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Interview with Save the Children: Refugee Crisis in Europe

The ongoing refugee crisis hitting Europe is the worst refugee crisis we have since WWII. Although the majority of refugees are coming from war-torn Syria, others are seeking refuge in Europe from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sub-Saharan Africa and other conflict areas. It is a highly complicated, chaotic emergency situation that often leads people to feel overwhelmed, confused and unsure of what to do to help.

On a personal level, I have wanted to write about the crisis but had no idea where to start. I contacted Save the Children and obtained an exclusive interview with Francine Uenuma, Save the Children’s Spokesperson for Disaster and Humanitarian Emergencies to get a firsthand account of what is happening on the ground and how Save the Children is working to help out. Here is her story. 

A man carrying his little boy on his shoulers, a backpack on his back, another backpack on one arm, and a bag in the other, waits for some people down the path towards Croatia. Photo credit: Stuart Sia/Save the Children

A man carrying his little boy on his shoulders, a backpack on his back, another backpack on one arm, and a bag in the other, waits for some people down the path towards Croatia. Photo credit: Stuart Sia/Save the Children

Quick overview on the Refugee Crisis in Europe from Save the Children:*

*This information was compiled for me to use from various press releases and resources used by Save the Children. 

Interview with Francine Uenuma, Save the Children’s Spokesperson for Disaster and Humanitarian Emergencies

Francine just returned from Greece and the Serbia/Hungary border where Save the Children is working to provide humanitarian aid and services to refugees. Here is her account of what life is like on the ground and my questions about the refugee crisis.

Me: What prompted the massive increase of migration to Europe this year that has led to the current refugee crisis? 

Francine: There are many factors and it is all quite complicated. Last year, we saw about 40,000 refugees arriving in Europe via Greece. This year, as the situation in Syria has become worse we have seen an increase in Syrians fleeing their country.  This year alone more than 380,000 people have migrated to Europe from Africa and the Middle East, and more are on the way. It is hard to get exact numbers of the refugees because it is constantly changing, they are coming from many different places and routes, and are always on the move. It is a very complicated, chaotic situation.

Me: Where are the refugees coming from and how are they getting to Europe?

Francine: We estimate that 60% of the refugees in Greece are from Syria and the rest are coming from Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries. There are two main routes – through Italy and through Greece. They mostly come by boat and once they land ashore, they often walk miles to reach the nearest bus station or ferry that will bring them further into Europe.  When the refugees land in Italy the situation is quite different as the Coast Guard is there and they normally land in a port. However, when they land in Greece there is no one there to help them. They generally land on one of three Greek Islands upon a rocky, remote shore and then they walk on foot for hours to get to the ferry station which will bring them to Athens. It is a perilous journey and they walk with nothing.

Me: Share a story about something you witnessed or experienced on the ground in Greece?

Francine: We were driving around Lesvos in our rental car and off in the distance we saw a dingy approaching the shore. We stopped and got out of the car to help. On board was a family of refugees from Afghanistan who had just arrived and were afraid. One woman had twisted her ankle and had a baby who was very cold. They arrived with nothing except enough money to get them to Athens via ferry. It was over a 70 km walk into town on a windy road to reach the ferry but there was no way the woman would make it with her sore ankle and the baby was sick. We weren’t able to help the entire group but did bring the woman and the baby to seek help. It was hard to separate them as they didn’t fully understand where we were taking them however we knew she would never make it there without our help. This is just one of many similar stories of refugees simply arriving ashore and are all on their own with no food, minimal water and/or belongings.

Me: You were also in Serbia along the border with Hungary. How is the situation there different?

Francine: It is an extremely challenging situation right now because people are constantly on the move and their location changes daily as borders open and close. It is very difficult to get aid out to families and children in need due to the unpredictability and chaos of people in constant movement. I was in Serbia when Hungary closed down the border and witnessed the fear, desperation and confusion on the children’s faces. For me, that was one of the hardest things to see. I heard many stories of tragedy and loss. Parents having to make a difficult decision to leave a loved one behind or parents who lost their children during the journey. Perhaps the hardest of all was seeing the children with their faces, crying and pressed against the newly erected fence at the border of Hungary. They were so confused and scared.

Around 500 people remain in Horgoš, Serbia, uncertain whether to wait for the Hungarian border to open, or to travel to the Croatian border instead.Stuart Sia/Save the Children

Around 500 people remain in Horgoš, Serbia, uncertain whether to wait for the Hungarian border to open, or to travel to the Croatian border instead.Stuart Sia/Save the Children

Me: What is Save the Children doing on the ground to help?

Francine: Save the Children has staff working to support and protect children and their families at informal camps in Lesvos where thousands of refugees are living in informal camps. We are planning to provide a protective environment for children in these camps while also helping set up emergency shelters and distributing food, basic hygiene items and baby kits.

Children play and draw at an art workshop held by Save the Children's mobile Child Friendly Space team in Serbian capital, Belgrade. Our Child Friendly Spaces provide a few hours or normalcy for children, as well as psycho-social support, food and hygiene items, while they wait to continue the journey towards Western Europe. In addition to providing a safe area for children, we provide a space for mothers with babies and toddlers, to enable peaceful breastfeeding, changing diapers, provide support and counselling as well as distribution of baby packs including baby food for toddlers and hygiene items (diapers, baby wipes, baby powder, baby soap). The Child Friendly Spaces also have a role in identifying children travelling alone without a parent or relative and providing them with the support they need and informing them about their rights and the services they are entitled to. Photo Credit: Stuart Sia/Save the Children

Children play and draw at an art workshop held by Save the Children’s mobile Child Friendly Space team in Serbian capital, Belgrade. Our Child Friendly Spaces provide a few hours or normalcy for children, as well as psycho-social support, food and hygiene items, while they wait to continue the journey towards Western Europe.In addition to providing a safe area for children, we provide a space for mothers with babies and toddlers, to enable peaceful breastfeeding, changing diapers, provide support and counselling as well as distribution of baby packs including baby food for toddlers and hygiene items (diapers, baby wipes, baby powder, baby soap).Photo Credit: Stuart Sia/Save the Children

In the Serbian capital of Belgrade, Save the Children has set up mother-baby help centers near the city’s main train and bus stations that serve as major gathering points for refugees. The centers provide hygiene and food supplies for mothers and their children and offer parents a safe space to use the hygiene items. The agency also plans to provide support for mothers and children in one of the large “informal” refugee day-camps in Belgrade including a safe space for children to play. 

Fatima* was pushed to the ground by people running away from the police after they were teargassed, says her aunt. Her brother Karim* fell during the pandemonium caused by the tear gas and hurt his shoulder. From Syria, they are uncertain whether to stay and wait for the border to Hungary to open or to go to Sid to cross the border into Croatia. Photo credit: Stuart Sia/Save the Children

Fatima* was pushed to the ground by people running away from the police after they were teargassed, says her aunt. Her brother Karim* fell during the pandemonium caused by the tear gas and hurt his shoulder. From Syria, they are uncertain whether to stay and wait for the border to Hungary to open or to go to Sid to cross the border into Croatia. Photo credit: Stuart Sia/Save the Children

Me: What can we do to help?

Francine: The most important thing is to donate. After the iconic picture of the drowned little boy in Turkey broke the world’s heart, Save the Children saw a big spike in donations by both corporations and citizens. People realized the horror of the crisis and felt compelled to do something. You can also advocate. To meet the growing crisis Save the Children has joined other humanitarian groups in calling on the United States and European Member States to support a comprehensive plan to strengthen protections for refugees and to expand quotas for refugees so more can resettle in Europe and the United States.  We are disappointed in the administration’s announcement of accepting only 10,000 additional refugees from Syria. We can – we must – do more.

As the Obama Administration has acknowledged, The United States has an important role to play in helping Europe respond. The situation is extraordinary and it calls for an extraordinary response not only from European countries but from the United States as well. The international community including the United States must also step up its effort to provide assistance to displaced people and host communities in the Middle East as well as do more to bring an end to the conflict.

Turhan*, his wife and baby Iqbal* on their way to the Croatian border. We met Turhan*, his wife and baby boy the day before at Save the Children's Mother and Baby corner at the Asylum Information centre in Belgrade. When Turhan* saw Save the Children's staff again, he greeted them with "Marhaba!". Photo Credit: Stuart Sia/Save the Children

Turhan*, his wife and baby Iqbal* on their way to the Croatian border. We met Turhan*, his wife and baby boy the day before at Save the Children’s Mother and Baby corner at the Asylum Information centre in Belgrade. When Turhan* saw Save the Children’s staff again, he greeted them with “Marhaba!”. Photo Credit: Stuart Sia/Save the Children

To learn more on the refuge crisis and/or donate to Save the Children, click here.

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14 comments

  1. My heart is so sad with this tragedy. I’m in France, this morning I gave warm clothes to help. It’s very difficult to help because everithing is done to put the tragedy in the silence but this is not very far from us in our country. I’m afraid because I heard a lot of violent reactions about refugees in my country and all what I want is to keep peace beetween everybody. I hope people will understand that we can’t leave people who need help in camps or in horrible conditions. The winter is coming, the situation in dangerous for all the people who haven’t a place to leave in good conditions….

  2. A very timely post Nicole. Thank you for writing this post and giving all of us more insight into this tragic situation. Donations on the way.

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