Switzerland assists thousands on the move

Article, 07.12.2015

When Hungary closed its border with Croatia on 17 October, hundreds of thousands of migrants moved further west and redirected their route through the West Balkans. As Slovenia, a country of a mere two million people, had to bear the brunt of this new development, it turned to Switzerland for help. Since mid-November a team of five experts from the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit has supported the Slovenian authorities as well as NGOs to tackle this giant task.

Two sisters are sitting next to each other. © SDC
Avin and her sister Emine from Aleppo are only a stonethrow away from Austria. © SDC

More than 200,000 migrants have passed through Slovenia on their way to Europe

"I have a recurring nightmare: I dream about shoe size 42 almost every night" Milena from Maribor calls out when she was asked about the challenges of her job. The 65-year-old, who works as a volunteer in Sentilj in Slovenia, refers to what is lacking at the transit camp on the Austrian border. "Slovenian men are big and it’s hard to find shoes and clothes small enough for the male refugees". Three times per week, Milena and her husband Mickey volunteer for Slovenian Philanthropy, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) assisting the thousands of refugees, who arrive by bus or train at the camp every day.

"We have 45 volunteers working on rotation and we are now the biggest NGO in the camp, which sees a total of 200 volunteers every day", says Tjaska Arko, head coordinator of Slovenian Philanthropy in Sentilj. The organisation even had to turn down dozens of people offering to help. "The response was overwhelming at the beginning, but now I can feel that some of the volunteers are getting tired". Still, it was impressive to see how the helpers coped with the constant flow of refugees going in and out of the camp, which was set up in mid-October at the old customs office about 60km south of the Austrian city of Graz.

"These people have dignity just like we do, and that’s how I treat them", says Tatjana Rajšp, who was just helping a couple from Iraq find some garments in her second-hand-clothes-tent. "They mainly need warm things. Winter is coming and most of them have only brought the bare essentials".

The couple Tatjana was handing out clothes to were Oman and his newly wed wife Sapha from Mosul. "We first fled to Erbil in northern Iraq, but when the situation also deteriorated there, we had to leave again. I had to flee from IS", says Oman, looking at Sapha for affirmation. "And even though I am sad to have left my aging parents behind, I am very happy to be here now. Finally, we feel safe". Like many other refugees, Oman and Sapha don’t exactly know where they are headed but would like to go to Germany, Sweden or the Netherlands. "We just want to live in peace, that’s all". Oman, a software engineer, and Sapha had just arrived on the graffiti-covered train, which stops here once a day, and were hoping to move on to Austria today. Most people in Sentilij are anxious to continue their journey and are worried that they might miss the opening of the border, which usually happens once a day. 20-year-old Avin and her sister Emine (11) from Aleppo are sitting by a fire wrapped up in a blanket just near the border. They look tired. "I really want this to end. I just want to sit down in a warm room with my family and rest", Avin says hoping to join her uncle and aunt in Bonn in the next few days.

"Most people only stay for 10 to 20 hours at the most", explains Stanislav Lotrič, head coordinator of Slovenia’s Civil Protection, which is in charge of the camp. "I have heard that of the approximately 260,000 people, who have come through Slovenia since mid-October, only 15 have applied for asylum here".

The expertise of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid

When Hungary first closed its border with Croatia on 17 October, Slovenian authorities immediately started preparing for arriving migrants, however, they did not expect such large numbers. "In the first few days we were absolutely overwhelmed", Lotrič continues. "There were times when almost 11,000 people moved through the camp in one single day". The Slovenian authorities realised that stemming the huge influx of people on their own would be hard and would soon run out of resources. For this reason they turned to Switzerland and other countries for help. Upon receiving the request, the Swiss Humanitarian Aid did not lose any time and immediately sent an assessment team, who decided that Switzerland would have the expertise and material to support the Slovenian authorities in this crisis. On 12 November, a shelter expert, a wash expert and a logistician travelled to Slovenia to support the country’s Civil Protection with relief items and expertise as well as giving financial aid to Slovenian Philanthropy. "The Swiss support is very helpful as it facilitates our work and gives us the opportunity to remunerate some of the volunteers for their hard work", says Arko of the Slovenian Philanthropy. 

As far as supporting the Civil Protection is concerned, Switzerland sent an initial truck to Slovenia carrying eight tonnes of relief items to be distributed in Sentilj as well as Brezice, another camp situated on the border with Croatia. However, what seemed even more important was the know-how and expertise Switzerland has brought to Slovenia. In an effort to make the camp more gender-friendly, Swiss experts instructed the Slovenian authorities to construct five multi-purpose tents as well as put up a fence to give women and children more privacy and separate male and female sanitary facilities. For winterisation, water pipes were put underground and the electric system was improved. "We are so grateful to benefit from the Swiss knowledge on how to set up a camp. I think we did a good job initially, however, the Swiss experts really helped us with the winterisation and gender-friendly setup of the camp", Lotrič continues. "But we also really appreciate the solidarity Switzerland has showed us".

Along with Slovenia, neighbouring Croatia had also asked for Swiss help and even though the country was not as much in need of expertise as its neighbour, it desperately needed essential items, such as heaters, blankets and a boiler system. Furthermore, Switzerland supports the efforts of the Croatian Red Cross with a financial contribution.