurse their babies in privacy – if only for a few hours – is more important than ever. My visit to Serbia, last week, emphasized just how important.

At the transit point in Sid, bus after bus arrived. Out of them stepped families with young children, including babies and infants. Disoriented and exhausted, parents gathered their belongings, soothed fussy youngsters and buttoned up coats against the freezing -14C temperatures. Aid workers with loud speakers directed them to a queue that extended from the train station to the other side of the road.

As they blinked in the sunlight and got their bearings, some looked dazed by their journeys. Others were clearly excited to be off the bus.

One boy, eager to practice his English told me, “I am from Syria; I am twelve.” When I asked where he was going, he responded confidently, “Serbia… Croatia… Austria… then Germany!”

A letter in child's handwriting.
UNICEF/MortIn the child friendly space in the Presevo Reception Center, welcome letters from Serbian children to refugee and migrant children line the walls.

In contrast, a young mother from Syria, carrying a 4 month old baby, asked, “What country are we in?” Nodding towards the waiting train, she added, “Where are they taking us now?” Her questions took me aback; I couldn’t imagine not ever knowing which country I was in or where I was going – but that’s the reality for hundreds of refugees and migrants whose destiny is, for now, in someone else’s hands. They also emphasized just how long this mother had been journeying.

Services for refugees and migrants in Sid are basic. Dormitories are gloomy, smelly and dirty; critically, they don’t yet have heaters. It was warmer outside than in. And I wasn’t surprised to hear that women and children were reluctant to share the space with men.

Nonetheless, here, UNICEF and partner, World Vision, with support from the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO), have set up a small child-friendly space, including a mother and baby corner. But the space is small, the windows need to be replaced, and heating must be improved if it is to provide real respite for tired and traumatised families.

While hundreds queued to show the Serbian authorities their registration papers in order to board the train to Croatia, some young men, shoulders slumped, were redirected to a bus bound for an asylum center. Either they had no registration papers or were from countries other than Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. Where would they end up?

Happily, services for refugees and migrants at the Miratovac refugee aid point, on the border with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (fYRoM) are better.

At the end of the muddy trek from the train station in fYRoM, staff from local government, international NGOs and agencies greet refugees and migrants with winter clothes, food and hot drinks. Rows of warm, clean porta cabins can, if necessary, sleep hundreds. And, although refugees and migrants might only stay here for a few hours, UNICEF, ECHO and the Danish Refugee Council, amongst others, have provided bright child-friendly spaces where children can play, and mothers can breastfeed and change diapers.

A series of bunk bbeds set up in a dormitory.
UNICEF/MortSome of the bright, warm dormitories at the reception center in Presevo. The camp manager, said he didn’t like the words “refugees” or “migrants”. He preferred, “people with needs.”

From there, buses take women and children on the short journey to the Presevo registration point to begin the formal registration process. What began as a couple of tents and porta cabins last year, is now a rapidly expanding center under the management of the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Affairs. I met the wonderful camp manager, Mr Nikic, who corrected me when I referred to “refugees and migrants;” he preferred to use the term “people with needs.” He and the chief of construction gave me a tour of an abandoned tobacco factory which they’re proudly converting into cheerful, clean and warm dormitories, well-equipped kitchens, showers and toilets, laundry facilities, socialising spaces and a clinic. It’s a well thought out operation: signs in Arabic direct refugees and migrants to buses, trains and registration points. Mr. Nikic even has plans to build an outdoor play area for children in the coming months.

In the Presevo child-friendly space, also supported by ECHO, sweet welcome letters from Serbian children to refugee and migrant children cover the walls. There, I met Mohammad, father to 16 year old Khadija* and 13 year old Omar*. Unable to continue their journey because Khadija needed urgent hospital care, they were staying at the center until she was well enough to travel. All three were in good spirits: staff helped Khadija to finish a jigsaw puzzle while her brother drew pictures with some of the volunteers. I was reminded of something that Minister Vulin of the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Affairs had told me when we met him in Belgrade the day before: “When you look into the eyes of these children, they are too adult. But when you put them in a child-friendly space, they become children again.”

There’s no doubt that the speed and scale of the refugee and migrant challenge in Europe is dizzying, and a lasting political solution must be brokered — urgently. But, in the meantime, the words of first Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Ivica Dacic, come to mind: “We are all children; we are all somebody’s child.” And when that is the guiding principle of a nation’s response to an unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants, a tough situation can be made a lot better. Treating people with dignity, kindness and respect can make a frightening journey more manageable, especially for children. It can kindle hope – which for many refugees and migrants is the most powerful currency they have.

*Names have been changed

Yoka Brandt, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director


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