When in 2016 the European Union signed an agreement that gave some 6 billion euros to Turkey in order to stop the migrant flows from Syria, it was thought that the “migrant emergency” could be stopped. For a while the arrivals were fewer, a number not comparable with the 2015-2016 crisis. Today, due to different reasons such as the war in Syria and greater control of the “Mediterranean route”, the so-called “Balkan route” has gained new momentum.
The outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation more and more problematic. Governments had to adopt strict measures to limit the spread of the virus and this has had big consequences for the normal life of citizens. Those most affected were, once again, the “last” of society: migrants. The only good news is that, at the moment, no case of COVID-19 has been recorded among the migrants present in the Balkans, but the humanitarian conditions are rather fragile.
The worst situation is registered in Bosnia-Herzegovina where, according to the International Organization of Migrants (IOM), there are between 7,000-8,000 migrants. On March 17, the authorities declared a state of emergency and, on March 22 a curfew was imposed from 6 pm to 5 am. Furthermore, on April 16, the Council of Ministers, on a proposal from the Ministry of Security, adopted a “Decision on Restriction of Movement and Stay of Foreigners”. This decision implements a total prohibition to move from and to stay outside the reception centres for people without documents or who stay illegally in the country. This means that whoever lives in the official camps cannot go outside even to buy something. Even if the six official camps managed by the IOM (five just in the Una-Sana canton, close to the Croatian border) have isolation and quarantine areas, they are often too small and can't guarantee adequate social distancing, nor respect for minimum standards of hygiene. Moreover, in recent days the camps have accepted hundreds of new people, trying to minimize the risk of spreading the virus. Overcrowding, fear, restrictions on movement also have the effect of increasing internal tensions in the camps. In recent weeks, fights have become more frequent between migrants, as happened in the Blazuj camp (in the Sarajevo region) on April 13, when a fight caused the partial destruction of the facility, fourteen injuries and the intervention of the police, present en massef outside.
The situation is even more complicated for whoever lives outside the camps, around 2,000 people that are mainly concentrated in the Una-Sana canton. They are suffering from a kind of “double discrimination”: on the one hand, they are not included in the official reception system and are living in abandoned sites without electricity, water or other basic services; on the other, they can’t go into the towns or search for something to eat. The situation is more complicated also because the majority of international volunteers, who help migrants every day, have returned to their own countries.
In addition, migrants are victims of the police roundups that started to bring them into the camps. On April 22 a police operation moved almost 150 people from the Bihac stadium to the Lipa camp. The opening of this camp has been at the centre of great controversy. According to the authorities, it meets all humanitarian and hygiene standards and it will have a temporary character. The full capacity of the camp could be about a thousand people. The decision was taken prior to what Dunja Mijatovic, the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe, said on March 26 when she asked Council of Europe (CoE) member states “to review the situation of rejected asylum seekers and irregular migrants in immigration detention, and to release them to the maximum extent possible”. Although Bosnia-Herzegovina is not a CoE member state, the decision was criticized by humanitarian associations. The first group of migrants were welcomed with a complete triage and a medical examination, but they will be forced to live in hundreds in the same tents, in breach of the social distancing required to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Even if life in the camps could be better than squats, they often do not guarantee human needs and efficient services.
In Serbia, the situation is also very complicated. In recent months several racist attacks were organized by right-wing groups both in Belgrade and in Sid, the location of one of the biggest camps in the country. As reported by Are You Syrious, an NGO operating in different Balkan countries, on April 10, police attacked a 14-year-old boy and serious incidents broke out. After the clashes, two buses took people from the camp in order to bring them to an unknown destination.
The current situation clearly shows that the outbreak of COVID-19 has considerably worsened the already precarious situation of the thousands of migrants stranded beyond European borders. The authorities are addressing the issue as a matter of public order, responding with more repression instead of a serious plan for the securiity of everyone. This was confirmed, on April 16 by both the Minister of Security of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Fahrudin Radoncic, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Hungary, Peter Szijjarto, during a meeting in which they said that illegal migration is a security problem and not a humanitarian one.
A policy assuredly contradictory that produced inhumane conditions, in the name of protecting the collective health of their own citizens.