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The line of people stretched half a mile towards the Presevo hills: 5,000 asylum-seekers, stuck in the far south of Serbia on the latest staging post in their journey to the heart of Europe.

On bad days the migrants remain there for 10 hours or more, often exposed to the elements, as they line up to register and hurry north to the Croatian border. “This is the wait of our lives,” said Sara Buti, a mother from Damascus clutching her three month old son.

Children recently roamed barefoot as Afghan and Syrian adults shuffled along in flip-flops and T-shirts. It was an unusually balmy day. But authorities and aid workers know that border towns like Presevo risk becoming a humanitarian disaster zone when winter collides with Europe’s biggest mass migration since the second world war.

More than 800,000 migrants reached Europe by sea this year. By mid-November, the daily average of travellers from southern Greece to northern Europe had reached 50,000. It is a flow sometimes clogged up by sudden border closures: this week Hungary gave Macedonia 100km of razor wire and other equipment to help tighten its own frontier with Greece. Aid agencies, once loath to divert resources to help relatively rich European states, have come to realise they have little choice but to do so.

Serbia occupies a special place in that emergency response.

Since last year, Financial Times readers have helped raise nearly £2.2m — including matching UK government funds — for the International Rescue Committee, the FT’s 2014 Seasonal Appeal partner.

Now the IRC, which operates in 40 countries, is returning to the Balkans, aiming to revive aid networks with roots in bygone wars.

”If borders close this winter, this is the place where the worst may happen,” said Kirk Day, the IRC’s regional director. “There is a desperate need to do contingency planning and that is a major part of why we will be here.”

One IRC partner is Valon Arifi, a Presevo local and aid impresario, who has built a 40-strong youth movement to help refugees. He himself walked the migrant road in the opposite direction in 1999, fleeing south to Macedonia as the Kosovo crisis erupted.

“We were like these people,” he said, recalling the days when the streets around his home were filled with rain-soaked Balkan refugees. “But with time you realise there is no point in just crying — we just need to do our job.”

Mr Arifi’s Youth for Refugees team provides everything from blankets and cups of tea to tickets for the 30 or so people a day who have no money to pay for buses or trains. One day this month it provided an anatomy lesson to convince an Afghan to go to hospital after the man was found on the road, clutching a Serbian doctor’s note diagnosing kidney failure.

Shelter is badly lacking. “We had our coldest ever recorded temperature last year; it was minus 25C,” said Muhamed Abdullah, the head of Presevo’s municipal administration and a former refugee himself. “That is the worst thing. I know it is coming and we have nowhere to put all these people”.

The cold will probably stem arrivals but Mr Abdullah expects some to keep coming: “Perhaps it is better to stand in the cold than to be killed in a war.”

There is an official push to find space. But few can discern what shelter will be available in practice. One wing of a derelict tobacco factory in Presevo is being refurbished to take 700 people by early December; lack of funding means the rest of the plant has been untouched. Estimates are imprecise, but aid workers say only around 3,000 to 6,000 places are available across the country.

“We will be lucky if we get 10,000 staying: it will probably be much more,” said Ana Koeshall, director of the Divac foundation, which was set up to help Balkan war refugees but which now works with the IRC on the migrant crisis.

The main facilities available are asylum centres that hosted some of the 300,000 refugees and displaced persons who came to Serbia at various times in the last two decades. At the Krnjaca camp near Belgrade, 30-odd families who fled the 1990s wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo are now sharing their accommodation with Afghans and Syrians passing through Serbia.

Facilities are no more adequate at the other end of the country from Presevo. In the northern town of Sid the Motel Adasevci — used two decades ago to house Croatian refugees — now serves as a makeshift migrant hub.

Its dormitories are derelict and out of bounds to aid workers but are apparently being prepared for use this year. At lunchtime one recent Friday, thousands of people were milling around the neighbouring petrol station, sleeping on tarmac and queueing to enter a barricaded shop. Every so often double decker buses pick up migrants, a thousand at a time, and ferry them to trains heading for Croatia.

Hundreds of thousands of people on the journey have passed through Sid, a town with a population of 35,000. At first the overwhelming numbers stirred old tensions on that border, setting Serbia against Croatia. Now co-operation is better; Croatian police assist lines of migrants on to the train, in tandem with their Serbian counterparts.

The IRC’s Mr Day, who worked in Serbia during the Kosovo crisis, takes hope from such mutual efforts — still far from common in a Europe that is at a loss how to respond both to the refugee crisis and the humanitarian disaster that lies behind it. “Serbia and Croatia working together?” he marvels, comparing such collaboration with the bad old days of the 1990s. “That was unimaginable.”

Additional reporting by Andrew Byrne

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