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Locked down and locked out:
the Poole volunteer aiding asylum seekers at the EU border

Reid Kelly volunteering in Subotica, Serbia, brings aid to refugees and asylum seekers at the EU border and is appealing for your help.

Early March this year, many countries across the EU closed their border crossings as a measure to control the spread of the novel coronavirus which was tearing its way across
the globe. It’s a move that might have saved many lives. Four years earlier, European countries along the edges of the EU, closed their borders to the Balkans to prevent
asylum seekers crossing into European Union. It put many lives at risk. Both in
2016 and 2020, border closures have had massive consequences for people seeking

Reid Kelly is a volunteer from Poole, working in Serbia’s northernmost city of Subotica. It sits on the border between Hungary and Serbia. In August 2015, when asylum seekers were arriving in large numbers on the shores of Europe from places such as war-torn Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, the Hungarian far-right government led by nationalist Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán erected a barbed-wire fence along the border with Serbia. By late 2015, it had completed 300 kilometers of fence, shutting down the border with Croatia. It was the beginning of the shutdown of the Balkan route, with Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia soon following suit, so that by March 2016, they had all declared their borders closed to asylum seekers.

Reid remembers the harrowing tragedies that plastered the pages of the media as asylum seekers lost their lives trying to reach Europe, trying to find safety inside the EU. “In 2014, 2015, I was just watching the news and there was the situation in the Med and the jungle in Calais as well, so that’s when I became aware of what was happening and I knew I wanted to do something.”

While volunteers have brought mutual aid to the people living across BCP in a time of crisis, Reid has brought aid to people living at the edge of Europe, who are not only facing the pandemic crisis, but the manifold existential crises of life as an asylum seeker, on the move and in lockdown.

From September 2019, Reid volunteered in a refugee community centre in Jordan, returning to Poole just as lockdown restrictions hit the UK. After two months home, he went out to Calais for six weeks. Now he volunteers with the grassroots organisation Collective Aid in northern Serbia.

With his four other team members, he loads their van and sets off each morning to a spot inside the city and two other sites across the border region. These sites are informal settlements, outside the official camps.

“The project is focused on supporting people living outside the official camp system in squats or forest camps, sleeping rough. There are official transit camps and reception centres in Serbia but we’re working outside of that system.”

 The van is equipped with a portable shower distribution system that the asylum seekers at the sites are able to use to freshen up. While they have use of the shower, Reid and the team gather laundry and distribute the washed clothes from their last visit. When the showers are done, any remaining water from the tank is used to fill up as many canisters as they can, so that the asylum seekers at the site have access to safe drinking water until the next visit in a few days’ time.

It might sound like the bare necessities, but clean drinking water and basic hygiene isn’t a given for the people on the move living outside the government-sanctioned camps.

“One way in which the authorities make things hard for people here is shutting off water points,” Reid explained, “in Subotica, there was a fountain, a water pump, which was quite close to some of the squats and now people have to walk several kilometers to get drinking water, or otherwise buy it in the supermarket.” Some of the sites are in rural
settings far from supermarkets or safe drinking water taps, so asylum seekers would use lakes to bathe, wash their clothes and hydrate.

And in the time of COVID-19, safe drinking water and access to hygiene has been all the more important. The team are also first-aid trained and regularly provide basic first-aid for infected scrapes and insect bites that are an inevitable consequence of the poor living conditions without access to regular clothes-washing or hygiene facilities.

“If you don’t have running water and soap, you can’t wash your hands. Social distancing is not possible if you’re living in a squat or an overcrowded camp. Then on a hygiene basis the service we’re providing is very essential.”

Reid explained that the coronavirus has increased the pressures on the asylum seekers in other ways too and has presented fresh challenges to Collective Aid’s work in the region as well. One such difficulty has been complying with the new pandemic regulations.

“You have to be a lot more conscious of hygiene and social distancing. In Serbia there are regulations on gatherings so if there are more than ten people you have to wear a mask for example.”

Trying to maintain social distancing on the distribution is a difficult task, but otherwise, Reid says that the police “will use any excuse to shut it down.”

“These guys live together,” Reid said, “what’s the point in having them two metres apart if they share a tent? But then the authorities will use any excuse to try and obstruct the work we’re doing so we have to just comply with it.” 

Reid also spoke of his horror at the events unfolding back home with Priti Patel’s announcement of a ‘Clandestine Channel Threat Commander’ and the intended intervention of the British Royal Navy to the Channel crossings being made by asylum seekers desperate to reach British soil.

One local MP, Conor Burns for Bournemouth West, ignorant of well-documented violence said at the time; “Fleeing war, climate change and torture in France? Morons. Great way to lose customers,” in response to the ice-cream brand Ben & Jerry’s Twitter thread criticising Priti Patel’s inhumane measures.

But working in both France and Serbia, Reid has indeed witnessed the violence and persecution asylum seekers face both inside and outside the EU, firsthand.

“There were evictions constantly during the lockdown in Calais. In mid July it really stepped up.

They evicted people from the camp and people were just living on the streets in Calais and it forced people into the town and so there’s conflict with the locals. It’s not done for any reason other than to make peoples’ lives more difficult.”

“There’s no productive end to it,” Reid lamented, “It’s not like they’re giving people decent shelter, they’re just destroying their possessions and the French riot police, even when they don’t evict people, they come in the night and slash people’s tents, so we saw a lot of tents with big slashes in them and they’re not viable as shelters.”

He gave an example of the lengths the police will go to, to disrupt the lives of the people on the move waiting for their chance at safe refuge;

“In Dunkirk, people live in the forest and the police come in with bulldozers to level the forest so that it’s no longer an area of shelter. It’s environmental destruction alongside the harassment of people.”

In Serbia, Reid has witnessed much of the same.

“People get evicted from squats, which are mostly derelict buildings or abandoned buildings, so they pull people out and break up the windows and doors. The police come regularly and steal people’s possessions, like their phone or their money, they may beat them up, intimidate them, harass them. 

They pick people up off the street and drive them out of the city and then just leave them so they have to walk back, six, seven, eight hours, just to make their lives difficult.”

It’s why Reid and his team are part of the Border Violence Monitoring Network, a collective of different organisations taking reports on border violence, pushbacks and internal state violence within Serbia and other parts of the Balkans.

“At the moment, there are reports of internal violence from the Serbian authorities – we take those reports and then compile them, the network publishes them and there are country-specific reports as well.”

He also notes how the UK’s new border approach reflects the very same situation that they’ve been recording in the Balkans, where EU border countries are continuously pushing back asylum seekers into countries like Serbia.

By October this year, the Border Violence Monitoring Network had documented 185 illegal pushback incidents in which 4,334 people suffered collective expulsion across the Balkans.

“There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of people stuck in Serbia and now Bosnia as well and pushbacks happen from Hungary and from Croatia very regularly, and they’re illegal.”

Back home in the UK, we’ve been witnessing the Conservative government’s denial of the right to asylum to those that reach British shores through ‘irregular’ crossings. But under the Refugee Convention, there is no obligation for asylum seekers to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. In recent months, this has been a source of bitter contention for the government, as lawyers have been fighting to prevent deportations of asylum seekers who have not been provided their full legal rights to the asylum process.

“Seeing the news from the UK, it’s super worrying, because that’s what the government is trying to do there as well, with the boats.”

The UK government has been deporting asylum seekers in this way under the auspices of the Dublin Regulation, an EU system which enables countries to send asylum seekers back to the first country inside the EU in which they were fingerprinted. It means that while a person on the move has broken no law in trying to claim asylum in the later country and are perfectly entitled to do so, they could still be sent back to that first country regardless.

Reid has felt disillusioned seeing this unfair system in action.

“In Calais I remember I met someone who was from Iraq, Iraqi-Kurdistan, and he’d come overland to the UK before, but he’d been fingerprinted in Austria so the UK deported him to Austria and then Austria deported him back to Iraq and then he came again overland and made the whole journey a second time. No one is going to make this journey unless they feel they have to, no one is going to make this journey voluntarily.”

As winter sets in, Reid knows the work he and his team do in northern Serbia will become ever more critical. Daytime temperatures can hit freezing, with cold Arctic winds and intense frosts. Night-time brings worse. Temperatures can dive below to -20 degrees celsius. But to continue the important work they do supporting asylum seekers living in these harsh conditions, Collective Aid need your help.

An appeal has been launched to help the team provide toothbrushes and soap, clean new underwear, socks, tents and first-aid.

“If you’re someone who’s on the move and you’re living in an informal settlement, having a clean and dry pair of socks is very important.”

Reid knows these are tough times for everyone as winter approaches and the pandemic continues, but hopes that his home-town will show solidarity with the asylum seekers he meets every day in Subotica.

If you are in a position to help, please donate to the Collective Aid appeal.