Serbia: At the Crossroads of Europe’s Refugee Crisis

Refugee Family in Belgrade Tent City

The refugee crisis in Europe has dominated international news for weeks, and with good reason. Britain’s Guardian newspaper is calling it the worst refugee crisis since WWII.

The 24/7 news cycle plus videos and cameras in every cell phone have provided image after agonizing image of the the horrific experiences of the refugees attempting to reach safety in the European Union.

We’ve been in Serbia over a week now, and our train and bus travel has brought us face-to-face with the grim realities of the crisis, as the refugees cross the country on their way north to Hungary and the EU. We’d seen photos and read accounts of the plight of the migrants, but as always, seeing events first hand drives it home in a very forceful way.

The suffering and confusion we’ve seen has raised all sorts of disturbing questions, and we’ve tried to educate ourselves about the causes of the mass migration as well as the measures each country is taking to deal with the refugees. And in our short time here we’ve seen how one country is dealing with the challenge.

Cell Phone Directions

What we’ve realized is that, understandably, each country must care for its own citizens first, and a huge influx of migrants is a colossal burden to bear. But the primary problem is that there’s been no effective overall coordination between the EU and non-EU countries (like Serbia). And this lack of cooperation is passed directly down the chain spreading more misery and uncertainty for the refugees.

“Europe is not organized to deal with it, because the European asylum system
has been extremely dysfunctional and in recent weeks completely chaotic.”
— Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner

Tent City

Belgrade’s Role
For many of the refugees, Belgrade is a major stopover on their journey north. It’s a place to catch northbound buses and trains toward Budapest, Hungary.

There’s a tiny, triangular park next to the Belgrade bus station which has become a Refugee Tent City, jammed with family tents, and surrounded by many even less fortunate people sleeping unprotected on the ground. More disheartened families lined the walls of the station waiting for an uncertain future. And the only help we saw provided was a few portable toilets, and one white-coated aid worker standing alone at a card table.

Aid worker

Refugees line walls of Belgrade bus station

So in Belgrade, if a refugee can buy a train or bus ticket, they’re allowed to board and travel north toward Hungary and the EU. But, you may have noticed in the news that Hungary is completing a 12-foot high, razor wire-topped fence all along its southern border with Serbia.

Kids Playing

Waiting on the Border
We saw the desperate results of this “funneling people into a closed pipe” as we traveled farther north to Subotica, Serbia. The small, normally sleepy Subotica bus station is only a few miles from Hungary, and is the last bus stop before the border.

On the day of our visit, there were hundreds of refugees crowded in and around the station waiting for the chance to move farther north. So our question was: Where will they go, and what will they do when they’re turned back by Hungarian border guards?

We lived in Sudan in the mid-80s and witnessed the dreadful Eritrean Refugee Crisis when hundreds starved daily – an experience which left an indelible mark that remains today. So we aren’t naive about how complex these problems are nor how insurmountable they can appear.

Kudos to Germany for taking the lead to help hundreds of thousands of refugees. But the question we have is when will some country or organization step forward to take charge and get rescue efforts organized? Perhaps if they saw a crying child in a tent city things might change. Winter is at hand, and things can only get worse.

James & Terri

Update September 13: According to an ABC News report the railroad tracks used by refugees as a gateway to Hungary will be closed except when a train is approaching. After Tuesday, anyone caught crossing the Serbian-Hungarian border will be arrested.

Waiting in Line


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

75 thoughts

    1. Darlene, in addition to the daily search for a place to rest and sleep, it must be incredibly stressful to have constant uncertainty about what’s going to happen. The situation changes daily, and I’m sure that most of the refugees can’t stay informed. And the desire to grasp any information must lead to the heartache of disappointment every day. I can’t imagine how grueling and miserable it must be. ~James

  1. I can’t even begin to imagine what it looks like first hand. Is your travel itinerary the same or have you had to change plans at all? With so many countries affected, I’m sure it is nearly impossible for a cohesive plan. Too much thought and not enough action.

    1. Laura, we haven’t changed any plans yet, but we’ve certainly had some interesting bus rides. The plan is to move west to Montenegro, then south to Skopje, Macedonia., then northeast to Sofia, Bulgaria. At this point, our biggest concern is crossing the border between Macedonia and Bulgaria, which is right along the path of refugees moving north from Greece to Serbia. We have no concrete info at this stage, but we’ll see. Luckily for us, we’re flexible and have choices, but not so for the refugees. ~James

  2. I guess a big part of the problem is the reality of not having the choice of whether to receive refugees or not – they simply turn up at the “door”. Lack of cooperation or the appearance of it could well be in the “feelings of awkwardness in having to deal with such a crisis without being fully free to express ones feelings” – while all should be helped with food and shelter Europe and UN, in particular, need to do more in educating the refugees about the rules of seeking asylum – processing where it can be done. This time we see rules aren’t being respected, countries saying they welcome refugees on the one hand and on the other, saying that they cannot carry all the burden or lots of it that all countries must carry the load – Serbia should look more toward the UN more than to the EU as its not an EU member but is a UN member – confusing situation and worrying one

    1. Thanks for your comment Ina. I’m sure that living in your part of the world has given you an insight that most people don’t have. Your point about the UN’s lack of involvement is a good one. Maybe they could be the organization that pulls all the countries together into a cohesive unit. I’m sure that you know more about the complex politics and could speak to why the UN hasn’t taken a bigger role. And your point about education on seeking asylum is very good. I knew absolutely nothing about the rules, and after seeing Germany and the UK’s rules, I think that many of these refugees will end up right back where they started. I can’t imagine how the refugees deal with the daily hardships and confusion that they must face. Sad – incredibly sad. ~James

      1. Thanks James, I don’t live in Croatia physically but am there daily with connections of all sorts 🙂 I live Down Under where, as you know, the refugee or Boat people matters have been a part of our lives in one way or another but the waves hitting Europe are truly challenging and some order needs to be brought in on all sides, making sure people don’t go hungry and cold in the process regardless of whether their “end status” will be confirmed refugees or simply illegals looking for a better life on backs of refugee crisis. Cheers!

    1. It is that Tricia. There’s a wide cross-section of people on the move, and some groups are in more dire circumstances than others. It’s the poor families that are the most sorrowful, and that need the most help. And the saddest thing is that they may be the last ones in line to get it. Heartbreaking. ~James

  3. This is an incredible post. Powerful and amazing that you have witnessed so much first hand. Sending you lots of peace… knowing that you will send it forward. xo

    1. Thanks so much Liz. When we were planning this trip we suspected that there might be some issues, but we had no idea that it would be of this magnitude. Of course, we can’t complain because for us it’s only an inconvenience. But these poor people have had their lives and very existence taken from them. It’s beyond sad, incredibly sobering, and another vivid reminder of how much we have to be thankful for. ~James

  4. Thank you so much for your posts. The devil is often in the details in every endeavor. I’ll look forward to updates. We leave for France and the Netherlands in a couple of weeks and I have wondered if we will run into any of this. Plus it will be interesting to get the view from the other side of the ocean.

    1. Thanks much Suzanne. If you’re planning on train, and particularly bus travel, you may see some of it, but probably not too much. By the time the refugees make it that far north other solutions will probably have been put in place. What we’ve seen in Serbia is that it’s really only around the train and bus stations as well as on any train or bus heading north. Have a great trip and wish Terrell a happy belated birthday. ~James

  5. James I thank you and Terri for transporting us to see this first hand, albeit through your eyes. Here we sit wide eyed and open mouthed at the TV screen watching these unbelievable scenes. the other night Dave and I were at a local coffee shop talking about it and commented how impossible it is to even imagine as we sat in the luxury of such treats after a walk from our comfortable home.
    I so very much agree about the need for coordination of efforts. Canada finally yesterday announced $100 million dollars to match private donations which would be sent to organizations such as the Red Cross at refugee camps. However there are so many, as we can see by your photos, who are at makeshift camps with little or no presence of such organizations.
    Being right there, do you have any opinions on solutions? Also have you felt and concerns about your own safety?

    1. Thanks Sue. First, no there haven’t been any safety issues for us – well other than the normal stay aware, be careful, and make a small footprint. As to solutions, one of the things that seeing this with my own eyes made clear is how unbelievably complex it really is. We’ve seen what we think are “economic refugees” who really are only using this as an opportunity to get to Europe. But most of these folks gave up their homes, families and very way of life to make this change. So I know that they felt they had no other choice.

      Some info on the departure end about asylum rules and qualifications would probably help, because from reading the rules, I believe many of these migrants will not qualify, and will be sent home. In the EU, I would hope there would be some sort of consensus on how many emigrants each country could take, and some agreement on how to provide food and shelter until a solution is found.

      But truthfully, it will take a number of sympathetic experts, as well as governments and normal people digging deep to help these refugees get back into and adapt to a normal life in the EU.

      Big Kudos to Canada for stepping up and helping in a big way. ~James

      1. I really appreciate your perspective James. Dave and I just re-read your article. The complexity is overwhelming to be sure. We hope Canada opens up it’s doors wider as we did during the Vietnam refugee crisis decades ago.
        Stay well and sincere thanks for giving us this glimpse of the refugees world. We are grateful to both of you.

      2. Thanks so much Sue. We talked long and hard about how to handle this post, and in the end, we decided to write about what we observed, and to bring to light a few of the immediate issues here in Serbia. If it raises awareness just a little bit we’ll be happy. ~James

  6. Thanks for sharing your first-hand experience of the complicated immigrant crisis in Europe. It is a really complex issue and one to which I can also see both sides. Sadly there are no easy answers. Crises such as those in Syria cannot be ignored by the world community; ignoring them or refusing to act only leads to the problem coming to our doorsteps. It’s like a horrible game of dominoes gone awry. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

    1. Thanks Cathy. The misery and sadness these refugees are enduring is difficult to witness, and also uncomfortable to discuss. It’s easy to suggest knee-jerk solutions, but honestly, countries like Serbia have a good deal of problems of their own to address, so I believe it’s unfair to heap the problem solely on their shoulders. On the other end of the spectrum, Germany has been amazingly generous so far, but it’s also unfair to expect them to take up all the slack. It will certainly take a concerted effort, and the problem will not go away. The refugees feel they have no other choice and they will keep coming. It will be interesting to see what gets done in the end. ~James

  7. What an excellent post! It is utterly heartbreaking and without a coordinated EU wide effort and agreement on how to handle the refuge crisis I don’t know how it will be resolved. To think of these families with young children with no choice but to flee and risk their lives is heartbreaking. I think it would be extremely hard to witness. Keep the coverage going!

    1. Thanks Nicole. Simply put, the EU will be forced to find a solution. Most of these migrants gave up everything to leave their homes and there’s no going back. Seeing a family of five, sitting surrounded by a few sacks and small suitcases and knowing that this is all their possessions is beyond sad. When they left their homes they pulled a trigger that can’t be un-pulled. And someone will eventually have to help. But the question remains how much misery will they have to endure before a solution if found. ~James

      1. I can only imagine how awful it is. How do most Europeans feel about it? The papers here have been a little bit negative so I’m curious what natives are thinking about the crisis and how there massive influx of migrants will impact them.

      2. Nicole, as you can see from some of our European commenters, like me, they’re ambivalent. Only the most heartless could look at the refugees and not feel sincere sadness, but the very purpose of government is to take care of their own residents first. It’s wonderful that Germany has agreed to take so many refugees, but in the long term, it will be interesting to see if Merkel has committed political suicide. ~James

  8. Reading and viewing news stories about the refugee crisis is one thing. Getting your ‘feet-on-the-ground’ report with the up close and personal story and photos makes the story much more real. It doesn’t take a great deal of empathy to feel the gut wrenching desperation of so many people facing uncertain futures against a backdrop of hopelessness and desperation to flee their homeland.

    Thank you for addressing this uncomfortable issue of masses of people seeking to survive in an uncertain world. – Mike

    1. Mike you described this human crisis perfectly: “gut wrenching desperation.” That’s exactly the look on the faces of most of the refugees we see. Grave expressions, hollow eyes, and even the kids are lethargic. We were on a bus with a Mom and her baby, and we could tell the baby was exhausted. Eventually, the Mother was able to move to another seat to make room and it dropped into sleep instantly. Who knows when the family last slept inside. Yes, gut wrenching is a good description. ~James

  9. Desperate times and desperate people looking for a better life. I do hope the UN will take control of this situation and coordinate for more countries to get involved and find a solution sooner rather than later, before the winter starts in Europe and these poor people will have an even harder time. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Gilda, we’re trying to stay informed and it seems that the scene changes every day. I see that Germany has temporarily closed its border with Austria to help control the huge influx. It’s one thing to read the numbers, but after our experience here in Serbia, we realize that these numbers represent another huge group of desperate people waiting and not knowing what will happen next. I can’t imagine how horrible it must be. ~James

  10. What a compelling post and it’s such a dramatic time to find yourself in the middle of this flood of refugees. These families have little choice but to flee, wouldn’t we all, but what they will find is just as uncertain. Good luck on the rest of your journey.

    1. We’ve seen a few groups that are most probably “economic” migrants who are using this as an opportunity to enter Europe for better jobs, etc. But the vast majority seem desperate and had little choice. I can’t imagine the agony and grief that leaving your entire life behind must cause. ~ James

      1. Even as economic migrants there is little choice in reality…that’s what my parents and thousands of others were when they left economically depressed Britain for Canada. When you can’t feed your family, whether there is a war or not, you have to do something. Not a simple solution any where in sight for Europe. Given your past experience it’s a fascinating aspect to your trip.

  11. Sad & disheartening no doubt. The world must reach out & help. However it is also pertinent to ask why their brethren in the oil rich countries of the Gulf are being circumvented to reach the borders of Europe? To me it seems like a future Trojan horse situation. Europe needs to be careful. It must work out a policy & ensure refugees return to their homeland with the easing of the situation

    1. You bring up some of the complex issues that make this such a thorny problem for EU nations as well as others. I too have wondered why the Middle Eastern countries aren’t taking a bigger part, and their claim is that they have already provided large amounts of money for aid, and they have security concerns about a large influx of migrants (and who doesn’t?) But in the meantime, the flow of refugees is not abating. ~James

    2. Exactly!m It’s very intriguing and enlightening to hear that other Arab nations don’t want them…It seems it should be their responsibility first, not Europe’s.

      1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog Jenmarie. It seems totally logical that more of the Arab nations should step to help, but from what I read, their reasoning is that they have already donated hundreds of millions of dollars to help the refugees, and they are concerned about terrorists migrating in with the refugees. Fair enough, but how is this any different than what could potentially happen in Europe. So much for religious charity and taking care of your own. ~James

  12. I think this is great that you are sharing your first hand experience. I think many people just think the problem will fix itself, or another country will take care of it, or just don’t think about it at all. I am so glad that you are able to show what is happening in real life, not just what the media says and our government says. Thank you!

    1. Jennifer, we just saw a small part of this huge migration, and trust me, it will not fix itself. Some of the refugees seem to have some financial resources and can probably help themselves, but the majority that we saw were absolutely desperate. They’re in a strange land with no support network, and someone will have to help, or watch them perish. Harsh words, but true. ~James

  13. Thank you for this first hand account. It is so hard to imagine the scale of the problem through a few images on a screen. I dread to think what will happen when winter comes if something is not done more comprehensively.

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. Most of the people we saw had very little gear and were in dire straits even in warm weather. I can’t imagine them surviving a cold winter. Hopefully, it won’t come to that, but for some it could. If the refugees really knew what their options were maybe they could react, but the situation at the various borders changes daily, and it’s impossible for them to know what to do. The confusion and uncertainty are just a couple of the miseries that they have to bear each day. ~James

      1. And people want to know why they move from one ‘safe’ country to another. They don’t understand (or choose not to) the conditions and restrictions placed on them in some countries. The EU meeting hasn’t filled me with confidence given all they decided on was to meet again in a few weeks.

    1. Vilma, there are obviously complex political and financial issues on this problem within the EU, and they, as a group, may not be the solution. Someone has suggested the UN might be an option, but who knows. I’ll be interested to see what the catalyst is that finally gets some group off its backside to act. ~James

  14. This is such an important post! Most of us, including me, have no comprehension of what a dire situation this is, along with the desperation these refugees must feel to be willing to risk everything and leave home on a journey to an unknown destination and future. Thank you for sharing what you’re seeing and experiencing in Serbia.

    1. Thanks Kelly. As you know, it’s easy to look at a video from half a world away and feel sad, but in our world, life intervenes and we move on. But there’s nothing more heartbreaking than looking these unfortunate refugees in the eyes. Even the children, who normally play and have fun under any circumstances, are glum and have no spark in their eyes – exhaustion I suspect. And truthfully, the entire family is probably in shock. So incredibly sad. ~James

  15. Terri & James,
    Your words, photos and on-site account of what is occurring overseas with the refugees brings it to life beyond anything I can see on TV. Thank you for sharing this with us. So important in such a crisis and a time when they need desperate help!

    1. Thanks Lia. When we planned this trip we thought that we might encounter some of these refugees, but we had no idea it would be even close to this scale. As an American, I’ll be interested in what the US does to help. ~James

      1. Indeed your post made me think of what the future holds for these refugees and in what regard the United States will help. Sending you and Terri my very, very best and thank you again for this thought-provoking and meaningful post.

    1. Jeff, from what I read, nothing short of an all-out invasion will stop the civil war raging in Syria. It’s a nasty situation that everyone is loathe to get involved with (see how well the US did in Iraq and Afghanistan). And for the refugees, most of these people have zero options at this point. If they don’t get help, they will perish. It’s that simple. They’re in a strange land with no support network, and someone will have to help. The question is, how long will it take and how much misery will they have to endure before it happens? ~James

      1. James, great points. It will take an all out invasion – as bad as ISIS is, the Assad regime has killed more people from what I’ve read. Hopefully these refugees can get on their feet sooner than later and start over.

  16. Thank you for sharing this firsthand account with us. It is truly a heartbreaking situation, a complex situation that seems to involve many countries and organizations taking an active interest.

    1. You’re right about many countries taking an interest LuAnn, but the problem is that they seem to be pulling in different directions. One country does everything it can to move the refugees on north, and the next country closes its borders. I can’t imagine the frustration and hopelessness that the migrants feel. ~James

  17. Numerous world organisations, UN, UNHCR, UNICEF etc, have been set up apart from the EU. Surely all need to get together and work on strategies for dealing with the problem. This is a world problem, not just a European one. Autumn and winter are fast approaching. If the situation is dire now with people sleeping on the ground or in flimsy tents, what’s it going to be like once cold weather hits? Too dire to contemplate.

    1. You’re right that there are a number of organizations that could be helping out Dorothy, but I’m not sure why true coordination isn’t happening. Personally, I don’t know enough about the EU and all the other organizations to know what the best option would be, but it’s obvious that there’s little effective pulling together – not sure why. ~James

  18. Thank you James and Terri for bringing this heartbreaking situation to life. Too much media coverage just waters down the truth. Your photos and carefully chosen words are so important.

    1. Thanks Martha. It’s been heartbreaking to see this crisis up close, but it’s also been educational. I’m glad you recognized my “carefully chosen words.” It’s an incredible hot-button issue in Europe, and understandably, opinions are polarized. I was interested in SUDAPOEDIA47’s comment about the Trojan Horse. I hadn’t considered that aspect. ~James

  19. It’s a horrible situation all round but I’m not sure there are any easy answers. Here in the UK we have been so swamped by economic migrants we are already struggling in terms of housing and jobs. This little island feels as if it’s bursting at the seams and our health and welfare systems are close to collapse. While I feel for the asylum seekers, it’s hard to see how Europe can accommodate them all, especially the smaller countries. There is also, as has already been pointed out, the security issue and the worry of a Trojan horse, if borders are just opened to let anyone in who wishes to come.

    1. As you know Marie, we lived in London a few years ago, and we’ve been in and out of the UK many times since. And I must admit, that on each trip there appeared more foreigners than I remember – not in a good or bad way, just an observation. But in these days of limited funds, as I said, each country has to be responsible for their own citizens first. It’s impossible to look at the refugees and not feel terribly sad, but it’s a complex equation for most countries to balance. As to terrorism, I just read that the US has increased the number of emigrants that we will take, but the question of admitting terrorists was discussed, as it should be. It’s sad and horrible, and you’re right, there’s no easy solution. ~James

  20. These images are heart breaking. I think you explained the point quite objectively, which is not always easy. I am sad that as globalized world, we are still unable to deal with war, human rights and justice.

    1. Sadly Virginia, the refugee crisis is a classic NIMBY situation. Everyone feels the need to help, but “not in my back yard.” As I’ve said to others, I’m ambivalent and can see both sides. It’s particularly bad that nothing is being done on the origin end, so migrants just keep coming into the system and walking into uncertainty and misery. I really don’t see a quick solution on the horizon. ~James

  21. Travel is an amazing way to experience living history and, in your case, living the news. Seeing first hand the evolving refugee crisis has to be a heart-breaking eye opener and I appreciate your heartfelt perspective. I hope that, instead of merely mouthing goodwill, the US can open its doors a lot wider and welcome these people with help and homes. Anita

    1. Thanks Anita. I see in the news that Kerry said that the US will increase the number of asylum-seekers that we will take, but I think the wording might have included ALL migrants, not just Syrians. He spoke directly to the immigration of potential terrorists, and I’m sure that the US Government does, and should, see that as a major problem. It’s going to take some serious screening to prevent a future problem, and I’ll be curious to see how it plays out in the long term. ~James

  22. James and Terri – I missed this when originally posted, and am catching up thanks to your favs post today. Your comments about winter approaching are tough to read – winter is now here. Thanks for being witness to this world issue. Susan

    1. Thanks Susan. Sorry it took so long to answer. With the holidays this comment just slipped through the cracks. When I look back at this post as the weather gets colder and colder, I wonder how these poor refugees are staying warm. Many that I saw didn’t have proper cold weather gear. It’s a terribly sad situation that isn’t likely to go away soon. ~James

  23. Sorry for the slow attention to this very sad piece (I’m slowly playing catch up).

    This is obviously a very difficult issue for many, with so many moving parts, but I like that you can bring the basic human element back to the issue.

    Sadly, when we visited not so long after you guys, railways services between Serbia and Hungary had completely ceased leaving road as the only option (railway services between Slovenia and Croatia were also suspended as we passed through)… not that it is an real option at all.

    1. From our experiences in the Balkans Chris, it appeared that every country was pretty much caught in the middle on this issue. It’s easy to sit outside and point fingers (something we westerners are good at), but until something is done before the refugees leave their home country, I don’t see a workable solution. I totally appreciate both sides, which makes it even harder to see the refugees caught in the middle. Sadly, it’s likely to take a decade to truly sort this problem out. ~James

  24. Reblogged this on Standisms: life through my eyes and commented:
    Such a well written and moving piece. The refugee crisis is still a very real issue that the media has now left. People are still being forced from their homes to try and carve out a life somewhere else, but that somewhere is unknown.

    Countries need to start realising the humanitarian obligations to refugees who have not chosen to leave but have been forced to leave. It’s time we helped.

    During WW2 Anne Frank’s father wrote the Cuban, US & British embassies seeking asylum and we know how that turned out. For once lets try to be on the right side of history and help people while we still can.

    1. Thanks so much for reblogging our post on the Syrian refugees. When we planned our trip to the Balkans, we suspected that we’d see some of the effects of the migration, but had no idea that it would be at the level we encountered. As you said, unless there’s a major disaster or loss of life, the media has moved on to other topics, but the struggle for the refugees continues, day after day. It wasn’t a pleasant sight to see, but if our post and photos raised awareness just a little bit, it was worthwhile for us. ~James

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