Photo by Courtney Pedroza / Cronkite Borderlands Project

The last train of refugees through the Balkans

By Sarah Jarvis / Cronkite Borderlands Project

Published July 11, 2016

ZAGREB, Croatia — It’s a cold night in Glavni Kolodvor, Zagreb’s main train station. Most of the day’s passengers have come and gone, and there are only a few people milling about under the yellow platform lights. They keep to themselves, hands clenched beneath heavy coats.

Sounds of clanking metal cut through the air as the last train of the night rolls through. It doesn’t stop. Four or five faces are visible through the windows as it passes. They look out at the platform; a couple of men flash peace signs. And then they’re gone.

This was the last train of refugees allowed through the so-called Balkan route, and it passed through Zagreb on March 5. The next day, the European Union announced the closure of the route, which since last September had become the main path refugees were taking from Greece to reach Germany and other northern European countries where they hoped to settle.

The closure of the Balkan route was the culmination of a series of measures taken by European leaders to try to stop an influx of refugees. The route through Croatia became the path of choice after Hungary built a fence along its border with Serbia. In the months that followed, other European leaders closed their borders one by one -- sometimes defying the Schengen open-border agreement — in an attempt to curb the rush of mostly Middle Eastern and African refugees migrating northward.

László Tróscányi, Hungary’s justice minister, defended the tightening of borders while expressing concern that the rise of extremism in Europe could lead to a weakening of democracy.

“I still maintain we have to use caution,” he said. “It doesn’t work that 1.5 million people should be allowed to come in uncontrolled every year.”

The Slavonksi Brod refugee camp. (Photo by Courtney Pedroza)
The Slavonski Brod refugee camp sits empty after no refugee train arrived on March 6, 2016. (Photo by Courtney Pedroza)

The swift closure of the Balkan route was foreshadowed at the temporary refugee camp in Slavonski Brod, a city in eastern Croatia. The day before the EU announced the closure of the Balkan route, the camp was nearly empty. Food, piles of donated clothing and medical supplies sat in covered tents and workers and volunteers relaxed in contrast to their usual busy pace.

The camp had been a regular stop where refugees waited to catch a train, get medical attention or reunite with family. It had the capacity to hold 4,000 refugees who were allowed to stay for 24 hours, but most just stayed for a short while.

For months, at least one train passed through the camp each day. But there was no train on March 6.

Kata Nujić, a police spokesperson for the camp, said there were a few refugees waiting for medical aid or to reunite with their families that day but they were not available to be interviewed.

A Facebook post by the Croatian advocacy group Are You Syrious?, however, claimed there hundreds of refugees in tents in another section of the camp closed off to the media.

While the visible tents sat empty, nonprofit group volunteers waiting to work with a new batch of refugees spoke about why they felt the need to help.

Sandra Wahech, 24, a translator for the Center for Peace Studies, a Zagreb-based advocacy group that promotes peace, said she could relate to the refugees’ flights from their homelands.

She left Syria in 2013 after seeing smoke from explosions in the distance and said she feared that bombs could someday drop on her.

“Life kind of stopped,” Wahech said. “You just wake up one day, and you realize that things are not the same anymore.”

Since Wahech’s mother was Croatian, she had dual citizenship that allowed her to legally immigrate to Croatia. Wahech said she started working with the Center for Peace Studies because she felt she could be an effective aid for refugees with her fluent Arabic. She said she tries to give refugees relevant information because she was lost when she arrived in Zagreb.

“I feel like I’m in their shoes,” she said. “I have this paper that saved me, and they don’t have it — and it’s all about this paper.”

Kata Nujić, police spokesperson for the Slavonski Brod refugee camp. (Photo by Courtney Pedroza)
Kata Nujić, a police spokesperson for the Slavonski Brod refugee camp, said few refugees remained in the camp in early March. A Croatian advocacy group said hundreds of refugees remained in a section of the camp closed off to the media at that time. (Photo by Courtney Pedroza)

Despite her connection with the refugees, she said it’s tiring to divide her time between helping refugees at work, getting an education and maintaining her mental and physical health since leaving Syria.

Wahech said the few hours that refugees would spend at the Slavonski Brod camp was not enough for them to take advantage of all the resources available.

Caritas Croatia also had a tent at the Slavonski Brod camp to give refugees tea, clothes and hygiene items. Emergency Coordinator Dunja Jurić said she remembers living through the Croatian War of Independence as a little girl.

“We were in that kind of need 20 years ago,” she said. “I really feel love to people who are here now.”

Months later in a phone interview, Matej Zeba, also an emergency coordinator with Caritas Croatia, said the camp at Slavonski Brod remained open until mid-April, when the roughly 300 refugees who had been staying there were moved to the reception center in Zagreb. He said the work of Caritas had temporarily stopped until more refugees arrive and that the focus then would shift to integrating them into Croatian society.

Jelena Kranjec, 34, an activist in Zagreb with the group No Border, which advocates for open border policies, said despite the efforts of volunteers, advocacy organizations and the government, refugee issues slipped into the background long before the Balkan route closed.

Refugees “have been made so invisible by this organized route that it totally disappeared from public consciousness,” she said.


Cronkite News is the news division of Arizona PBS. The daily news products are produced by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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