Migrants in Bosnia ‘More Vulnerable to Infection’ Despite Lockdown
Anja Vladisavljevic and Danijel Kovacevic
Banja Luka, Zagreb
March 23, 202006:30
Many people in Bosnia and Herzegovina are self-isolating at home to protect themselves from the coronavirus, but migrants and refugees living in squatted buildings and tent camps are more vulnerable to infection because they can’t take the same precautions.
he streets of Banja Luka, the main city in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity, are almost empty. Fear of contracting the coronavirus has caused most people to stay indoors.
But some people in the city cannot take such precautions because they have fled their homes, and those homes are several thousand kilometres away from Bosnia.
Not far from Banja Luka’s railway station, BIRN met Feroz, a migrant from Afghanistan, and his friend from Morocco.
“I spent almost all winter in a tent at the Tuzla train station [in eastern Bosnia]. I can’t do that anymore, I’m going to Bihac [near the Croatian border] and try to cross over to Croatia,” Feroz said.
Feroz has heard about the coronavirus, but said he is not afraid of it. He said he does not know that a state of emergency has been declared in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Republika Srpska had 29 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection by Thursday, and 23 of them are in Banja Luka.
The country has introduced emergency measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus infection. All restaurants and cafes are closed, and only grocery stores and pharmacies are still working.
People here are reminded daily to adhere to the recommended personal hygiene regime, to avoid public gatherings, and not to leave their homes without urgent need.
Feroz, who left his native Afghanistan three years ago, worries that this might complicate his journey to his preferred destination, Germany.
“There was a lot of sick in the tents in Tuzla, but I don’t think it’s a corona[virus],” he said.
Restrictions on movement imposed
Reception camp Bira near the town of Bihac. Photo: BIRN.
There are approximately 7,500 registered migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For at least 2,500 of them, there are no places in temporary reception centres set up by the authorities.
On Wednesday, the government of the Sarajevo Canton, which includes the Bosnian capital and various nearby towns and villages, imposed restrictions on the movement of migrants and ordered them into temporary reception centres.
“As the existing capacities in temporary reception centres will not be sufficient to accommodate all the migrants located in and moving around the Sarajevo Canton, the government will without delay send the authorities an initiative to establish an additional temporary reception centre (facility, tent settlement, etc) in the canton,” the Sarajevo Canton’s government said in a press release.
Una-Sana Canton, in the west of the country near the border with Croatia, has been hardest hit by the migrant crisis. On top of this, the first case of coronavirus infection in the area was confirmed on Tuesday.
As a result, the Una-Sana Canton’s crisis headquarters issued an order on Monday to completely restrict the movement of migrants outside the temporary reception centres in which they are housed.
Back in Banja Luka, Feroz and his Moroccan companion did not know that in Bihac, where they were planning to go, measures to prohibit the movement of migrants had come into force. They said they would worry about that when they arrive.
Migrants in squats unmonitored
Migrants and refugees in front of the reception camp Bira near the town of Bihac. Photo: BIRN.
There have so far been no indications of coronavirus symptoms at temporary reception centres for migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina, according to the International Organisation for Migration, IOM.
“Preventive measures are being implemented in reception centres in cooperation with the World Health Organisation, the Danish Refugee Council, DRC, and the Institute for Public Health of the Sarajevo Canton,” Edita Selimbegovic, a public information officer at the IOM, told BIRN.
Selimbegovic added that there are currently enough medical staff in the temporary reception centres.
But migrants who are living in squatted accommodation or on the streets rather than in temporary reception centres pose a different problem. A significant number of them are in Tuzla in eastern Bosnia, and in the west of the country in the Una-Sana Canton, close to Croatia.
“We lack the capacity to adequately accommodate all migrants who are outside the temporary reception centres and have control over them at the centres to avoid them being infected,” Selimbegovic said.
The contruction of tent camp on the “Lipa” site, between Bihac and Bosanski Petrovac, began on Saturday, and iz is expected to accommodate migrants and refugees who are on the streets.
“We received the support of the Security Ministry, the Federal Government and immediately we started to set up a tent settlement. The primary goal of everything we do is the protect of epidemiological and health situation in the town, but also to find more humane accommodation for these people,” Bihac mayor Suhret Fazlic said on Saturday.
IPSIA, an Italian NGO that has been working in Bosnia and Herzegovina since 1997 and is now helping migrants and refugees, warned that migrants in squats and improvised camps could end up living in dangerous conditions.
“Migrants inside the camps do not understand what is going on, at the moment they are more confused than angry,” ISPIA told BIRN.
Migrants trying to get to EU countries also do not know that coronavirus-related restrictions on movement are in force there too, ISPIA added.
“Migrants are also not aware that even if they get to Slovenia or Italy they are not free to move inside these countries, we know that many are stuck in Trieste [in Italy] and at the moment in that city, the reception centres are full or in quarantine too,” it said.
Meanwhile Bosnia and Herzegovina’s border police are warning that the influx of migrants can be expected to increase soon.
“On the one hand, there is the warmer weather, and on the other, the fact that Turkey has opened its borders [for migrants to leave for the EU],” border police spokesperson Franka Vican told BIRN.
“We do not have enough police or the technical means to control the border itself. The border police are lacking 401 police officers to carry out regular activities. In the extraordinary circumstances as they are now, another 1,200 police officers are needed to effectively guard the Bosnian state border,” Vican added.
‘No one is safe until we are all protected’
Reception camp Bira near the town of Bihac. Photo: BIRN.
A group of activists involved in the Transbalkan Solidarity Group published an open letter on Wednesday with some 500 signatures, urging the European Union and countries in the region to take care of refugees and migrants who are “stuck in our countries”.
They warned that currently there are tens of thousands of refugees and migrants in the Balkans – some of them accommodated in official reception centres, but “a large number of people fall outside the system, surviving through the help of the local population and support provided to them by volunteers throughout the region”.
With the spread of the coronavirus, refugees and migrants’ situation “is becoming even more challenging and demands urgent action of those in charge – local and international actors – and solidarity from all of us”, they said.
“This is required of us out of elementary humanity as well as the basic logics of public health because no one is safe until we are all protected,” their letter concluded.
As for Feroz, the migrant from Afghanistan who is currently in Banja Luka, he insisted that will continue his journey to Germany if he can – whatever happens with the coronavirus.