Migrants struggle through Balkans winter

Migrants struggle through Balkans winter


Since the beginning of the migrant crisis in about mid 2015, my colleagues and I asked ourselves the same question: what will happen when the winter comes?

We were thinking of a Balkans winter: minus 20 degrees Celsius and wind so strong that you have to walk backwards into it.

. Presevo, Serbia. Reuters/Marko Djurica

Most migrants come from Syria and Iraq and they have only seen snow in the movies. I remember a young girl saying, while holding a snowball, that she didn't know snow was cold.

At that moment I realised that what were they about to experience would be very difficult for them.

. Miratovac, Serbia. Reuters/Marko Djurica

Not least as the United Nations weather agency forecasts that temperatures in the next two weeks will drop to minus 20 degrees Celsius in Presevo, Serbia and minus 13 degrees on the Greek border with Macedonia.

After weeks and weeks of weather more like springtime than winter, a weather forecast on my phone got me packing my gear. I headed to the Serbia-Macedonia border, as down there migrants have to walk 10km in rough terrain before they can board a train in Serbia.

. Presevo, Serbia. Reuters/Marko Djurica
A migrant stands wrapped in a blanket as he waits for a train to depart to Croatia at train station in Presevo.

My car dashboard showed minus 7 degrees when I reached the village of Miratovac. After completing paperwork with Serbian border police I started walking towards the Macedonian border.

Snow was falling and I saw a first group crossing the border.

Twenty people, all wrapped in grey UNCHR blankets walked slowly and in silence. The wind was so noisy that they weren't able to talk to each other.

. Miratovac, Serbia. Reuters/Marko Djurica

Another group, bigger this time, arrived with lots of kids. Many of them were crying from the cold.

I was speechless: these same kids months ago would have smiled and made fun of me, mimicking me holding a camera. Nobody was smiling now.

. Miratovac, Serbia. Reuters/Marko Djurica

Last year children made up a quarter of the one million migrants and refugees arriving across the Mediterranean in Europe, the U.N. children's agency UNICEF says.

My hands were freezing despite wearing two pairs of gloves.

. Miratovac, Serbia. Reuters/Marko Djurica

Finally a man approached me. “Mister, how much further do we have to walk?” About 5 km, I said.

He turned and pointed to a group some 50 metres behind.

“One, two, three, four, five. That’s my family. The one on the left who is walking in pain is my sister. She broke her leg in Aleppo last year, I am afraid for her.”

I tried to calm him down, explaining that there were people here to help her.

I explained that they had to catch a train in Presevo and travel to Croatia, then on to Slovenia and Austria before reaching Germany, the country they were aiming for.

“Six of us have 60 euros left. Do you think it will be enough for us to finish our journey?”

There I was, speechless again.

. Miratovac, Serbia. Reuters/Marko Djurica