Dimitrovgrad is a small town in Serbia of 12,000 habitant and located near the bulgarian border. Since the beginning of the summer 100 – 200 refugees have been arriving in Dimitrovgrad each day comming from Bulgaria. Because the distance to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, is only about 60km, Dimitrovgrad appears to be currently the biggest hotspot of migration at the serbien-bulgarian border. Refugees traveling through Bulgaria are using the northern of the two migration routes on the balkan, crossing from Turkey to Bulgaria near the town of Edirne and then first entering European Union in Bulgaria. After Bulgaria they pass Serbia, Croatia, Slowenia and Austria where they can either stay or continue to Italy, Germany or further to Belgium, Netherlands, UK or scandinavian countries. Most of the refugees arriving here did not have enough money to pay the passage from Turkey to one of the greek islands, and continue from there through Greece and Macedonia, which is called the southern migration route on balkan.
The Bordercrossing from Turkey to Bulgaria is one of the most difficult steps on the whole journey of many refugees. For most of them there is no legal way to enter Bulgaria and ask for Asylum here, and they are therefore forced to use trafficers to cross the border illegaly. We have heard many stories of illegal Push-Backs to Turkey carried out by the bulgarian Border Police as well as ill-treatment and abuses, such as beatings with batons, the use of electric batons, releasing dogs on migrants and the use of warning shots. Amnesty International and other Human Right Organisations have recently (Dec. 2015) published several reports about the unacceptable treatment of migrants by the bulgarian Border Police.
But not enough, all refugees who manage to cross the border into Bulgaria are forced to hide 24h from police officers not to be catched and put into prison. Many of them stay for several days crowded in closed small appartments of their trafficers, waiting for their chance to leave in direction of Serbia. All refugees catched by the police inside Bulgaria or while attempting to leave the country are put into jail. Most of these refugees report threats, beatings, extortion of money and cellphones before being arrested for at least 12 days sometimes up to 30 days or 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 their arrest, they will be either asked to leave the country back to Turkey or be fingerprinted by bulgarian authorities and therefore automatically enter the asylum process in Bulgaria. This allows all member states of the Dublin III Convention (most of EU countries) to deport them back to Bulgaria once they ask there for asylum. After they have been fingerprinted and received transitional ID documents they are released from jail and put into “open detention camps” which allows them to leave during the day. From here most of the refugees escape back to their trafficers and re-try again to leave the country in direction of Serbia.
Arriving in Dimitrovgrad
Because of all this, most Refugees arriving in Dimitrovgrad are in a very bad physical and sometimes mental condition. We experienced a lot of people arriving here, who had not eaten in days, wearing wet clothes and worn out shoes, walking for days and nights always hiding from Border Police. Once they arrive at the serbian border, they can either walk the distance to
the registrationcamp in Dimitrovgrad (mostly about 20-30km) or take a taxi from the border straight to the registration camp. Once they arrive at the registration camp, they have to immediately present themselves to the police and enter the registration process. Once they have finished their registration, they have the right to move free for 72 hours in all Serbia. Most of them are taking the Bus to Belgrade, provided by a local bus company which charges now 30€ per person for the 5 hours ride. The buses are always leaving once there are enough people to fill one bus. There are also taxis leaving either directly to Sid at the croatian border, or also to Belgrad. Taxi prices can vary between 200 and 300€ per person, depending on several factors.
Situation inside the camp
Previously,during the month of november, this process of registering would sometimes take up to 4 or 5 days due to the slow computer system that the police used. Families with women and children were registered in advance, but others (mostly young males from afghanistan) had to wait for several days. Also most of the refugees reported that the serbian Border Police would charge them money for the registration, which is illegal. Some of the refugees reported, that the more money you would pay, the faster the police would register you. Those without any money at all, had to wait sometimes for up to 7 days. Although there is one big military tent and 4 living containers (each with 4-6 stockbeds) located inside the camp, most of the young male refugees had to sleep outside in the cold rain for several nights. In some nights, up to 40 people would crowd inside each of the containers, even sleeping under the beds on the dirty floor. Also there has been some days, when the police would either only allow kids and women to sleep inside the containers, or not allow anybody to enter them.
By the beginning of december the registration process sped up, and untill now it only takes a few hours before the refugees are finished with their registration. Once they received their papers they were allowed to enter the heated bus, to wait and sleep inside, but since the 18th of december, the police did not allow the buses to stand in front of the camp anymore. Now the police calls the bus drivers to come, once there are enough registered refugees to fill up one entire bus. Untill then the refugees have to remain inside the camp and wait there.
The Work of I’m Human Organisation
IHO is currently working with volunteers from all over the world to support the arriving refugees here in Dimitrovgrad. We are distributing different kind of foods such as food-packages (including bread, tuna, jam, cheese, energy bar), fresh fruits like bananas and apples and water. Altough other bigger Organisations as the Red Cross Serbia are also handing out food, they close their distribution in the afternoon and are not willing to work during the night when most refugees arrive starving and looking for food. Therefore we put in all our efforts to particular cover up the night times to support arriving refugees immediately. Besides food, we are also distributing all kind of different clothes and winter supplies: Most of the times people ask for gloves, hats, socks and winter boots, but we also provide winter jacktes, warm jumpers, scarfs, shirts, blankets and others. For the case of bad weather and colder temperatures we have stored emergency blankets and rain ponchos.
Besides the distribution of food and clothing, IHO volunteers also assist refugees with information for the further travel through Serbia and the following countries, maps, information about the different chances to apply for asylum in EU countries and other general information. In case we have volunteers who are trained in medical affaires, we are happy to help refugees with different kinds of medical problems such as treating smaller wounds and providing medication like painkillers, cough medicine and others. This is mostly needed by night time as there is currently a NGO inside the camp providing medical care during the day.
But in the end the most important work volunteers can do here in Dimitrovgrad and the biggest impact their work will create, is the solidarity that we can show to the refugees that arrive here. Many of them tell us that it is here in Dimitrovgrad, where they have felt the first time humanity and dignity again since they have left their home countries. Creating these feelings amongst them, is the easiest and best that our work can do here. Spending our time with them together in equality, listening to their stories, taking pictures together and sharing our contacts on social media gives most of them more hope and joy than anything else could ever do. We are happy to receive so many messages from our friends who have passed Dimitrovgrad in the past weeks and who have now arrived at their destination and still remembering the time that we have spend together and who are sending us their gratitude for our work.