A freezing and squalid Belgrade railway depot where up to 2,000 people are seeking shelter from the bitter Serbian winter risks becoming a “new Calais” for refugees and migrants abandoned by European authorities, the humanitarian group Médecins Sans Frontières has warned.
Children as young as eight are struggling to survive temperatures that have plunged to -16C this week, with no running water or sanitation.
At a Belgrade clinic set up by the charity, doctors have seen frostbite and burns resulting from the inhalation of toxic smoke, as people burn anything they can find to stay warm, among dozens of other medical problems.
MSF estimates that up to 2,000 people are living in a cluster of warehouses and other buildings around the city’s main station. It estimates that nearly half the patients they have treated are under 18, the Guardian reports.
“Serbia risks becoming a dumping zone, a new Calais where people are stranded and stuck,” warned Andrea Contenta, humanitarian affairs officer for MSF in Serbia.
The country is not part of the European Union, but it borders several countries that are part of the bloc, including Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, and has become a key transit point for those hoping to start a new life in western Europe.
Serbia won praise for its treatment of migrants, but increasing numbers have become stranded there as the EU tried to shut down the Balkan route and tightened border controls. Processing camps are now badly overcrowded and more people are arriving every day. Although they ultimately hope to move on from Serbia, many are spending months there, making repeated failed attempts to cross into the EU.
“We cannot continue avoiding talking about reality, which is that the Balkan route is still open but people are getting stuck because there is no safe way to travel,” Contenta said. He added that unofficial estimates were that up to 8,000 refugees and migrants were stranded in Serbia.
The refugees gave several reasons for not going to the official camps, saying they were closed or only took families, but most of all that they feared deportation to Bulgaria or Macedonia.