Dimitrovgrad camp (Serbian – Bulgarian border)

– by Nerissa – 31/10/15

About 300-400 refugees reach the camp everyday throughout the day until late at night but more are expected in the next weeks (as the route through Greece become more and more risky). The refugees are mainly young Afghan, Kurdish or Iraqi men aged 15-25. We also encountered many Syrian families with small children (even few weeks old!).

Their journey through Bulgaria to Dimitrovgrad is very harsh, dangerous and challenging on many levels. In Bulgaria refugees experience high levels of xenophobia and islamophobia resulting in violence and abuse. When we ask them about their condition in Bulgaria, they all describe the same dramatic scene: they are badly beaten and robbed by Bulgarian people and specially by the local police, they are deprived of all they have and thrown in jail, and sometime they are sent back to Turkey. Most of them have been caught by the police 2-3 times before reaching the Serbian border. During the entire journey through Bulgaria they have to hide and avoid any big city until Sofia, where they can take a taxi to the border. The refugees we talked to would advise the other refugees not to take the route through Bulgaria as it is too risky: they would most certainly be beaten and robbed, if not killed. Afghans and Iraqi refugees face more challenges and discriminations compared to the Syrian refugees, as they are generally poor and not educated and are considered more prone to crime.

The Serbian-Bulgarian border lies on the Balkan Mountain range (Old mountain), a mountainous region whose highest pick is 2,376 m and that used to be a popular skying resort. Dimitrovgrad is located on the slopes of the Old Mountain, four kilometers away from the Serbian-Bulgarian border. Refugees are driven by taxi from Sofia to a Bulgarian village on the cliff of the mountain, from there they walk 2-3 days through the mountain to cross the border. As they have to hide from police, they often walk at night in complete darkness and at very low temperatures, they hold each other as it would be almost impossible to find someone who got lost from the group. They can never sleep at night because of the cold, they are struggling to survive. Refugees almost never reach the camp by foot, taxi drivers know the area very well and know where the refugees are hiding, they go to pick them up on the mountain and drive them to the camp charging 100 euro for the ride. Taxi drivers are making huge profit out of the refugee crisis, in agreement with the local police.

Refugees reach the camp very tired, wet and injured. Their shoes are often broken, their clothes are dirty and wet. When they arrive to the camp they always ask for shoes, jackets and socks, they also ask for shirts and trousers and are always happy to receive anything that makes them warm. They also very much appreciate hot food and tea. After the registration at the police station, that is not Free (exact amount unknown), they continue their journey by bus to Belgrade. The ticket costs 25 euro or more, depending on the bus company. Many can’t afford the ticket, because they have been robbed in Bulgaria and have absolutely nothing when they reach the camp. They turn to us for the ticket money, but we cannot give it to them. As they are not allowed on the bus, during the day they hang around in the camp, where we can feed them, but during the night they are often kicked out of the camp by the police. After 2-3 days they are generally allowed on the bus. Taxi drivers also offer ride to Belgrade charging 200 euro.

After long negotiation with the local police, we obtained the permission to access the camp and build there a tent where we can distribute food and clothes. Note that the police granted permit to some volunteers to enter the camp but can revoke it at any moment. It is very important to maintain a good relationship with the police and we should only request permit to enter the camp for those volunteers that can stay longer than few days. We believe that the police wouldn’t be pleased to deal with new permits everyday for people and to see every day new people in the camp. This agreement with the police is built on trust and good communication, and can only work with a team of few (8-10) people who are willing to volunteer for at least a couple of weeks.

In the tent we built there is a kitchen area, where we cook and distribute food, a small area were we can distribute clothes and provide basic first aid care, and a storage area in the back.

To feed the refugees we generally provide tea, hot soup, sandwiches, energy bars, chocolate bars and fruit, and we always make sure that everything is halal. Red cross informed us that, for health and safety reasons, we are not allowed to prepare food in the camp apart from tea and (packaged) soup. Therefore we usually prepare food ( sandwiches, ..) somewhere else and then we bring it to the camp. We also provide clothing that we purchased (mainly socks) or received as donation.

At the moment the situation in the camp is very hard. Lack of resources is the main issue, as we are not able to provide enough food and especially clothes to the refugees. They reach the camp after walking few days in the mountains, at 1900m high. Because the very low temperatures and the arduous path, they always reach the camp exhausted, injured and often sick, with wet and damaged clothes and shoes. They all ask for socks and shoes, shirts and jackets, but we can only provide for few of them. A larger amount of these items as well as child clothing and baby products is necessary.

Lack of medical assistance is another enormous problem, as many of them arrive injured or sick, and with serous allergies and are in need of medical attention. Many of them are sick (cold, flu, ..) because of the cold weather and harsh conditions of the journey, many other are injured (they have wounds, inflammation, dislocations, ..) because of the terrible treatment they received in Bulgaria by local police or because of the arduous journey on the mountain. We encountered families with very small children and babies, even only few weeks old! Their parents can’t change the diaper whenever is needed during the long journey and babies easily develop serious rush and inflammation. Red Cross rarely provide real medical assistance and is only present until 3 pm. Sometimes independent volunteers with medical background pass by the camp and provide First Aid care to the refugees but is very rare. The constant presence of someone with medical expertise is absolutely required.