Think of these guys as you march today….I got another message from our friend in Serbia last night:
“I thought after some reflection I would have come to terms with the conditions here, but if anything, I feel worse. In a few hours I will be back in a warm flat in north London, but these poor souls will still be stuck in that freezing warehouse.
I’ve never been as cold as I was here. To give you a gauge of the temperature, the Danube has frozen over. And I had a ski jacket and proper boots. There are boys walking around the camp in shoes with no soles and little else but a thin jumper to keep the cold away. We have left our warm clothes with them. In that moment it is all we could do.
The depots that wrap around Belgrade central station are exactly what you would expect. Cold, dark empty spaces intended for industrial storage, and not a makeshift living space. The refugees are literally lying in filth, burning anything they can get their hands on to generate warmth. The fumes are so thick and toxic that it is difficult to see the other side when the smoke is billowing.
There are boys as young as 9 or 10 who are sleeping there, inhaling the smoke through the night.
The medical personnel say that they are doing their best to treat serious instances of frostbite, hypothermia and lung problems from the smoke.
A journalist mentioned to me that if animals were kept like this in the UK, people would be prosecuted for cruelty.
The scenes I watched play out were astonishing. Groups of young men huddling in the snow to queue for their one meal a day. Others had punched a hole in the ice to find some water, taking the risk of removing their shirt before splashing the water over themselves to get clean. I looked round to see an already freezing boy, coughing intensely as he splashed ice water on himself, his bare feet wedged in the snow.
Can i tell you the story of Mohsin? He said he could survive under the Taliban. It was not pleasant but he could survive. But then ISIS appeared. They threatened his uncle, before he mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again. Mohsin new he would be next. He has braved the rubber bullets of Turkish border guards and the lottery of the boat journey on the Med. He paid traffickers to stash him in a truck in Bulgaria. He lifted his sleeve to show me the scars of a beating from a trafficker who demanded more money from him. One of the cuts was severely infected. He said he will wait here until the EU can provide sanctuary. He claims anything is better than having his head cut off by ISIS.
That was a familiar tale amongst the largely Afghan group. I don’t think I have ever looked into the eyes of people who were so hungry before. It is a new level of desperation when you only have one meal a day. A truck arrived with some food donations from southern Serbia, and the reaction was if tickets to Elysium were being handed out. Boys raced out into the snow to grab what they could.
The Serbian authorities have provided accommodation for refugees. Thankfully many of the unaccompanied children have been taken there. I asked why everyone did not take up that offer, but many stated that it is just a halfway house to deportation. They know that the same process was used in Bulgaria.
There is also the sinister spectre of the smuggling gangs. I was told that the gangs have threatened some refugees that if they move to government accommodation, they will not take them any further on the journey across Europe.
I understand their concerns, and it is very difficult for me to see decisions from their perspective. But I worry deeply about the deteriorating physicality of these boys. Each day their health regresses further. The winter here is brutal.
The only solution is to move these guys to a safe space where they can recover and get treatment. Somehow we need to make that happen.”