by Jacob (independent volunteer)
Dimitrovgrad is a small town in Serbia of 12,000 inhabitants and located near the Bulgarian border. Since the beginning of last summer, 100 to 200 refugees arrive in Dimitrovgrad every single day coming from Bulgaria. Due to the short distance to Sofia (the capital of Bulgaria), Dimitrovgrad is currently the most important hotspot for migrants crossing the Serbian-Bulgarian border. Refugees traveling through Bulgaria usually enter Bulgaria near the Turkish town Edirne. After Bulgaria they usually cross Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and stay in Germany, or they go further to Belgium, Netherlands, the UK or the Scandinavian countries. Most of the refugees arriving in Dimitrovgrad end up there, because the did not have enough money for the passage from Turkey to one of the Greek islands, which requires at least 1.000 EUR per person for paying the smugglers operating the boats.
For many refugees, the border crossing from Turkey to Bulgaria is one of the most difficult steps during the whole journey. As there is no legal way to enter Bulgaria for them, they do so in an irregular manner with the help of smugglers and ask for asylum in Bulgaria. We have heard many stories of illegal Push-Backs to Turkey carried out by Bulgarian border guards. Furthermore, we were told about ill-treatment and abuses, such as beatings with batons, the use of electric batons, rushing dogs on migrants and the use of warning shots. This was confirmed by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, which recently published reports about the unacceptable treatment of migrants in Bulgaria. Furthermore, we were told, that refugees who successfully crossed the order into Bulgaria have to hide for at least 24 hours to avoid, that police officers catch and detain them. So many of them stay for several days in overcrowded small apartments of their traffickers, waiting for their chance to leave Bulgaria to Serbia. The majority of the refugees in Dimitrovgrad reports about threats, beatings, extortion of money and cellphones, mostly before being arrested for at least 12 days, sometimes up to 30 days or even more. They also tell about inhuman conditions in the prisons such as overcrowded rooms, bad treatment and insufficient access to food, water or sanitary facilities. During the detention, refugees are either asked to leave the country back to Turkey or to give their fingerprints and automatically enter the Bulgarian asylum procedure. Based on the fingerprints given in Bulgaria, all member states of the Dublin III Convention (all EU countries) can ask Bulgaria to take them back, if they again ask for asylum. After being released from detention, refugees are transfered to reception centres, which they can leave during the daytime. Latest at that point, most of the refugees contact traffickers again to leave the country in the direction of Serbia.
Arriving in Dimitrovgrad
For the above mentioned reasons, the majority of the refugees arriving in Dimitrovgrad is in a bad physical and/or psychological condition. We experienced a lot of people arriving, who had not eaten for days. Others wear wet clothes and worn out shoes, because they walked for some days and nights – always hiding from Border Police. Once they arrive at the Serbian border, they can either walk to Dimitrovgrad (about 20 to 30 kilometers) or take a taxi to the registration camp. All night taxis are waiting for refugees, who just crossed the border. Locals living close to the border are payed by taxi drivers for informing them, when they see migrants during the night. Taxis charge about 40 to 50 EUR for four people to take them to the camp. Once they arrive at the registration camp, they have to start the registration process immediately. In November, this process sometimes took up to five days, due to the slow computer system, which is used by the police. Families including children were prioritised, but others (mostly young males from Afghanistan) had to wait several days. Sometimes even sleeping outside in cold rain for several nights. Since the beginning of December the registration process is faster. Now it only need some hours until the refugees are allowed to continue their journey. Inside the registration camp is one big tent and four containers, each with four to six bunk beds. At some point, up to 40 people were in each container, meaning that some of them had to sleep under the beds on the dirty floor. There were also days, when police only allowed women and children to sleep inside the containers. Sometime, nobody was allow to enter them. Once refugees have registered in Dimitrovgrad, they have the right to move freely in all Serbia for a period of 72 hours. Most of them are taking the bus to Belgrade, provided by a local bus company, which charges 30 EUR per person for the 5 hours ride. Furthermore, there are taxis going directly to Šid at the Serbian-Croatian border, or to Belgrade. Taxi prices vary between 200 and 300 EUR per person, depending on several factors.
Help in Dimitrovgrad
Over the past months independent volunteers from all over the world have arrived in Dimitrovgrad for supporting the refugees arriving there. Since the beginning of November, volunteers cooperate and work together with a small and newly founded Serbian NGO called „I’m Human Organisation“ (www.iho.org.uk). Since the distribution of freshly cooked food was forbidden, we have been distributing food-packages (including bread, tuna, jam, cheese, energy bar), fresh fruits like bananas or apples and water. Other, bigger organizations like the Red Cross Serbia are also handing out food, but they stop their distribution in the afternoon and do not want to work during the night, when most of refugees arrive. They also do not hand out food to not-yet registered refugees. In November, when the registration process needed several days, non-registered refugees were only supported by volunteers. In our days, all our efforts are focusing on the night times, when there is no one else to support refugees arriving. Beside food, we are also distributing all kinds of clothes and winter supplies, like gloves, hats, socks, winter boots, winter jackets, warm jumpers, scarfs, shirts, blankets. For bad weather periods and colder temperatures we have stored emergency blankets and rain ponchos. Apart from that, volunteers also assist refugees with information for their further journey through Serbia and about the following countries. This includes maps, information about the different chances to apply for asylum in EU countries and other general information. In case medically trained volunteers are present, we also support refugees with different kinds of medical problems, such as smaller wounds and provide medication like painkillers or cough medicine. This is also mostly needed in the night time, as there currently is a NGO called „women and health alliance (WAHA)“ working inside the camp, providing medical care during the day.
However, finally the most important work volunteers do here in
Dimitrovgrad and the biggest impact of their work, is the
solidarity they show to the refugees that arrive here. Many of them told us, that it is here in Dimitrovgrad, where they felt humanity and dignity for the first time again, since they have left their countries of origin. Spending our time together with them in equality, listening to their stories, taking photos together and sharing our contacts on social media gives most of them more hope and joy than anything else. It makes us very happy, that we received so many messages from our new friends, who have passed Dimitrovgrad in the past weeks and finally arrived at their destination. A lot of them remember the time we spend together and express their their gratitude for our work.