Europe’s refugee crisis: Working to ease the burden

Nov 5, 2015

Migrants and refugees wait to buy train tickets that will take them further north. Photo: UNDP Macedonia

A new US $20,000 truck donated to the municipality of Gevgelija on 2 November 2015 is the first step in a wider effort by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to help local communities cope with the refugee crisis that has seen more than 600,000 people cross the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia so far this year.

The municipality will use the truck to remove the heaps of garbage that accumulate as refugees and migrants make their way from Greece through a newly organized transit camp to waiting taxis, trains and buses. But this is just a start: UNDP’s broader aim is to help affected municipalities address migrant and refugee needs while ensuring that local residents continue to receive the communal services to which they are entitled.

“Gevgelija should be commended warmly for responding so generously to an influx of people this large and this long,” says UNDP Resident Representative Louisa Vinton. “But this help has its costs, especially for a municipality whose population is barely three times the size of the number of new refugee arrivals it receives every day. UNDP aims to help ensure that the good work that the municipality is doing for refugees does not jeopardize regular services to local residents.”

Gevgelija is the country’s main entry-point for the tens of thousands refugees and migrants following the Western Balkan route in search of safety and a better life.

Earlier in the year the municipality was receiving 1,000 arrivals every day, but since the summer that number has surged to 8,000-9,000. This volume puts an enormous strain on the municipality, which has a population of just 23,000.

Gevgelija currently provides water, electricity and waste management services to the transit camp. But much of the municipality’s equipment is obsolete; most municipal trucks are old and break down often. In these conditions, managing the proliferation of waste that has resulted from the refugee influx has become one of the most daunting challenges for the municipality.

“UNDP’s contribution comes at just the right moment,” said local Public Communal Entreprise Director Ubavka Vegova. “But if the refugee flow continues – and there is no sign it is letting up – we need more trucks for lifting waste containers, construction machines and field vehicles, for example to pump the camp’s septic tank.”

The challenges faced by Gevgelija are not unique.

Border municipalities all along the Western Balkan route –– are all feeling the strain, with a particular burden on garbage disposal, communal waste management and other public services.

In an effort to complement the humanitarian support , UNDP is filling a development niche in the crisis by working across the region to support communities in delivering public services to refugees and residents alike.

“Maintaining municipal services is a challenge in the best of times,” notes Gevgelija Mayor Ivan Frangov. “The added burden of such a large and ever-growing flow of people has really pushed the municipality to the limit of its capabilities and resources. We need more people, more vehicles and more equipment to keep conditions at the transit camp humane and to serve our own citizens.”

Building on strong existing partnerships at the local level oriented around democratic governance and disaster risk reduction, UNDP is also working to ensure that the response to the current crisis contributes to the overall resilience of municipalities and regions – their capacity to manage and effectively respond to risk and change due to human, financial and environmental crises.

In this effort, equipment and infrastructure will go hand in hand with the “softer” skills of contingency planning, crisis management and maintaining social cohesion to ensure that development progress is not set back by the impact of crisis.

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