What were you doing around March 10 this year? It may be a hard stretch to recall your exact activities but for Evan Davies, a man who was located at the centre of the 2016 European refugee crisis, it's a period of time that will remain etched into his memory forever.
“There were a couple of moments in Europe, during the refugee crisis, which were quite confronting,” says Davies, the 34-year-old humanitarian advisor for Plan International Australia. "They’ll always be vivid in my mind."
The former Oxfam Australia employee recalls working at a transit centre – Tabanovce – in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on the border with Serbia, to provide assistance to refugees and migrants travelling from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe.
"It was freezing cold, and you could hear children shivering and crying.”
“There were a group of Syrian and Iraqi refugees [who had travelled through Macedonia from Greece] and had just arrived at the train station, on the border of Macedonia and Serbia. Now, these people were supposed to be let into Serbia on the understanding that they would be free to travel all the way north through Europe to Austria.
“But when they got off the train in Macedonia, they were denied entry to Serbia. And then Macedonia refused to let them back in too. Both countries were like ‘these people are not our problem’.
“There were about 470 people there, stuck between the two borders [in no man’s land]. Yet these refugees were the ones who were picked from 15,000 people to be sent to northern Europe. And then that hope of being resettled was quickly pulled away from them, with no information as to why.”
Davies explains that the experience in the Balkans was one of "the most desperate situations" he had ever encountered.
“The weather was like the coldest, wettest, windiest Melbourne day you’ve experienced. It was about 4 or 5pm and getting dark, there was mud everywhere and as the light vanished people suddenly felt trapped and started getting quite frantic. It was freezing cold, and you could hear children shivering and crying.”
He says he joined other aid workers to do whatever they could to keep people warm, handing out ponchos and beanies, and trying to get assistance from other groups.
“The only things they had out there to cover them were tarpaulins but we had no poles to keep them up so people just held them up to cover themselves. When you walked through the crowd of tarpaulins, it was packed. People were reaching out their hands and grabbing you, crying, trying to get support.”
Within four very long days, Davies reports, Macedonia reopened its borders to both adults and children.
"If anyone were ever able to spend a day in a refugee camp, and talk to people about who they are and where they came from...it would paint such a different picture of refugees to the one we currently have."
As news of the abandoned migrants spread throughout the world, the Serbia-bound train became known as ‘The Last Train to Europe’.
“Now, I’m not putting blame on Macedonia or Serbia: they were at the end of the line with what was going on in Austria at the time."
In early March 2016, media reported that thousands of refugees and migrants were also stranded at the Macedonia's southern border with Greece at Idomeni. The refugee crisis of 2016 was labelled the worst to hit the continent since the second world war.
“Just like what we saw in the 'Brexit', anti-immigration sentiment put pressure on Austria to close its borders. And this pressure just moved down the line throughout Europe: this is how it all played out on the ground.”
Ever passionate about social injustices around the world, Davies urges people to consider the politics surrounding refugees with a more compassionate lens so that, hopefully, a crisis like the one which took place earlier this year in Europe never happens again.
“I guess people the whole world over are happy to dismiss refugees…but if anyone were ever able to spend a day in a refugee camp, and talk to people about who they are and where they came from, they’d see that they are full of life and humanity. It would paint such a different picture of refugees to the one we currently have. We’d also have a massive change in policies.”
Davies returned home to Australia in May 2016 and received short-term counselling for trauma. At the time of interview, Davies was in Suva, Fiji, working with Plan International Australia to help local partner organisations tighten their emergency response plans, post-Cyclone Winston which happened in February 2016.