Europe’s humanitarian crisis

 

Sir, – A few days ago, I returned to Ireland from Croatia, where I spent two weeks volunteering in a refugee camp in the eastern town of Slavonski Brod. This camp is a transit centre for refugees who are making the arduous trek along the so-called “Balkan route”.

During my time there, over the new year period, an average of between 2,000 and 4,000 people passed through the camp each day. They came from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Since the Paris attacks, arbitrary restrictions have been imposed on other nationalities, leading to human rights violations, particularly on the Greek-Macedonian border.

In Croatia, I was struck by the high proportion of children, including very small babies, among the arrivals. Children often accounted for over a quarter of the daily total. There were also many women, some of whom were heavily pregnant or breast-feeding. Elderly and disabled people were pushed in wheelchairs by their relatives. A lot of the younger men were themselves husbands and fathers. People tended to travel in extended family groups – hoping for a safer future, despite the immense hardships they encountered on the way.

To add to the challenges they faced, the weather turned bitterly cold.

During the first week of January, there were more than 30 centimetres of snow in Slavonski Brod, with freezing fog and temperatures dropping to minus 15 Celsius.

There were problems heating the trains that are used to transport refugees from Serbia, through Croatia, and onward to Slovenia. Many people were coughing and clearly unwell. Yet their spirit and dignity, under such adverse conditions, were truly humbling.

A similar sense of hope was noted in recent articles in The Irish Times. It was apparent in the opinion piece by Mairead Healy, who wrote of her experience as a volunteer in Calais (“Amid the horrors of the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp, hope endures”, January 11th), and in the report on refugees in Macedonia by Daniel McLaughlin (“Ordeal sharpens Balkan camp refugees’ longing for Europe”, January 14th).

At a time of increasingly negative media attitudes, it is important to acknowledge the bravery and resilience shown by survivors of oppression who are now are seeking a new life in Europe. It was a privilege to meet and speak to some of these people in Croatia.

Among them was a Syrian woman, swaddling her baby in a blanket, surrounded by her other children, on a snowy night, in a strange place, far from her war-torn homeland. I held the baby while the mother, who was poorly clad for the harsh Balkan winter, tried on a warmer jacket. The infant was a few months old – a beautiful little girl. She woke up for a second or two, then fell back to sleep. The peaceful dreams of a child in the midst of such upheaval. Her innocence calls on all of us, in Ireland and across Europe, to offer welcome. – Yours, etc,

DR BRONAGH CATIBUŠIC,

Blackrock,

Co Louth.