In Serbia, UNICEF and partners have established child-friendly spaces as well as mother- and baby-care spaces. In these safe spaces, refugee and migrant children and parents are provided rest, respite and psycho-social support. Lactating mothers can breastfeed with privacy, and receive necessary information on breastfeeding, while they await registration documents to continue their journey. So far this year, 470,188 people on the move have registered at the borders crossing into Serbia; 30% are children. UNICEF supports the Centres for Social Work in Serbia to deploy additional staff at refugee and migrant assistance points. Staff have been trained to identify and support the most vulnerable children and families. The social workers are helping with family tracing and reunification of children who become separated or lost during their journey.
Bojana Jovic Trajkovic is one of the UNICEF-trained-and-supported social workers deployed in the Refugee Assistance Point in Presevo, Serbia, and she forwards the following account.
[Author’s note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of the children and mother.]
Over the last months we have seen hundreds of thousands of people pass through the town of Presevo in southern Serbia. Many of them are children. They are exhausted and often disorientated from their precarious journeys.
Receiving a phone call from the Red Cross on a Friday afternoon about a distraught mother with two small children is nothing unusual. However, this particular mother, Nasima, was distressed because her two elder daughters, Asma, 15, and Zahra, 14, had separated from her after crossing the border from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia into the Republic of Serbia at the Miratovac crossing. Nasima had boarded the bus waiting at the crossing and gone to the One Stop Registration Centre in Presevo. Afraid that her two elder daughters would not find a seat on the same bus, Nasima put Asma and Zahra into a taxi, one of many waiting at this border crossing.
When I met Nasima, she had her two younger children, Ahmed, 6, and Roya, 4, with her. Together, they were resting and getting warm in the UNICEF-supported child-friendly space in the Presevo centre. Ahmed was happy to be able to play again, even if only for a little while, while Nasima took Roya to see a doctor as the little girl had a fever. I promised I would do my best to find her two eldest daughters. Nasima was visibly worried, but was reassured by the fact that we were looking for her children.
My colleagues and I assumed that the taxi took the two girls to the train station in Bujanovac, a small town close to the Miratovac crossing, as the mother said that they had little money with them. They had nowhere else to go except the One Stop Registration Centre in Presevo and, having been there, we knew the girls were not there.
We called the station master in Bujanovac and asked for his help. He understood the urgency of the situation and paged Asma and Zahra via the PA system. Luckily, the girls answered the call. Together with colleagues from the Danish Refugee Council, UNICEF’s partner, I went to the Bujanovac train station. Asma and Zahra were visibly exhausted, scared and confused about where they were and where they were going. When we brought them to Presevo, and they saw their mother and younger siblings, they started crying tears of happiness.
Seeing this family reunited at the One Stop Registration Centre in Presevo is one of the most rewarding experiences in my career. Their story made me fully comprehend the gravity of the situation faced by refugees and migrants. Keeping children and families together is the first step towards the better life these people are seeking.