Since the Europian immigration crisis began in 2015, 2.5 million people have migrated to the EU from the East. Most of them have come from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. Although the war in Syria triggered the immigration, less than 50% of emigrants were running away from war zones. Most of them were as the EU called them- “economic migrants“. After the EU- Turkey deal on the migrant crisis was signed in 2016, the situation was finally put under control, and the number of immigrants started to drop dramatically.
At the time, I worked in an emergency ambulance at the main Railway station in Belgrade. It was as small triage center. For those with severe health issues, we asked bigger facilities for help. Most of our patients got treatment on the spot.
Belgrade Glavna railway station by NAC | Creative Commons 3
If you are involved in a situation, you can’t estimate the scale of a problem. We could see 200-300 people daily on the main Railway station. That’s not a lot. At the peak of a crisis, you could see at most 500 people spread across the park next to the Railway station. Some people come, others leave- the flow was constant.
It is estimated that approximately one million emigrants have entered Serbia since the crisis started in 2015. Currently, there are 5,000 of them, and during the peak of a crisis, 15-20,000 people were in Serbia at any one time.
The Europian immigration crisis is the biggest migration since WWII. The crew from the ambulance was in the center of it, and we couldn’t see the scale of it!
Men only emigration?
As the crisis intensified during the first few weeks, one of the fellow doctors in the ambulance asked: “Where are their wives? “We were sitting on the bench in front of the ambulance looking at the group of 50-70 emigrants, trying to remember if anyone had seen any women or children emigrating. That was the first thing that drew our attention- no women, children or elderly. Only man 12-40 years old.
Syrian refugees having rest at the floor of Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 5 September 2015 Mstyslav Chernov | Creative Commons 4
Months passed before we saw families emigrating, but still, the number of male emigrants outweighed the number of females!
I won’t talk about sporadic health problems, but about the most common ones. Health issues regarding feet were the most significant. On the other hand, I have never seen so many people taking so much care of their feet. During the day, you could see them in parks and on the street sitting on benches with plastic bottles filled with water, washing and cleaning the feet. I remember a 14-year-old boy who came to the ambulance because of a sore throat- it was strep throat. As I was explaining to him what medicine to get and how to use it, he just said in fairly understandable English pointing to his feet: “Legs good, I good“. If you have to walk across Europe- you better take care of your feet!
People with most problems were obese and those with inadequate shoes.
A lot of them were in moderate pain (muscles, joints and back pain). I know this because every time I prescribed a painkiller to one of them, in the next 20 minutes at least five more show up complaining of pain (typically stating the same symptoms as their friend complained of 20 minutes earlier when he got a painkiller).
Other important health issues were lice and scabies.
Most of those emigrants were friendly, but not all!
There were sporadic incidents that involved locals but having in mind that hundreds of thousands of them passed through Serbia, everything went surprisingly smooth.
Almost every day we could read in newspapers about fights between groups of emigrants (if I remember correctly, those from Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t get along). A few killings happened on the streets between them as well. They used knives a lot in those fights.
Having in mind that I worked in an ambulance stationed next to the huge railway depots where those who rejected going into the UN camps lived, maybe my perception about violence is not objective. Railway depots were empty for years, and as the number of emigrants in Belgrade increased, emigrants started accommodating themselves there.
During the first few months, only the rich escaped. They didn’t look like people who are escaping a war zone. Almost everybody had an iPhone, suitcases, wearing clean clothing, etc. The price for transportation across the border (into the EU) was 500 to 2000+ euros depending on the “reliability of a smuggler“.
It was quite normal to spot a police patrol on the road searching trucks and vans for illegal emigrants.
As the time passed, the price of the transportation decreased, and the number of people in trucks increased. One of the most horrific tragedies happened in Austria where police found abandoned sealed truck (refrigerator truck) with 71 bodies. According to the police report, there were five people per square meter. When the truck driver realized they suffocated, he ran away leaving the bodies behind. The group of smugglers responsible for this incident was arrested a few days later.
Since the start of the Europian migration crisis, more than 2.000 people in Serbia have been arrested for human trafficking.
Every person in Serbia has a relative or personally knows somebody or has been an immigrant himself during the wars in the 90’s (ex- Yugoslavia break down and NATO bombing in 1999). Because of this, the local population showed surprisingly high empathy. There were different initiatives. For example, locals organized in the park next to the Railway main station, a spot (marked with a sign) where you could bring diapers and other supplies for babies. Emigrants who needed diapers would wait there for someone to bring them (and people were buying and bringing baby supplies!). Others organized “hooks of good will”. Those things were mounted on trees and benches. If you wanted to help, buy some food or bring old clothes, put it in a bag and hang it on the hook of goodwill.
As the emigration numbers escalated, authorities organized public kitchens, blankets for emigrants during winter, etc.
What I learned from the immigration crisis:
- If it has the character of massive emergency, you won’t be able to estimate the scale. Chances are- what you see is a tiny fraction of big picture.
- Take care of your feet– the most important thing in an emergency is to be mobile. Injured feet can mean immobility, and in some situations immobility means death.
- Have medicine in your backpack. I recommend one of the NSAIDs as well as two different wide-range antibiotics.
- Move in groups! God knows how many of those emigrants just disappeared along the way. Humans are pack animals- when there is no system all you have to rely on is instinct.
- On top of all- stay safe! If it looks inappropriate or dangerous- it probably is.