Last week we published an article on how one Singaporean lady, Gabrielle Tan, established Action from Switzerland to help provide direct help on the ground to Syria’s refugees seeking asylum in Europe, with millions currently displaced due to the conflict and violence in the country. 

With Hungary totally closed at this point, the focus of most non- governmental organisations have been in Presevo, a registration centre for incoming refugees. Through this Serbian town, they can obtain a 72-hour visa that enables them to move on to Croatia. Action from Switzerland headed down to the town to provide assistance. 

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Image courtesy of Caritas Serbia

What are some of the organisations currently assisting the refugees? 
When we arrived in Röszke, the UNHCR, Save the Children, and the Hungarian wing of the Red Cross and Caritas were already there. Some of the bigger organisations were more open to working with private volunteers than others. But there was very little structure in place to organise the assistance needed. 

In the end, it was a group of 10 Germans who didn’t have any official authority nor group affiliation that marched in and organised all the volunteers, private and NGOs alike. A volunteer booth where new volunteers could sign up and be assigned tasks, was set up. They also worked with the police to control the flow of incoming aid to prevent groups from opening up their vehicles and distributing everywhere, which results in waste. 

Video campaign by BEMedia Solutions

We worked with the UNHCR to set up a central storage for donated items where it could be distributed in a coordinated way. Save the Children also ensured that the more vulnerable refugees like the aged and children were sleeping in larger tents at night. 

Currently in Presevo, NGOs like Humedica and MSF are present outside the registration centre providing medical assistance, whereas UNHCR, Red Cross and the Danish Refugee Council work inside. Save the Children arrived two weeks ago, taking over a small basement that was initially set up by private volunteers as a sanctuary for women and children. Our Farsi translator assisted the Humedica team helping out whenever she could. Coordination with the UNHCR has been smooth in allowing vulnerable people in the queue – namely minors travelling alone, old, disabled or extremely pregnant – to move forward.

What else was needed on the ground?
Approximately 7000-8000 people pass through the Röszke campsite in one weekend. There were less than 10 representatives from each charity group. Independent volunteers made up of the majority. We were approximately 47 private and NGO volunteers in total to thousands of refugees. There was also a shortage of useful information made available to the refugees on which buses would take them where. It’s important if NGOs can provide added information. 

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Image courtesy of Action from Switzerland

There is also a serious lack of Arabic, Pashto and Farsi speakers in every place that needs help, even now. Farsi seems to be the most lacking. We’ve tried to help by setting up a database of Swiss based volunteers. We called for Arabic/Farsi and Urdu speakers and quite a few rose to the occasion. Together, we worked with trusted contacts to translate verified information such as routes and provide information to those queueing. Our Arabic speaker is currently onsite and it is a constant commitment on our end to continue finding Arabic and Farsi speakers in order to provide support.

Are there people taking advantage of the situation? 
You see the best and worst of humanity in refugee spots. Human traffickers littered the train tracks in Röszke offering rides to refugees to Budapest for hundreds of Euros. Volunteers worked hard to convince the refugees to head into the camp instead for a rest and take the buses. 

In Presevo, Serbia, taxi drivers accost the refugees just as they get off the bus with offers of rides and “registration papers”. They even do it at the back of the queue. With waiting time being uncertain, temperatures dropping and lack of proper information from the authorities, exhausted and confused refugees are vulnerable to such offers. We inform refugees that registration papers can only be obtained legally at the registration centre.

One incident was an old man who a fellow volunteer brought to us at the tea tent. He took a taxi and had walked 17 km back to Presevo after being left in the middle of nowhere. He was freezing. We warmed him up, filled his backpack with energy bars, bananas and water before informing the UNHCR about his situation. 

Due to incidents of volunteers being threatened, we are only able to inform refugees that they should take the bus and trains for our own safety. Volunteers are often threatened or harassed or offered a “commission” if they send refugees to these predators. I’ve personally encountered both. We just try to ignore them. 

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Image courtesy of the International Federation of Red Cross / Flickr

Are there road blocks to providing aid on the ground?
Customs was our biggest issue. As Switzerland isn’t in the European Union, just Schengen, we made sure that we checked thoroughly on procedures before crossing the first entry point into the EU.  Enroute to Hungary, this was through Austria, and the authorities in Austria were helpful. For Serbia, it is no longer possible as of 1st November to send second hand donations unless you have documentation to prove that everything has been dry cleaned. We are now focused on sourcing in bulk for gloves, scarves for men, women and children from Serbia itself.

What are costs like for these refugees coming into Europe? 
It is hard to say. Bulk of their money will be on transportation, SIM cards and food. The cost of transportation varies depending on the mode and legitimacy. Some governments like Germany and Austria provide free train travel, whereas it costs 35 Euros by bus for refugees to travel from Presevo after registration onto Croatia. The Hungarian government was also charging refugees for train tickets from Keleti station into Vienna. There are plenty of profit seekers selling food, shoes, SIM cards. 

What are some organisations we can work with to provide aid to the refugees?
There are many groups around Europe providing aid. Join their groups/Facebook pages. Take your time to look at how they work, then determine if your donation money will be 100% spent on refugee aid versus administrative costs. There are a few major groups in Hungary who provide aid to refugees. All are independently funded and rely 100% on donations. This also applies to Czech Republic, Greece, Serbia and Slovakia.

Gabrielle has returned from Presevo, but members of Action from Switzerland are still on ground to assist. To find out how you can support Action from Switzerland, check out their Facebook group for more information, or follow them on Twitter. Donations can be made to them here. 

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