Two-year-old Seraj from Syria is crying in the cold. Yesterday he arrived in Vinojug, a transit centre for refugees on the Macedonian border with Greece. He came with his parents, his cousin, his four-year-old brother and his baby sister. The family spent the night in a plastic shed with nothing to keep them warm but a few blankets as temperatures dropped below zero.
Now they are waiting, with hundreds of other refugees, for a train to take them through Macedonia to the Serbian border. But nobody knows when the train will depart. Or if it will depart at all.
There are many children among the 3,000 refugees that arrive in Vinojug each day. Half of the Syrian refugees that now come to Europe are underage, according to figures from the European Ombudspersons for Children. But the refugee centre is simply not equipped to accommodate them.
Pregnant women and those with babies and toddlers are sleeping on the ground in tents or plastic cabins. There is no heating and it isn’t even possible to heat milk for a baby’s bottle.
The situation in the centre is chaotic. The train that people have been waiting for since yesterday has finally arrived. Hundreds of refugees throng along the railway. Children are crying, men are shouting, policemen are angrily ordering the crowd to form lines.
In the middle of this chaos, Marc Dullaert, the chairman of the European Ombudspersons for Children, is talking to mothers, fathers and children. His organisation recently established a task force to protect the rights of child refugees and he has come here to see the situation with his own eyes. “I am deeply shocked by the conditions here,” he says. “Why do these children have to sleep on the ground in the freezing cold?”
He says this situation is not restricted to Macedonia: refugees encounter similar conditions in all the European countries they pass through. “There’s a total lack of coordination to offer child refugees a safe passage through Europe,” he explains. “These children are extremely vulnerable. They often go through traumatic experiences.”
In January, the Ombudspersons for Children will present a report on the plight of child refugees with recommendations for the European Commission. “Nowadays, all the talk is about the numbers of refugees Europe wants to allow and about closing borders,” says Dullaert. “Whereas the biggest issue should be the situation of these children.”
“The cold is the worst thing now,” says 16-year-old Murhat, Nouha’s nephew. His round face is white and he looks exhausted. His arrival yesterday in Vinojug was a frightening experience for him. “We were waiting here, hoping a train would come, but it never arrived. Then the police came. They told us to go into the tents and they pushed and hit us. “We shouted: don’t hit the children, but they didn’t listen to us,” Nouha says angrily.
It is about 5pm and completely dark when the train packed with refugees finally arrives in the Tabanovce transit centre, close to the Serbian border in northern Macedonia. There’s no lighting in the train and the smell in the carriages is unbearable.
When the doors open, people stumble out, disorientated and dazed. One child has wet his pants and his father calls out for help. Families with very young children simply sit down on the platform to eat the bread that is offered to them.
In Tabanovce, there is only one heated space. It’s the child-friendly area set up by SOS Children’s Villages, an NGO that works to protect the rights of children. It’s a simple prefab cabin with a few toys and plastic children’s chairs scattered around the room. On the walls there are drawings – simple pictures of houses, trees and cars – made by the children.
“I feel so guilty about not being able to do more,” says director Julijana Nakova Gapo. “A lot of babies are undernourished. Children are exhausted, they are coughing, they have temperatures. There are many women who are pregnant. We had several births here. But we can offer only basic care.”
Tears well in her eyes as she watches the mothers and children trying to make themselves comfortable on blankets on the floor.
“We had children arriving in summer clothes, in sandals and T-shirts. Mothers were wrapping their children in garbage bags. We didn’t have enough clothes to give to them, so we gave them our own socks.”