Since 2016, when the Balkan Route has become one of the most important ways for the migrants to try to enter into the European continent, the countries of the Balkan area had to face the consequences that the migrant flows have brought with them.
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic had made this situation more problematic both for the migrants and the countries of this region: on one hand, the Balkan States had to impose a new way of living, and issue new laws on social distancing (wear masks and gloves) and also on freedom of movement; on the other hand, migrants and refugees are living a more precariousness situation. Even if, at the moment, no case of Covid-19 has been recorded among the migrants present in the Balkans, their conditions are fragile and the risk of an explosion of an epidemic is real.
During this period of the lockdown, the flows never had stop: according to UNHCR from February to April there have been 25.650 new arrivals in the countries of the Balkan Route; the Republic of Greece is the state with more arrivals with 5.408 (numbers estimated by UNCHR based on BMP, Border Protection Monitoring and IMO, International Organization for Migration).
What measures have been taken by the Balkan governments regarding the situation of migrants living in refugee camps?
Serbia declared the state of emergency and the curfew on 15th March 2020 and the president, Mr. Aleksandar Vučić, focused the power on himself. His decisions have had a strong impact also on migrant’s lives: there had been aggressions in Šid camp, near the Serbian-Croatian border, by Chetnik group and the Serbian army forcedly transfers all migrant people inside official refugee camps. At the end of February, about 6.000 people were living in the camps, now according to the numbers provided by the Belgrade government, there are about 8.700 people.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, after the lockdown declaration on March 17th, the government built a new camp in Lipa, a village between Bihać and Bosanki Petrovac, close to the Croatian border. According to the BiH government, the Lipa camp hosts all migrants who lived in Una Sana canton, out of the official refugee camps, intending to block the contagion of the virus. On April 16th, Sarajevo government adopted a “Decision on Restriction of Movement and Stay of Foreigners” in which has been decided the total prohibition to move from and to stay outside the reception centres for people without documents or who stay illegally in the country.
Actually, according to the International Organization of Migrants (IOM) there are about 8.000 migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the IOM also declared that often the camps are too small and cannot guarantee the social distancing and the standard of hygiene issued by the government. This have the effect of increasing internal tensions in the camps.
In Greece, there have been several cases of Coronavirus disease in refugee camps; the first cases are a young woman in Ritsona camp, in Central Greece, where there were 23 asymptomatic migrants and a man in Malakasa camp was also tested positive for Covid19.
According to Human Rights Watch, Greek authorities are arbitrarily detaining, in two different structures, almost 2,000 people in bad conditions: without hygiene measures, basic health protections and denying them the right to submit asylum applications.
The NGOs like Doctors Without Borders, No Name Kitchen and so on, as well as doctors, and academics asked the European Union for help to face this important situation. They asked the European Union to restart relocations to displace refugee camps, that nowadays are overcrowded, and prevent from an epidemic that can kill a lot of people, mainly due to the impossibility of guaranteeing the hygiene measures and the social distancing.
Which consequences for migrants?
The Coronavirus disease knows no borders and no language barriers; it threatens everyone in the world, including refugees and other displaced people.
The migrants are particularly at risk because they often have limited access to water, sanitation systems and health facilities and they often can’t respect the rules on social distancing.
Among the most important consequences due to coronavirus, there is the procedure for applying for asylum: it could be more difficult to apply and have an answer because of the closing of the offices and the suspensions issued by the several governments. Their journey to the European Union will also be more complicated. The Member States are applying different regulations regarding their borders and this will add further obstacles on their way to Europe.
Their health is also under threat because in most countries the health system is developing and is not accessible to everyone for free.
For what concerns children, their education at the camps is at risk because some camps have no possibilities to do remote learning, especially in Greek islands. It is important to not overlook this situation and try to provide constructive learning opportunities and a safe space for children to learn, grow, and regain a sense of normalcy in their lives.
It is important that the European Union and the Balkan countries work together in order to issue new rules that can help the migrants to survive Coronavirus and pursue their journey to Europe.