It has been six years since Europe experienced its greatest refugee and migrant crisis since World War II, with more than a million refugees arriving on its shores in 2015.

With the world marking Refugee Week from 14 – 20 June, Arete photographer Philip Hatcher-Moore recounts his experiences documenting these arrivals, and reflects on what has changed for refugees in this time.

After having recently moved to Berlin after five years of calling Kenya home, in September 2015 I flew to Belgrade in order to cover the refugee and migrant crisis that was unfolding in the Balkans. Unprecedented numbers of people fleeing war and conflict across the Middle East—but predominantly in Syria—had earlier that summer begun crossing Turkey’s land borders with Greece and Bulgaria, and travelling towards central Europe. Although the vast majority of those I encountered were fleeing the civil war in Syria, there were others from further afield, including Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, all either setting out to establish new lives in Europe or to join loved ones and relatives who had already made the journey.

Syrian refugees sleep on the train from Belgrade towards Croatia, as they travel through Serbia, on September 17, 2015. The family had tickets to Zagreb, Croatia, but the train was stopped before the border, and they had to cross on foot through fields.

After arriving in Belgrade, I shared a train with groups of refugees up to the Serbo-Croat border, before crossing on foot to a town called Tovarnik which had become something of a bottleneck. Thousands of people had crossed into Croatia, and were waiting for transport—trains and buses—to carry them across the country and further into the EU. Travelling by train through Serbia, I approached groups of people and asked if they would allow me to travel with them, and document part of their journey. The atmosphere was serious, but convivial. People shared out food and offered it to fellow travellers as they would have done were they voyaging in easier times, as when I travelled by train to Iran in 2008. One of the first things people had done was to buy a local SIM card to stay in touch with friends and family, and to navigate. WhatsApp groups pinged with the latest news of the best routes to take, and the people I travelled with were glued to Google Maps as the train crawled north. When I joined them, I didn’t know exactly where the journey would take me, and so followed their routes and plans. It was a long night, crossing the border and trudging through fields, until eventually resting at dawn in Croatia, leaning against our bags on the roadside.

Rahaf, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo, holds her son, Omar (3 ½ years old), whilst checking messages from her family as she sits on the roadside in the town of Tovarnik, Croatia, having just crossed through fields over the border from Serbia, during the night of September 17, 2015. Rahaf was travelling with her father, her sister, and Omar; her husband (Omar’s father) had been killed in Aleppo the previous year.
A man waiting for a train to Zagreb sits at the train station in Tovarnik, Croatia, on September 19, 2015. Thousands of people were left stuck in Tovarnik, prevented by the police from leaving, after having crossed the border from Serbia.

During my time living and working in Africa I had often covered stories where huge numbers of people had been forced to abandon their homes and their livelihoods because of violent upheavals; in Libya, DR Congo, Burundi, and Somalia. Yet I was arriving in these places because of these conflicts, and so while I would always have an abstract idea of what they were leaving behind—their homes and way of life—it was rarely places I knew of in peacetime. This time, it was different.

I had spent several months in Syria in 2009-10, a year before the Arab Spring gripped the region. After a month of travelling around the country, I lived in the capital for two months, studying Arabic at the University of Damascus and soaking up the atmosphere of Syrian society. My stay was brief, but it was enough to form bonds and friendships, and when it was time to carry on my journey towards Kenya, I was sure I would return to this hospitable country and its rich culture. (It never occurred to me that that return would be to cover the conflict there, witnessing unimaginable violence in Aleppo in 2012.) That summer of 2015, in contrast to my time documenting similar events across Africa, I had a much more concrete sense of what had been left behind by the people I met — what their lives looked like before being packed into a backpack.

A man sits as police push back people crowding to enter the transit centre in Opatovac, Croatia, on September 22, 2015. Hundreds more people arrived at the camp built for 4000, as the influx of refugees and migrants continued.

Arriving in Tovarnik the authorities were not interested in any sort of confrontation but simply wanted to move the migrants and refugees on. It was well understood that the vast majority had no interest in remaining in Croatia, this was a transit country, and they wanted to travel on towards France, Germany or Sweden, in many cases reuniting families. Contrary to the scenes of violence on other borders, the police in Tovarnik were largely engaged in mass crowd control, as buses and trains were organised so the new arrivals could continue their journeys further north. The overall sense was one of dogged determination and exhaustion on both sides, rather than confrontation or violence. Solidarity, too, was in evidence, with volunteers handing out food and distributing information. Later, on my return to Berlin, I would see signs hung out of apartments declaring “refugees welcome”.

However, that sense of solidarity was by no means uniform across the continent, and the choice of language quickly became an incredibly important factor as the crisis continued to unfold amid increasing numbers of new arrivals. Right-wing politicians and press began to drive narratives that perpetuated damaging stereotypes about refugees and migrants, seemingly unable to distinguish between these people who had been forced to leave their homes because of conflict and civil war, with underlying concerns around immigration.

A policeman tries to stop a crowd of people pushing onto a bus from the Serbian-Croatian border at Bapska, Croatia, on September 23, 2015.

Photography is an incredibly powerful tool in the development of any narrative and Tovarnik quickly filled up with photographers for the newswires like Reuters and AP. An underlying principle when I work is that I try to make pictures only if they can add something to the story. With hundreds of images pouring out of the region showing the vastness of the situation that was rapidly sweeping Europe, and the flashpoints of confrontation or desperation, I did not feel the need to add to this.

Instead, I began delving into the stories of individuals — interviewing them about what, and why, they left, and what this journey meant for them — their words accompanying portraits, families, couples, or as individuals. Published in the New Republic, I hoped to portray who these people are, and did not reduce them to a mass group, simply labelled refugees or migrants instead of their own identities of teachers, engineers, fathers, or mothers.

Lama Husseino (25), from Lattakia, Syria. “I left Syria because they wanted to take my husband by force for military. I don’t want him to end up like those with Assad. I was at university studying English literature but because of my husband I fled Syria, to Lebanon. I have no children. We don’t want children now, here. If I had children I couldn’t cross the sea. I was in Lebanon for one and a half years. We left Lebanon 25 days ago. In Lebanon I couldn’t work because of the hijab. I can speak English, I can operate a computer, but I cannot work. Turkish smugglers took our bags and threw them in the sea, they said it was overweight. Our boat sank in the sea and the Turkish coast-guard took us, after they sunk us with a wave from their boat. We were in Greek waters! All we want to know is what is our future in this country — I want to go to Germany. We want to forget everything but we want to know our future.”
Rakam Rahma (27) and his wife, Amira Qurab, from Damascus, Syria. “I worked as a computer technician,” said Rakam. “I left last Sunday, a week ago. We went to Lebanon, then Turkey, through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and now we’re here. We were 16 people, one family. My wife, and my mother, and together with some friends. “We left Damascus because our house was destroyed — bombed by an aeroplane. There was no water, no electricity. We would like to go to Germany, because we have family there. My brother and his cousins.”
Mehrnoosh, 39, from Tehran, Iran. “I am an accountant. I had to leave because I am a Christian, I began talking about Christianity, and it was a problem for me over there. I can’t sleep, so I ran away. Because I studied Christianity and talked to people — I gave them the Bible, and taught them about who Jesus Christ is — that’s when my problems started. The Government don’t want you to. If you’re Christian it’s ok, but you have to go to your room and pray. You can’t teach others, you can’t introduce Jesus Christ. It was one year ago, it started. But we left two weeks ago, we went to Turkey, to Greece, and then came here. I am travelling with my husband and with my friends. We crossed from Turkey to Greece by boat. We had many problems because our engines broke, and we had to row. I’m so scared. I don’t know what’s happening to us. I just pray, and I trust God. That’s it. It was so crowded. We arrived here this morning. They said to us, maybe you’ll go to Slovenia, or maybe to Austria, I don’t know. Today we wait for a bus or train. A train left two hours ago, and we couldn’t get on it as it was full and very crowded, and everybody is pushing each other. Maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow, the train goes. But I talk to the people and they say they have been here for four days. I would like to go to Sweden, to Stockholm.”
Hussam Ahmed (29), from Raqqa, Syria. “Before, I worked in a supermarket. I’m from Syria, from Raqqa. Daesh [ISIS] is there, they killed everybody. They took my home. I don’t want to fight for them. After that I went to Turkey, to Urfa. I stayed there, and I looked for work, but they don’t have work in Turkey. After that I went to Izmir, for a boat. I came to Greece - an island, a small one. There were 40 people in the boat. You have families there. Maybe 27 of them died - they fell in. Turkish police came and the boat sank. I swam. You fall in the sea in Greece but the police come from Turkey. Another boat comes to take you. My bag was in the sea. From Turkey to Greece, the ticket is $1400 for Syrians. For Iraqis it’s $1600 or $1800. If you die, it’s no problem for them [the smugglers]. And if you don’t want to go, you can’t get your money back. We come here at night. Here, there are no problems. I will go on to Hungary, insha’Allah, and after that, I want to get to Holland. I travel alone, but I have friends here. My family is in Syria, they can’t get here.”
Qutaiba Al Msalm (27) and Samah Hizam (26) with her daughter, Senorita (4 ½), from Daraa in Syria. “We come from Daraa. I worked in a duty free shop on the border,” said Qutaiba. “I stayed in Gaziantep in Turkey for three months. We took a boat from Turkey to Greece with smugglers. I had to drive it but I have no licence, but you have no choice. You must do these things. The boat sank just before the island, in Greece. I swam to the island and helped people to come - it was just before the beach.” “I lived in Damascus for four years because of war,” said Samah. “The University in Daraa was destroyed. I studied I.T. - I finished my studies and looked for a job, and then had Senorita. My husband is in Germany, with my brother and my sister. Only my little sister is still in Syria, she must finish her studies. Senorita has brought these [teddy bears] with her from Syria. It’s been 16 days since we left Gaziantep. Through Turkey, to Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, but now we are stuck here. Croatia to Hungary was closed. Slovenia, closed. Now open. What do we do?”


All text and photos by Philip Hatcher-Moore