It’s been a miserable couple of weeks for children on the move to Europe. Last week I stood in the muddy field outside the transit center in Tabanovce, close to the Serbian border. While 14,000 people, half of whom were children, had become stranded in makeshift tents in Idomeni, Greece, a similar situation was unfolding right under my eyes at the border between the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia.
The last 437 Syrian refugees who crossed the border in the south were now stranded in the north, not allowed to continue their journey through Serbia. A quarter of them were children under the age of five and 12 of them less than one year old.
One young Syrian couple approached me, timidly, asking me to find help for their daughter who had been distressed since they had left Syria. “If you just touch her with your finger she starts screaming. We don’t know what to do for her.”
Another father, pleading, handed me a dirty, used milk bottle and asked me to help him get some milk for his children. As a mother and a grandmother, I couldn’t look at the bottle and not feel rage. I thought about the 3.7 million Syrian children under the age of five who have known nothing but a lifetime shaped by war. After having seen the destruction of their houses and their whole life falling apart, these people had to spend nights out in the rain, with no access to proper food or services.
The ad-hoc border restrictions along the Balkan land route had already left over 1000 people stranded in the Tabanovce transit centre. On 7 March, as the European Union – Turkey Summit took place, this last group allowed to cross into the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia from Greece, were now stuck in between the two border registration points.
“After being on the train for over four hours, we got to the border, got an exit stamp from the Macedonian police and walked towards Serbia, but the Serbian police wouldn’t let us pass,” a young father told me as he tried to shield his baby from the freezing rain. “We cannot go back to the transit centre. We have nowhere to take cover from the rain and cold and we have no food,” he added.
When I returned to the site two days later, it was still raining. The muddy fields were now filled with tents – put up with the help of the UNICEF field coordinator and other aid workers – all lined up along banks of streaming muddy water. The muddy sludge was so deep that one refugee man came to help me from falling as I walked around to talk to people.
“We cannot go back,” one mother told me. “I have two teenage daughters who traveled alone to Germany a few months ago and I need to join them.”
This woman reminded me of the risk of family separation and that border closures have not stopped desperate people from wanting to make the journey. Parents are resorting to having their small children spend days in horrible conditions, in the hope that borders will reopen and they can continue.
Many are even making sacrifices to go without access to basic services. However, we cannot allow this to happen. UNICEF and partners have been handing out food, hygiene kits, nappies and warm clothes, while encouraging mothers to continue breastfeeding their babies, but so much more needs to be done. How many more days will children spend sleeping in the mud?
Children have suffered the most in this crisis. They have suffered more in their first years of life than most of us would endure in our lifetime.
Governments need to be reminded of their obligation to allow safe and legal channels for children escaping war and conflict through appropriate measures including family reunification, so they do not suffer more.
Rajae Msefer Berrada is the Deputy Representative, UNICEF in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia