In Tovarnik, Croatia, on September 20, 2015, women stay with the children and bags as men walk around and try to get informed about the situation ahead in their journey. Saša Kralj/Panna
In Tovarnik, Croatia, on September 20, 2015, women stay with the children and bags as men walk around and try to get informed about the situation ahead in their journey. Saša Kralj/Panna

BAPSKA, Croatia (WOMENSENEWS)–In the middle of the night a volunteer runs up with extended arms toward a woman in an approaching crowd of refugees who is carrying a baby. They don’t share a language but the mother understands; the volunteer is just going to hold the sleeping child to give her a break. Given this respite, she looks around discreetly for a toilet. Another female volunteer leads her to the corn fields. After a few minutes, they rush together to a waiting bus.

Most of the refugees that have come through Croatia–over half a million to date–have been directed through the Opatovac transit camp before boarding buses and trains to the Hungarian or Slovenian border. Starting in November refugees also began passing through a second camp in Slavonski Brod.

Both refugees and the Croatian government share the same interest: going through this country as quickly as possible. Refugees–the majority of whom are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan–want to get to their country of destination before any borders close, and the Croatian government does not want thousands of refugees staying for an extended period of time. Not many refugees choose to stay in Croatia because of the lack of employment opportunities here, its reputation for not accepting many asylum seekers and because many prefer countries they’ve heard about and where they have contacts. So, for many refugees, the range of time spent in the transit camps is counted in minutes and hours, rarely days.

That speed can make it hard for aid workers and volunteers to help female refugees with their special concerns. As winter nears with its harsher weather conditions at sea and on land, and with borders closing, the time pressures are only mounting.

On the road and in the jungle of unpredictability that is the refugee condition, it’s the men who usually hold the money, documents and cellphones and filter whatever information they can find.

It’s quite possible that the woman who handed her baby off to a volunteer for a call to nature did not know what country she was in, as is the case for many women here.

This lack of documentation can be dangerous, especially in the cases of family separations that have been known to occur even in the camp, particularly at registration or when boarding buses to leave. (In that situation, people without documents record their case with the Red Cross who then suggests they still move on to the next country and continue to approach the different national Red Cross branches to improve their chances of finding their relatives.)

Hygienic Needs Neglected

Fear of separation alone is enough to deter some women from tending to their daily needs.

Since leaving Turkey, where many of the refugees transit through on their way to Europe, most women have had little or no access to a safe and private space where they can clean themselves if only with a wet wipe. For days or weeks on end many have had no opportunity for proper washing.

Though international regulations such as the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response recommend that medical aid, toilets and washing facilities be available to all people at all times, this is not put into practice here, an aid worker said.

In Opatovac camp–where an estimated 310,000 people would have transited through before the opening of Slavonski Brod camp–toilets and showers were only available in certain sectors and required an escort.

Passage between camp sectors was guarded by male authority figures. Having to put trust in a stranger they couldn’t communicate with properly to be escorted to toilets or showers prevented many women from tending to their hygienic needs. (The situation was worse at night when there were even fewer volunteers to help.)

The conditions in the new camp in Slavonski Brod are much better as each of the six sectors is equipped with toilets and showers. Medical staff, however, is still lacking and only the most severe cases get medical aid.

The complete disorientation, on top of the stress of what was left behind and what lies ahead, creates a dangerous cocktail of conditions affecting the mental and physical health of the refugees.

Challenges With Children

With many traveling for about 20 days with little time or space to rest, women are often unable to properly tend to their children.

Valentina Otma?i?, head of the Croatian branch of the United Nations Children’s Fund, commonly known as UNICEF, is most worried about young children who are treated as small adults.

"The fact that they’re not crying doesn’t mean they are fine," Otma?i? said in an interview in Zagreb. "They are in shock. It’s not normal for a child to be surrounded by police all of the time or seeing people shouting and pushing on the buses."

One aid worker from the Slovakia-based humanitarian organization MAGNA also had concerns. Nikola Endrychová Dudová, a psychosocial counselor with the group, had been alerted to a few cases where toddlers died upon arrival in the destination countries.

Adults do not realize the tremendous pressure, stress and exhaustion that children go through during the journey, said Endrychová Dudová. She wanted to propose that young families be required to stay for at least five hours in the camp, a suggestion that found little support given the difficulty to enforce it.

"It’s not that they don’t care about their child, it’s that they want to move as fast as possible. Under pressure or due to exhaustion they forget the needs of children," UNICEF’s Otma?i? said.

The most vulnerable, according to several aid workers, are children under 5 for whom chronic diarrhea lasting over a week can be fatal. But lack of appropriate food or its plain unavailability confounds the problem.

Often children are fed the same diet as the adults, such as canned food. Sometimes it’s a matter of cultural sensitivity. If there is something specifically for children, many mothers hesitate because they can’t read the labels.

"It took a long time to make people understand breastfeeding is a life-saving measure," Otma?i? said. "They will never breastfeed in public spaces and they are always in a public space whether in a bus, walking or in a tent with 50 other people."

Only after several tens of thousands of refugees passed through Opatovac camp were two heated containers run by UNICEF set up for breastfeeding women.

The new camp in Slavonski Brod has six containers for breastfeeding mothers set up by UNICEF and another six for families with young children that are run by MAGNA.

Different Approaches

Each country has a different approach to camp management, Gordana Milenkovic, the regional media contact for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in a phone interview.

In Macedonia, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is on the ground and helping to run the centers. Serbia has established a special commission to handle refugees. Here in Croatia, the refugee process is controlled by the Ministry of Interior, with the Croatian Red Cross as an operational partner for all aspects except security.

Until recently, registration in Croatia was done by hand. But there is no public breakdown of refugee populations along gender or age though several estimates say about a third of the refugees are women. Some anecdotal evidence, meanwhile, suggests that more women and children are making the journey now that male relatives have paved the way and assessed the risks.

But still, the journey along the Balkan route gives ample opportunity for abuse of all kinds, including trafficking and sexual abuse, fear many researchers and aid workers.

Within Croatia, the flow of refugees is controlled and there is less chance for refugees to cross the country on their own.

Even though the Croatian police are trained to recognize possible trafficking, there is often not enough time for them to follow up, said several aid workers.

Lack of lights and the crowded mix of men and women in large tents at Opatovac camp, compounded with lack of volunteers and staff to guard over the safety of the refugees, especially at night, made abuse easy to commit, said one official aid worker who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Do you know of any cases of sexual abuse?" the aid worker said, recalling a recent conversation about conditions in Opatovac camp. "No. Is there space for sexual abuse? Massive, so massive that it must be happening."

Perpetrators will probably go unpunished as few cases are reported. A woman can report abuse to the police, but language barriers, intimidation of the authorities, fear of being held back, lack of knowledge on protocol and options and general taboo of admitting to being abused will nearly guarantee her silence, aid workers here said.

The situation in Slavonski Brod, by comparison, is an improvement if only because there is electricity.

For many women and children, the conditions in Croatia are better now than when people first started arriving in mid-September and than those in most other countries along the way.

On the Croatian leg of the Balkan route, especially after the Paris attacks, general public opinion toward the refugees is fearful and hostile. But war and violence still soar back home and, despite the dangerous journey, refugees are not ready to abandon their dream for a better future.

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