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Covid-19 and emergency state in the Balkans: what happens to people on the move?

Maddalena Avon, Matteo De Checchi and Francesco Sartori

28 April 2020

Vai alla campagna Lesvos calling

“There are some ten thousands refugees and migrants in the Balkans, right now. Some of them are housed in the official reception centres, while most of them are excluded from this system and survive thanks to the help of local population and local volunteers. However, after the spread of Covid-19, their already difficult situation became more and more serious, requiring an urgent intervention from responsible authorities - both local and international - and solidarity from all of us. Emergency state, currently present in many countries of the region, is being used as a tool for keeping and strengthening social inequalities. It is becoming a further excuse for stigmatization and repress those among us who are most vulnerable. This emergency must not be a justification to keep pursuing the policies of exclusion, detention and expulsion that lead to suffering and distress.””.

This is the viral appeal written by Transbalkan Solidarity Group (GST): a collective work by activists from the whole region (Northern Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia-Erzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy) that have been fighting for years for migrants’ rights.

This work aims to collect updates from some of these countries (Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Erzegovina, Bulgaria), though we are aware that the situation is constantly changing. We will try to provide updates through Melting Pot Europa, keeping in touch with local solidarity groups that remain independent voices despite increasing difficulties.

Croatia

First restrictive measures in Croatia were activated in early February 2020. Like most European States, from the very beginning there has been clearness about the management of prevention measures, like two-meters physical distancing, the catchphrase #stayinghome and basic disinfection rules. The same cannot be stated about institutions’ reactions about “the last”, those people who don’t have a home, the ones who live in overcrowded camps or in the streets. Those who do not have access to water to wash their hands.

Reception centres in Croatia temporarily limited the access to all “those people who are not necessary for the regular functioning of such structures”, the only remaining organizations being Red Cross and medicines du Monde, an international NGO. These two organization provide information about the pandemic and medical assistance- both physical and psychological.

The Minister of Health Vili Beros confirmed that hospital care for all patients affected by Covid-1’ in Croatia will be free.
Newspapers and social media spread everyday discriminatory and racial discourses, at first, in early February, against Chinese community, then against refugees.
At reception centre in Porin, Zagabria, a Syrian refugee arrived from Austria because of Dublin regulation. He was suspected to be positive to Covid-19 and authorities, denying all logic, detained him in the detention centre in Ježevo  [1].

There’s more: in the same period, some fence construction started around the reception centre in Zagabria. On 19th march 2020, some residents wrote and published an article that tells how the fence is being built secretly [2]. People who live inside the centre have not been informed about the fence and its consequences on their lives.

Right timing, they wrote: with spotlight on emergency and fear for one’s own health, it is the ideal opportunity to keep the attention away from restrictive and repressive policies.

Covid-19 emergency is influencing our daily routine, making our lives completely different from before. Unfortunately some things stay the same, with the only difference that they are happening in silence, with global attention focused on the ongoing pandemic.

Pushbacks and violence at borders are still happening, like the one occurred on 23rd March in Poljana area (Velika Kladusa), at the Croatian-Bosnian border. It has been documented through a video published on Facebook by activists from “Welcome!” campaign [3]. In the video there is a man, bleeding after the violence he suffered, and policemen in the background controlling the area.
How many pushback do people have to experience, testify, film and denounce? The above mentioned movie is not the only voice that raised to break the silence about the violence of the Croatian police. Slovenian media, followed by Italian ones, tell stories about traumatic and desperate attempts to cross Balkan borders. Someone, in order to escape hauling, risked to die under a mound of soil, like the 5-year-old girl that hid in a train loaded with mud , in Harmica, Croatia. Slovenian agents took her and other people from the train right before the rail convoy set off. Not even the time to give the girl something to hydrate, that she and her family have been pushed back to Serbia from Croatian police and denied any food and water [4].
Regional GST campaign launched a call, whose main request is medical treatment to be ensured for all refuges, asylum seekers, and foreigners that are in the “legal limbo” imposed by authorities. “No one is safe until everyone is safe!” is the name of the appeal. It is based on the awareness of the needs of the states along the Balkan route and it requires recognition of all human existences. In the Balkan region the opposite of this is happening: segregation and discrimination ban for migrants in public spaces of the Una-Sana CANTON in Bosnia-Erzegovina; stigmatization (in Tuzla, civil protection headquarters imposed autoisolation for all residents who had been in contact with migrants, without any information that such migrants were really infected). Last, militarisation: Serbian republic army will control entrance and exit from reception centres for migrants in Sid.

Photo credit: Giulia Pedron - The Fabrik, unofficial refugees camp (Bihac_Bosnia) 25.02.2020

Serbia

On 15th march emergency state has been declared in Serbia. President Aleksandar Vučić gathered in his person more and more powers. One example: a measure about information during the pandemic has been introduced, with serious consequences on press freedom. A journalist has been held for 48 hours after she had denounces dangerous conditions of doctors and healthcare professionals in Novi Sad.

Balkans Caucaus Observatory reports that Belgrad government is considering isolating the most affected cities, like Belgrade, Niš and Novi Pazar, while all infected people, even the ones with soft symptoms, have been transferred in temporary hospitals equipped for the emergency  [5].

Lockdown and curfew in Serbia is only one more obstacle added to the already difficult situation experienced by migrants, volunteers and activists. In Sid, at the border between Serbia and Croatia, the months before the pandemic have been extremely complex. Beyond numerous attacks by fascists groups (cetnics, paramilitary serb group) towards migrants and activists, at the end of February “new special police forces took office in Sid and they started “men hunting”, aiming at a “cleansing” of the city. They forced inside the camps whoever was outside” – this is the testimony of volunteers from No Name Kitchen, organisation that has been in Serbia since 2017 and now has been expelled after the emergency declaration.

Systemic sweeps, intimidations, until army intervention, that forced migrants into the official camps. At the end of February there were six thousand people in the camps, at the moment, according to official numbers, there are 8700 information coming from these camps are alarming. GST denounced bad conditions and militarisation [6].
On 10th April, around 3pm, special police forces, with the support of refugees commissariat, entered the Krnjaca camp. They attacked some people, with physical violence, hitting them with sticks and spreading tear gas in the structure. Everything happened in the presence of children.
Based on information shared with activists, police intervention had been caused by an “accident” where camp’s operators hit a boy on his neck. The boy’s only fault was asking for a pyjama and people in the camp had defended him. But message from the authorities is clear , said activists: whoever resists, even by asking soap or pyjama, will be punished.

Bosnia-Erzegovina

After the arrival of Covid-19 in Bosnia-Erzegovina, and the following declaration of sanitary emergency state, the building of a new camp in Lipa area, between Bihać and Bosanski Petrovac (Una-Sana CANTONE at the Croatian border), has started. Works have been coordinated by FUCZ (Federalna Uprava Civilne Zastite) other organization coordinated by local Red Cross.
The Bosnian Ministry of Security and the Federation government, also thanks to the financial support of the European Union, have given to Bihać tens of thousands of marks to set up the structures that will be managed by the IOM and the ONG DRC (Danish Refugees Council); it appears, anyway, that the city has financed the construction of the camp by 25 thousand euros. The authorities have declared that all migrants in the region of Una Sana who are living outside official camps will be confined in Lipa, aiming at stopping any possible spreading of the coronavirus. It seems that the camp is going to open officially on Friday, the 17th of April [7].

Moreover, Amnesty International says, through Massimo Moratti, that: “Forcing people, many of whom are vulnerable, in a quickly-built tent camp that does not provide them with adequate access to water and restrooms, nor with the space to self-isolate and the medical care is a inhumane decision, which will put people at a higher risk for infection and death that could be prevented.

The confinement of people in precarious and dangerous conditions cannot be justified by public healthcare reasons. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bosnian authorities have a responsibility to take care of everyone’s needs, also and especially those of the most vulnerable, and they must guarantee human life conditions, including the access to water, restrooms and appropriate healthcare to all people, including migrants and asylum seekers [8]".

The commissioner for human rights of the European Council, Dunja Mijatović, has invited all European Countries to consider releasing the migrants locked inside the detention centres, due to the fact that these centres are often inadequate for what concerns healthcare and they represent a risk during a pandemic. This suggestion has remained to this day unheard.
The construction of the new camp is part of the project of restrictions that have been implemented inside the Bosnian Federation after the breakout of the Coronavirus pandemic, but the idea of the camp’s construction had already been around for quite some time. A curfew has been put in place, from 6pm to 5am, affecting the population (apart from specific categories) and since the beginning of March migrants haven’t been allowed to exit the official camps.

The authorities of the Una Sana region have estimated that around 2,000 people are currently living outside official camps, and they have implemented a ban on the use of public means of transport for these migrants, also forbidding them from staying in private facilities if they lack the adequate documents.

At the same time, sweepings of migrants have begun in all of Bosnia-Herzegovina; after the clearing out in Tuzla, on the 11th of March [9], the presence of the army and of the police has increased in all Bosnian border towns, in particular in Bihać and Velika Kladuša. Regarding this, the Minister of security Fahrudin Radončić has said that “there is the need to put migrants into camps surrounded by barbed wire, monitored by the police and far away from towns” [10].

The Coronavirus pandemic has surely accelerated the repressive policy that the Minister of security was already enacting, thus enabling him to control even more the migratory flows that travel through Bosnia-Herzegovina, especially since there are going to be elections in many Bosnian towns this fall.

The compelled confinement inside the camps has already begun to show the administrative and management faults of the IOM, the International Organization for Migrations. There have been many reports by organizations and by the “guests” of the camp concerning the terrible hygienic conditions and the lack of enough food for all. The lack of food and the overcrowding have also been denounced in the camps of Miral, Bira and Blazuj (Sarajevo).

The most symbolic case is the one of Bira Camp, in Bihać, where the confinement inside the camp means that people are no longer able to exit the camp and buy some food. Another problem is that the camps are overcrowded, and so during the first week of lockdown more than 500 people haven’t received any food. In the following weeks the food condition seems to have slightly improved, but people inside the camp are still saying that the food is insufficient.

Photo credit: Giulia Pedron - Road to the factory, unofficial refugee camp (Bihac_Bosnia) 25.02.2020

Slovenia

On the 12th of March 2020, at 6pm, Slovenia has declared the state of emergency, later enforcing restrictions on gatherings, shops, school closure and limitations to administrative activity.

At the beginning of April, there has been a strong political debate regarding the application of article 37 bis of the Law on defence, which gives exceptional powers to the army (including the control of the police over the population) after two thirds of the National Assembly had voted in favour of enacting this article.

The government, lead by Prime Minister Janez Janša, had suggested that it was necessary to implement the article in order to send soldiers to defend the borders from migratory influx while the police was engaged by the Coronavirus pandemic. The oppositions managed to stop the implementation, showing that using the border police in the backcountry is useless, considering that traffic and petty crimes have gone down since the restrictions were enforced. They have also accused the PM of wanting to manipulate the situation using migrants as a justification.

Infokolpa has reported on its Facebook profile that from the 28th of March to the 3rd of April only a few dozens of people have crossed the border, and this numbers would not justify the implementation of article 37 bis. Some local organizations that work also with migrants have written an open letter to the European institutions regarding the responsibility of the pandemic in Slovenia [11]. In this letter, dated 31st of March, they have highlighted the danger of giving more power to the army that, once positioned at the border, could work together with the paramilitary groups that are already operating in those areas using violence.

According to w2eu.info, in Slovenia more than 600 illegal rejections to Croatia take place each month, where migrants are sent back further to Bosnia; the illegal pushbacks have increased since 2018. The website also talks about the attacks that the government has lead against the press and journalists, which has also been reported by “Articolo 21” in an article on the 9th of April [12].

In Slovenia, asylum and subsidiary protection are the most common forms of international protection, and the reception policies have been considered amongst the strictest in Europe. The asylum seekers are hosted in three camps in Ljubljana and Logatec and there is also a camp for special detention in Postojna (which can host more or less 200 people) where the six-month detention of migrants can be renewed for further six month unlimitedly. Slovenia, as most countries on the Balkan route, is a country through which migrants travel: most of all during the Coronavirus emergency, it is necessary that the situation is monitored closely in order to prevent violence and abuses of power from remaining unseen.

Bulgaria

In order to legally live in Bulgaria, a migrant can receive the following kinds of permit: refugee (given by the President to those who are persecuted for their political activity), temporary protection (given by the government to those who have left their country because of wars, violation of human rights…), refugee status (given by the National Agency for refugees) and humanitarian status (always given by the National Agency). W2eu reports that the situation of refugee camps in Bulgaria changes frequently. As early as 2014, there were four camps near Sofia (three open ones and a detention camp), three near the border between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey (one closed, one transit camp and a detention camp) and a last one in the backcountry.

Bulgaria has come back into the spotlight in the last few months, after Erdogan’s decision to open Turkey’s borders for refugees to pass resulted in tensions along the border between Greece and Turkey. The “sultan” of Istanbul had done this with the aim of pressuring the European Union regarding the Turkish intervention in the Syrian region of Idlib. Although the two main actors have cast a shadow over Bulgaria in international medias, it has nonetheless been reprimanded regarding its management of migratory flow.

Amnesty international, through Massimo Moratti, has made a plea to Greece and Bulgaria on the 28th of February 2020: “The EU member states have to do more and they must share the responsibility of asylum seekers arriving from Turkey, both through financial support and guaranteeing safe routes to Europe. Greece and Bulgaria must grant access to their territory to people seeking protection, and border police must not use violence against people crossing the border. Migrants must be authorised to enter through official border passages, regardless of the fact that they have valid travel papers or not. Countries on the external borders of the EU should maintain enough crossing points on their borders for the refugees to pass safely, conveniently localized. The European Commission must urgently coordinate any support that might be requested by Greece and Bulgaria to guarantee that asylum seekers have access to adequate reception and asylum procedures. The European member states must take their fair share of responsibility [13]” .

On the 13th of March, some local organizations have sent a letter to the Bulgarian PM and to the President of the European Commission, denouncing irregularities regarding the control of the migratory phenomenon [14]. The letter says that Bulgaria has performed illegal pushbacks on its borders and, although its reception system is filled only up to 7% of its total capacity (it has 5,160 spots in total), this country has requested more financial support from the EU to deal with a non-existent migratory crisis.

To face the coronavirus pandemic, Bulgaria has enforced restrictions that at the moment are supposed to remain enforced until the 13th of May; the social distancing rules are similar to the ones enforced in other European countries, with the only exception being that soldiers will have the power to check citizens’ papers just like the police. Moreover, Bulgaria has closed its borders with non-European countries (Turkey, Northern Macedonia and Serbia) until the 17th of April [15].

At the moment it is very difficult to understand what is happening to migrants, either travelling or staying in camps, because apart from official sources it isn’t easy to get news from organizations of the Bulgarian social society, which often have to face many difficulties.