Trapped in transit, women refugees of Vinojug await a future


 Zanep with her daughter Marija, at Vinojug in July 2016. Photo: UN Women/Ventura Formicone
Zanep with her daughter Marija, at Vinojug Transit Centre in July 2016. Photo: UN Women/Mirjana Nedeva

The refugee transit centre Vinojug near Gevgelija, some 6 kilometres north of the border with Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, looks like a make-shift village. It was opened in the summer of 2015 and has 133 residents now, mostly women and children, stuck between the future they set out to reach and the past they were trying to escape.

Since March 2016, after several countries along the “Balkan route” closed their borders to refugees and migrants from Syria and its neighbouring countries, the residents of Vinojug have little choice but to settle into a routine in their temporary barracks. There’s a set time for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The children go to a temporary school and mothers try to adapt to their new routine, far from everything they know.

“It is not bad here, in Vinojug. People are nice to me. But I just want to join my husband in Germany. Sometimes I lose my patience and my nerves…” confesses 28-year-old Zanep Hasi from Aleppo, Syria. The former physical therapist was among the last group of refugees to reach the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia when European countries shut down their borders.

Hasi was eight months pregnant when she started her journey with her 4-year-old son. “People helped me along the way…Our house in Aleppo was ruined and I had to leave,” she explains. Her husband had moved to Germany five months prior, and has all the necessary papers now, but Hasi is uncertain whether she will be allowed to join him. Hasi lives for her son and her daughter, Marija, now four months old. The transit centre is the only home that Marija has known.

Vinojug Transit Centre in fYR Macedonia. Photo: UN Women/Ventura Formicone
Vinojug Transit Centre in fYR Macedonia. Photo: UN Women/Ventura Formicone

The women in Vinojug try to support each other through these stressful times. Since the border closure, UN Women, working with Oxfam, MYLA and La Strada (Open Gate), are trying to address some of their immediate needs by distributing non-food items and send outreach teams five days a week, composed of psychologists, social workers and legal advisors, to provide psycho-social and legal support. “Since March, we have been living and working as a family here,” says Ilinka Vaskova (25), who works as a psychologist in the mobile team. “Women eagerly expect us after the weekend, to tell us what happened during the weekend, what they received from the Red Cross and what they need… They trust us now.”

“These women have gone through the worst experiences—they have seen war, faced life-threatening situations and have endured impossible journeys just to secure a better future for themselves and their children,” says Dominika Stojanoska, Head of UN Women Office in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Take Guleheen’s example: Guleheen,* 27, from Afghanistan, was seven months pregnant when she arrived on foot at Vinojug via Greece. Her goal was to reach her husband in the Netherlands. Her pregnancy was at risk, partly on account of the long journey and stress. “One time I walked for 18 hours without rest. We were traveling for two months and walked through the mountains for 15 days,” she recalls.

Guleheen received medical treatment in Vinojug and soon after she recovered, she decided to continue the journey with her two small children—an 11-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy. She knew she was risking her health, and could be caught by the authorities along the way, or worse, trapped by human traffickers. But like many others, she was determined to reach her husband, give her children a better chance of a future than it is possible to give while caught between borders.

The kitchen area in the Vinojug Transit Centre reception area. Photo: Mirjana Nedeva
The kitchen area in the Vinojug Transit Centre reception area. Photo: UN Women/Mirjana Nedeva

The threat of gender-based violence is very real, along the treacherous journey that women refugees and migrants undertake, trying to reach a safe haven in Europe. “It is of vital importance to address the specific needs of the women on the move, but ultimately they need long term solutions—especially asylum in safe countries. Gender-based violence and discrimination is a form of persecution and has to be treated as such. The governments of the world have to implement a more gender-sensitive asylum determinations,” says Ingibjorg Gisladottir, UN Women Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia.

UN Women, in partnership with Oxfam, is providing support services to women migrants and refugees in Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia under the regional project, "Migrant and Refugee Crisis in the Western Balkans". In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the programme is active in two transit centres—Vinojug, at the southern border with Greece and Tabanovce, on the northern border with Serbia. While assisting women refugees and migrants, UN Women is also documenting and disseminating their stories, to inform policies and raise awareness about the specific threats and risks that they face, and to advocate for their rights.

* Last name has been changed to protect her privacy.