The migrant crisis: Eastern Europe's compassion dilemma

It’s hard not to feel compassion for those crossing into Europe with little more than the clothes on their backs. This past week, I visited a park in Belgrade opposite the bus station, which my interpreter told me was long a hangout for local prostitutes and had been known by a rather vulgar epithet. But these days, it’s been overtaken by migrants, who camp out in tents awaiting transportation out of Serbia into Croatia and, eventually, through Hungary.

Now, these makeshift lodgings looked miserable. Pouring rain had turned the park grounds into a muddy mess, and volunteers told me they often ran out of coats for the men; everyone donates clothes and shoes for women and children. Dozens of foreigners, mostly from Afghanistan the day of my visit, sat in a tent run by volunteers, who handed out soup and bread.

They’re likely fleeing worse conditions. When I visited refugees last September in the Kurdish parts of Iraq, many lived in unfinished buildings or tents or under bridges. Flies lingered everywhere, and mothers told me they worried their little ones would fall sick.

Mighty aid organizations, including the United Nations, have seen their funding dwindle even as the number of refugees skyrockets. Conditions in many camps have deteriorated, ranging from squalorous to outright dangerous. The U.N. told National Public Radio last month that it had slashed rations distributed through the World Food Program, with many in its camps living on less than 50 cents a day.

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