Post by Orson Gard. Orson is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh. He has previously worked with migrants and asylum seekers in the Balkans and is interested in doing further research on asylum policy. After graduating, he hopes to pursue a graduate degree in international development. This post is part of our themed series on border control and Covid-19.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has posed unique challenges to people across the world, with unprecedented restrictions on social and economic freedoms forcing people to radically alter their way of life. However, the difficulties faced by refugees are particularly severe. Throughout refugee settlements, many of which are in low- and middle-income countries, limited access to clean water, sanitation, and health facilities increase the threat of an outbreak. These risks are further compounded by the challenges faced by NGOs, both local and international, in coordinating an effective humanitarian response. In light of my experience working with refugees in Serbia, this post reflects on how the pandemic may be impacting their lives, as well as the operational capacities of NGOs that seek to support them.

In the summers of 2018 and 2019, I volunteered with Collective Aid, an NGO that distributes aid to refugees across Europe as well as providing activities for those living in the Obrenovac Reception Centre on the outskirts of Serbian capital, Belgrade. In Serbia, state-run reception centres are designed to provide asylum-seekers and migrants with accommodation and basic amenities. However, the sad reality is that the Serbian asylum system offers scarce support to applicants. What is more, many people seeking asylum are often transferred to reception centres (such as Obrenovac) rather than asylum processing centres, thus prolonging their time within the system. Many want to leave Serbia to seek asylum within the EU. However, having being subjected to violent pushbacks at the Hungarian or Croatian border, they often find it more difficult to claim asylum upon their return to the country.  Indeed, one man that I worked with in 2018 recognised me when I returned to Obrenovac a year later, a reminder of the protracted uncertainty many refugees and migrants endure. Most of the people I worked with came from countries that have been devastated by conflict, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and were trying to reach Europe. To find out what impact the pandemic has had on these people and the NGOs that work to support them, I spoke to Clark Schofield, the primary director of Collective Aid.

In response to the pandemic, the Serbian Government moved all unregistered asylum-seekers, many of whom had been sleeping rough in major cities, into official reception centres. Freedom of movement was severely restricted in order to limit potential outbreaks, with time-limited exceptions for those needing medical care being granted at the discretion of the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration, the government body for refugees and migration. This meant that international NGOs like Collective Aid or local ones such as APC-CZA, were not able to carry out their usual projects as access to the centres was suspended. This fall in operational scope has also been mirrored by an inevitable decline in capacity, as travel restrictions continue to limit the flow of international volunteers and the distribution of donated goods. The suspension of services, due to state-mandated restrictions and a lack of volunteers, means that NGOs, both local and international, are struggling to provide essential services at a time when they are most needed.

According to Clark, the primary impact of the pandemic for Collective Aid has been the suspension of service provision in the northern Serbian town of Subotica. Due to its position near the politically contentious Serbia-Hungary border, Subotica has a high refugee population that is often subjected to violent pushbacks from Hungarian border officials and receives little formal assistance from the Serbian Government. For refugees themselves, the impact of COVID-19 has been less clear. Officially, the centres that Collective Aid works at have not been affected by the virus and, when entering some of the camps during the state of emergency, Clark observed that all visitors were instructed by Commissariat staff to wear a mask and to sanitise their hands and shoes upon entry.

Yet, accounts from people living in the centres point to serious issues of overcrowding and a lack of sanitation. InfoMigrants spoke to one such person, who said that by forcing all unregistered asylum-seekers into the Obrenovac Reception Centre, the Serbian Government had increased the resident population to over 2000, despite its capacity for only 400-500 people. Indeed, the centre has only four toilets and four showers, meaning that observing social distancing measures and maintaining adequate levels of hygiene is practically impossible. Furthermore, evidence presented to Balkan Insight, an investigative reporting network in Eastern Europe, shows that people in the Obrenovac centre are queuing in tight lines for food and eat in crowded halls, with no enforcement of social distancing measures or personal protective equipment.

These reports from within the Obrenovac Reception Centre, coupled with continued restrictions on access to NGOs, suggest that the Serbian Government is attempting to obscure their poor handling of the pandemic. This is corroborated by long-standing criticisms of state hostility shown towards activists and journalists. Indeed, I can recall a high level of tension between external aid workers and the Commissariat employees at Obrenovac. At any time, the Commissariat could deny us entry to the centre, so we were always instructed to be exceedingly careful not to discuss political issues or provide legal guidance when engaging with our beneficiaries.

The experience of aid workers in Serbia, as well as the conditions reported from transit centres such as Obrenovac, demonstrate the important role that civil society can play, especially during humanitarian crises, like a pandemic. With Serbia looking to join the EU by 2026, the bloc is uniquely positioned to push the Serbian Government to work with NGOs in order to coordinate an effective humanitarian response and protect the health of those seeking asylum on its soil.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Gard, O. (2020). COVID-19 and Refugees in Serbia: Assessing the Challenges Faced by Refugees and the NGOs that Work to Support Them. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/07/covid-19-and [date]