The complete ban of moving in and out of camps imposed in the current pandemic has left those locked inside them feeling more isolated, frustrated and information-starved than ever.
By Ivana Jeremic, Milica Stojanovic and Anja Vladisavljevic
Local and international organisations that assist migrants and refugees are no longer able to enter reception centres in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina due to the complete ban on movement in and out of the camps related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Besides leaving the people in the camps in a state of forced isolation and inactivity, these organisations warn that it is also leading to a lack of information and support which, combined with the ban on movement, could lead to incidents.
Serbia imposed a state of quarantine on all its reception centres on March 17. Since then, people have not been allowed out of the centres unless it is to seek medical care, or with special permission. The ban works both ways, so no staff from rights organization can enter the facilities either.
It has left the migrants and asylum-seekers inside without support, help or information, the director of the Belgrade-based NGO Asylum Protection Center, Rados Djurovic, said.
“Since the crisis began, for almost a month, access has been denied to anyone providing psychological, legal or other assistance, so they have no activities and are locked in the camps,” Djurovic told BIRN.
Instead, the camp inmates “receive information through social networks and by phone contact with some of us”, he added.
Media reports say at least two violent incidents have occurred in the last few days among migrants and asylum-seekers in centres in Serbia, one in Krnjaca and the other in Obrenovac, both in the wider area of Belgrade. Reports said police and the army had to intervene to calm things down.
“The problem here is that these people have been quarantined for 24 hours a day for almost a month now,” Djurovic told BIRN. “These people are completely shut inside in all the centres … and they have needs that can hardly be met in this way, so it causes a lot of fear and … affects their psycho-physical condition,” he added.
The number of people affected by the quarantine measures in camps in Serbia is not small. On April 4, Serbia’s Commissariat for Refugees and Migrants said the camps in Serbia hosted a total of 8,703 persons.
Djurovic said the measures imposed or recommended for Serbian citizens, especially when it comes to social distancing, were clearly not being applied to migrants and asylum-seekers cooped up in close proximity to one another in camps.
“This is a group that is completely sidelined. Measures are being implemented for them that at first glance are the opposite of what our citizens are told, like [the need for] social distancing,” he said.
“Everyone is put in one basket here, they are secured under arms and do not get enough information or enough protection,” Djurovic told BIRN.
A video that BIRN has seen, sent by a person located in a centre in the town of Obrenovac, shows a lot of people waiting in a close line for food and then having their dinner in a crowded area. There is no social distancing.
Bosnia’s crowded camps have only got worse:
In neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina, the movement of migrants and refugees is also restricted as a result of the pandemic, creating additional problems in already overcrowded reception centres.
Bosnia’s Una-Sana Canton, in the west of the country, near the border with EU-member Croatia, has been hardest hit by the migrant crisis, owing to the number of people piling up there, hoping to cross over into the EU.
On March 16, the Crisis Staff of the canton’s Health, Labour and Social Policy ministry ordered “a complete restriction on the movement of migrants outside the temporary centres”, which are estimated to hold about 2,000 persons.
“It is forbidden to transport migrants by any means of transport – train, bus, van, taxi, etc – to the Una-Sana Canton, or use transportation in the Una-Sana Canton. In addition … the entry of migrants on foot into the Una-Sana Canton is prohibited,” the authorities said.
IPSIA, an Italian NGO that has been working in Bosnia since 1997 and is helping migrants and refugees in the northwestern town of Bihac, said it feared migrants camping in squats and improvised camps could end up living in even more dangerous conditions.
“The police in any case cannot monitor whether the migrants are respecting these measures because of the large number of people [staying] outside the camps,” IPSIA told BIRN.
“In general, the situation in the Bihac camps is not bad, even if it is somehow boring and sad, since many organizations cannot work inside them, as group activities and workshops can no longer be done,” it said.
“Many NGOs in the camps have had to suspend their activities in the field, but are still working at a distance –for example [by providing], legal or psychological support,” it added.
The Sarajevo Canton, which includes the Bosnian capital and various nearby towns and villages, has also imposed restrictions on the movement of migrants and ordered them into temporary reception centres.
On April 8, the Sarajevo Cantonal police told the media that they were actively working to remove migrants from the streets to reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading.
The canton’s Interior Ministry said the police would “carry out direct external security and checking of migrant centres in the Sarajevo Canton” and would “continue the activity of relocating migrants who may be found outside the reception centres”.
Can’t go out to buy food or tobacco:
The International Organization for Migration, IOM, which manages temporary reception centres for migrants and refugees in Bosnia and Herzegovina, told BIRN it had so far found no cases of the coronavirus among the roughly 6,500 migrants held in them.
But IPSIA said that situation was “frustrating” for migrants and refugees due to restrictions on the “basic right of freedom of movement, even if at this moment nobody has so much freedom because of COVID-19”, because they “can’t go to buy the food they like or recharge phone credits or buy cigarettes”.
It said that the IOM had come up with a temporary solution for some camps in the area, such as Miral, Sedra and Bira, however. Here, private companies are now bringing in food in vans and selling it to people for regular prices.
With the cooperation of the IOM, IPSIA volunteers are helping migrants and refugees in the Borici camp, located on the outskirts of Bihac, by buying supplies for them from the local supermarket.
The restrictions on the movement of migrants have also had one another side-effect. Few migrants in Bosnia can now run the gauntlet of trying to cross the nearby border into Croatia – a process known locally among migrants and refugees as “The Game”.