Protecting thousands of refugees in Eastern Europe

As the European refugee emergency escalated, Francesca Bolleni was called to the frontline of the crisis. Within 24 hours, she was on her way from Geneva to the Serbian border to take over as the Coordinator of UNHCR’s emergency operations there. Her arrival coincided with the closure of the Hungarian border and the diversion of thousands of refugees towards Serbia and Croatia.

It sounds like you hit the ground running.

I did. It was my first day and I worked right through the night. So many people were arriving – men, families with kids, elderly people in wheelchairs, 14-year-old children travelling alone – and we had to address their needs.

What was a typical day for you?

It was always changing. The flow of people was bigger every day – 3-4,000 became 5,000, then 6,000. It was challenging logistically and also in terms of protection, giving support to so many stressed and exhausted people.

What did you find most challenging?

I remember one very tough night. There were 3,000 people waiting in a field to go to the registration centre but there were not enough buses for them. People began to panic that the border was closed and then it started to rain. So we took raincoats, distributed them to everyone and tried to reassure them. I remember the faces of the children and the mothers trying to protect them. A raincoat is just a piece of plastic but, in a moment of urgency, a piece of plastic can save your life. We also distributed countless blankets – it was so cold and the people were freezing.

Did you find the work rewarding?

Absolutely! I believe our presence makes a huge difference for people. Our blue jackets are a sign of protection, of safety. Every time I put it on I feel proud.

Is there anything you’d like to say to our supporters in Australia?

Firstly, I want to say a big thank-you for working together with us. Secondly, unfortunately, I would say that the needs are ongoing. We all dream of a tomorrow when the world will be in peace but unfortunately we are not there yet.

Learn more about how UNHCR is helping those fleeing conflict

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