UNICEF official experiences ‘humanity on the move,’ following refugees and … – UN News Centre

4 November 2015 – As the number of women and children on the move in Europe continues to increase, an official from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) today shared her eyewitness experience travelling with refugees and migrants for eight days along a difficult route from Greece to Slovenia, passing through the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia.

“We started on the border between Greece and Macedonia, with 1.5 or so kilometres of dirt road, following refugees and migrants [during] their journey to the first reception centre in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF’s special coordinator for refugee and migrant crisis in Europe, told reporters in Geneva.

Ms. Poirier said refugees and migrants are organized in groups of 50 as they wait to enter the reception centre, located in a town called Gevgelija. “First the police take their papers,” she explained. “And in a rather orderly manner, they move through the camp.”

She watched the process as refugees and migrants waited to get their papers back, during which time an area was set up with snacks. It includes UNICEF’s first “child-friendly space,” where women can rest while their children play.

“Maybe it sounds a little bit secondary when you think about what these children have gone through – they’re tired, they’re scared, some of them are wet – but I tell you, seeing them just getting a crayon or a ball […], you see it in their eyes they’re allowed to be children again. It makes a whole difference,” the child expert stressed.

Inside the space, mothers and children also receive nutritional support as well as warmer clothing. When the registration is complete, Ms. Poirier said they either head towards a train at the end of the camp or they’re directed to walk about four or five more kilometres towards buses.

“I want to take a moment to describe to you the scene of people – mothers, children – getting on that train. The train is waiting there in the middle of nowhere, the sanitary condition in that train is not what you would expect in Europe,” she underlined, noting that the toilets are completely clogged.

“The people, group by group are led to move on trains, and they are climbing on,” she continued. “They need to pay 25 euros as they walk in, and they keep moving, and they keep moving, and they keep moving. At some moment I saw, in the last [train car], a family that had to disembark because they couldn’t breathe. And they walked back towards where we were watching, and one of the kids there was on the floor with stomach cramps, they couldn’t make it in.”

She added that she never expected to see such a scene in Europe, with people pressed into trains to this extent.

The next stop is at the Serbian border. Refugees and migrants arrive at a small train station, where “it’s a bit more relaxed.” After a first security check, they walk several more kilometres before taking buses to Presevo, where there’re welcomed at an accommodation centre.

Ms. Poirier noted that a UNICEF “child-friendly space” has also been set up at this location, especially for women who want privacy to breastfeed. “We’ve noticed that since we’ve opened this space, the number of women who stop by has increased,” she said.

The next bus then heads to a border point before Croatia, where again, refugees and migrants must walk several kilometres uphill. At the top, UNICEF has established a centre where women and children are offered clothing to help them through the dropping temperatures.

“You sense in the group the anxiety that maybe borders will close, maybe they will not be allowed through,” Ms. Poirier indicated. “Then they get to the Croatian border, the buses are waiting there – this time for free – and everyone is taken to an accommodation centre a few kilometres from there.”

At this location, the UNICEF child-friendly space is collocated with the Red Cross. Together, they help reunite families which may have been separated along the journey.

Finally, more buses are waiting for refugees and migrants there, to bring them to Slovenia.

“It was a very strong experience to see humanity on the move,” Ms. Poirier highlighted. “I focused on women and children and the high number of babies, but there are also old people. The oldest we met was 105 and she wanted to stay with her family for a better future.”

Meanwhile, welcoming efforts by Member States that are increasing coordination to support those on the move, Ms. Poirier said the big question she asks herself is whether Europe is ready to give children the future they’re risking their lives for.

In addition, as winter arrives, she stressed that much more needs to be done to put in place more protective measures for vulnerable people, recalling that one out three who are undertaking this journey today are children.