January 2016 was the quietest month so far in Dimitrovgrad since September 2015. About 2000 refugees passed through the registration camp, 70% Afghans, 25% Iraqis (mostly Yazidi), the rest Syrians plus an occasional non-SIA migrant from Bangladesh, Pakistan or Iran. After a very slow start of the year, numbers picked up to about 100-150 per day.
Serbian police is now (as a part of regular registration routine) checking a final destination but no pushbacks were reported on that basis in Dimitrovgrad. We believe that the refugees are already informed and know a desired answer.
However, a few Bangladeshi and Pakistani migrants revealed their nationalities, not being aware of the consequences. They were fined with a 7 day prison for illegal border crossing and sent back to Bulgaria afterwards.
Unfortunately, this month has seen the first victims of the harsh mountain winter. Two frozen bodies are found by Bulgarian border police on the high pass over Stara Planina (a mountain range with a nearby Srebrna Glava peak at 1996m) on 20 and 23 January respectively. We hope that this will be a final death toll of this winter, although a few refugees arriving to Dimitrovgrad mentioned another frozen body somewhere along the way. We were not being able to check if this is true or not – police authorities couldn’t get a confirmation too. We believe they were referring to one of the two bodies found on Bulgarian side.
Most of the month, Dimitovgrad was extremely cold and snowy, the overnight temperatures were average -12C, peaking at -21C on 21 January. However it become pretty warm towards the end of the month and on 30 January it was +14C.
During January, there was a continuous improvement of collaboration between organizations present in and outside of the camp. All the organizations inside has increased its capacities to a 24/7 operation. UNHCR installed another container and employed more people. DRC got a permit to start working inside the camp, while Save the Children, Praxis and Belgrade Center for Human Rights are awaiting for it. Volunteers outside may need a support – most of the month their third shift was abandoned.
The works on the new registration camp, once scheduled for the end of January 2016, hasn’t been started yet. The new date which unofficially circulates in end of May.
Since 20 January, Info Park started to support poorer refugees with purchasing train tickets – roughly 50 tickets are purchased in the last week. Also it has added a tea station to the list of services; soon there will be also hot noodle cups on offer as a welcome addition for a quick recovery after a long and painful travel through Bulgaria.
Most of the month, refugees had a freedom to choose how to carry on their travel. This is their legal right once they get a 72 hour registration permit, but often it has been denied in Dimitrovgrad in the past, in favor of bus and taxi drivers and their “connections”. The 12.40 train to Belgrade has seen quite a refugees given its advantage in price (9e) and a perfect timetable (arriving to Belgrade to perfectly catch a 21.30 train to Croatia). The larger groups of refugees going to this train were escorted by police or Praxis and Info Park workers who also assisted them with money change or Western Union.
However it was quite obvious that some of the locals are not too happy about seeing bigger numbers of them in their town, for various reasons. It seems that the municipality authorities are pushing to prevent them from traveling on train and this will make happy only taxi and bus companies who are charging the highest rates among all in Serbia (Dimitrovgrad Shid bus is 40e, while 70km longer Preshevo Shid trip is 35e). We are hoping this freedom of travel will stay.
Another reason for concern is a constant robbery of refugees performed by local taxi drivers who are charging them anything between 150e and 250e for a short, 15 minutes ride from a borderzone to the registration camp. Very often they also take expensive smartphones from the refugees since they don’t have sufficient money. This is clearly a criminal work, however taxi drivers are of no one’s concern and that’s very sad.
A general atmosphere in Dimitrovgrad is pretty calm although it may be temporary – pretty much everyone involved is anxious to see what a better weather and spring will bring. No one expect numbers to drop down and in many ways, a route through (an officially closed) Bulgaria is an example what may happen when other borders shut down.