Although different countries around the world have taken largely similar approaches to facing the coronavirus pandemic by aiming to reduce human contact, it has become clear that their decisions have different consequences for different groups of people.
For many of us, it simply means adapting to working from home, reducing travel and reorienting our social lives to digital platforms. But for others, the COVID-19 global crisis has overlapped with pre-existing conditions of displacement to make what was already an uncomfortable life even less bearable. This is the case for thousands of asylum seekers who have been deported and held back on EU borders.
In the past three years, the border between Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia has become a gathering point for asylum seekers aiming to reach western EU countries. It’s also where they are stopped and pushed back by Croatian police. Those who are able to reach this border after months travelling across the Balkans, remain blocked on the Bosnian side of the frontier, where the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has set up temporary reception camps in the towns of Bihać, Cazin and Velika Kladuša
Many of those caught in the attempt to cross the frontier report being beaten up and threatened by Croatian police officers. Humanitarian organisations struggle to keep track of the numbers of people passing through but the camps tend to be full most of the time. Consequently, most newcomers are no longer allowed within IOM facilities and are forced to sleep on the street of find shelter in abandoned buildings.
Lockdown without isolation
The first case of COVID-19 in Bosnia & Herzegovina was recorded in the city of Banja Luka on March 5 and the government declared a state of emergency 12 days later. People under 18 and over 65 were told to stay home for a month and a nationwide 8pm curfew was imposed.
The IOM camps immediately closed their gates so that no one was allowed to come in or to go out. In Bihać and Velika Kladuša, the situation has added another layer to what was already an emergency.
The two camps of Bira and Miral amount to little more than tents and containers hosted inside former factories. They have very poor hygiene conditions, no light and limited access to humanitarian support. Some of the people hosted in Bira have declared they are not receiving enough food or medical help. There is only one doctor in the camp and social distancing is not an option. Some of those who showed COVID-19 symptoms have not been able to self-isolate.
Outside the camps, some of the central supermarkets in the towns of Bihać and Velika Kladuša have stopped selling food to migrants. They were already kept out of most cafes and restaurants so their options are now extremely limited.
Most recently, drastic new measures were taken as a new camp was set up 30km from the city of Bihać, in an area called Lipa. local police have started deporting migrants, catching them around town or forcefully removing them from the squats they are occupying, to bring them to the new camp, in which they will be confined at least as long as the lockdown is in place.
Just a year ago, the European Commissioner for Human Rights criticised Bihać’s mayor Suhret Fazlic for setting up an open-air camp in the mountain area of Vucjak. Migrants who were sent to Vucjak called it “jungle camp” as is was situated in a completely isolated area, on the site of a former dump, with no access to electricity or drinkable water.
Fearing being sent to the new jungle camp, migrants are pushing forward more rapidly with their attempts to cross the frontier. That, in turn, means local Bosnian and Croatian police forces are using up valuable resources to chase and remove them from the border area. All this is happening against a background noise of Serbian interest groups suggesting these vulnerable Muslim migrants pose a threat to already precarious equilibrium between Serbians and Bosnian Muslims.
Many of us like to think we are all facing the same threat in this virus. It is a great leveller that doesn’t distinguish on the basis of class, race or gender. Yet the policies we put in place to manage it clearly do. Migrants who were already struggling to access basic resources are being pushed further onto the margins of locked down societies.
For asylum seekers displaced across Europe, the new global imperative of distancing was implicitly in place even before the pandemic crisis. These people are forever being asked to be somewhere else. In Europe, even in the face of a pandemic, different human lives have different value.