The war in Syria didn't start yesterday. Neither did the mass exodus of refugees fleeing violence, bombs, gunfire and the Islamic State. It shouldn't have been very difficult to guess that the more than two million displaced persons in Lebanon and Turkey weren't going to stay there permanently. And it should have been obvious that their final destination was always going to be Europe. However, the European Union watched from the sidelines, as if these issues were none of their concern. Recurring news coverage from countries like Bosnia, Macedonia and Serbia, and the reports from Human Rights organizations in the Balkans, have not been able to draw the E.U.'s attention to the fact that, since this past spring, the number of refugees crossing these territories towards central Europe has been steadily increasing. Until, of course, those refugees finally arrived.
After arriving in Greece, the refugees had to go through the Balkans, to reach the 175-km long razor-wire fence that the Hungarian government erected along its border with Serbia, or to camp in front of the central train station of Budapest (around which much conversation centers today).
Recently, I managed to visit the first stop of this Balkan journey in person. In the border town of Gevgelija in Macedonia, the refugees arrive from Greece, after walking along the train tracks. Up until only a few weeks ago, you could only see around 10 people a day. Now, however, there are more than 3,000 people who pass daily through the makeshift campsite next to the train station, which has quickly become the largest in the country. A few tents and temporary structures that offer shade and a place to rest during the four or five hours that the refugees spend there have been set up by UNHCR and the Red Cross, and are being secured by the police and the army. Usually, that time is just enough for a brief medical check-up, followed by issuance of refugee visas, which expire within 72 hours. If the refugees are not able to cross and exit the country within that time limit, they are considered "aliens." In order to facilitate this swift crossing, the Macedonian government has organized a fleet of buses and taxis that will take them to the next border (for a fee). They are taken to Serbia or Kosovo in the north, or to Albania in the east, from which they can cross to Montenegro, Bosnia and Croatia. In both cases, though, the refugees have the same destination in mind: Hungary. At the Hungarian Border, they once again enter the E.U. and inch closer to their destination in central and northern Europe.
These campsites represent the first institutional response. For months, Balkan civilians have taken the initiative to protect these incoming refugees. Neighbors organized the first tents and stopping points in the transit zones. They also provided water and food, basic medical attention, legal assistance, and a small play center for children. The Balkan citizens proved once again that "only the people can save the people."
The fact that the late, and rather timid, institutional response consists more of rapid transit facilitation than functional refugee camps isn't coincidental either. Not one European government, whether it's part of the E.U. or not, wants to take in tens of thousands of refugees. These governments do everything possible to make sure that the refugees complete their journeys as quickly as possible -- always passing the buck. The Macedonian government simply gathers and quickly checks all the refugees at the Greek border, to then pass them off at the Serbian border, where they count the days until they've finally left their country. Until the buck stops at a razor-wire fence or brick wall, they will continue to try to pass it on wherever they can. Alternatively, they put up a wall so that they don't have to deal with the problem at all. These seem to be the two strategies to avoid dealing with the reality of the situation, and to turn their backs to the world, to humanity and to Human Rights.
We also visited the Serbian-Hungarian border, which was the other extreme of this Balkan voyage. The scene repeated itself: rivers of worn out refugees walking along the train tracks and waiting in enormous lines to try to cross the border, as it becomes harder and harder to cross. On the other side of the border, there are fleets of rapid-transit, a strong police presence and xenophobic threats from: the neo-Nazi paramilitary troop, Jobbik, the principal supporters of Péter Szijjártó's, the minister of International Affairs. Szijjártó is the same official who justified his migrant policies by referring to the examples that the Spanish government had set in Ceuta and Melilla. Great work, Spain...
As a member of the European Parliament, what bothers me most is that even now, with the biggest refugee crisis since WWII knocking on Europe's doors, the E.U. doesn't seem to be conscious of its magnitude. Worse still, it doesn't want to be conscious of it. They've called a meeting of the Interior Ministers with a two-weeks notice. They're still bargaining about the amount of refugees allowed in each country. They're promising resources and funding that is altogether insufficient (1.5 million euros for Serbia and Macedonia). They've created an insurmountable amount of red tape around the crisis between European institutions and member-states, following the same logic of hoping to pass the buck. All of these responses contrast greatly with the rapidity and magnitude of the community's response to the crisis.
Recently, in one of the multiple checkpoints that I had to pass through to access the Gevgelija camp, a police officer confessed to me that no one from the E.U. had gone through the camp yet and there was still no offer of institutional support. Great work, E.U....
Miguel Urbán is a representative of Podemos in the European Parliament.
This post first appeared on HuffPost Spain and was translated into English.