APC undertook and successfully completed the first ever country research on response of Serbian health system to the COVID-19 challenges in protection of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees that was conducted in parallel to similar country researches in N. Macedonia and Bosnia under the common researching project “COVID19 Challenges within Refugee and Migrant Response in Western Balkans”, supported by Balkan Trust for Democracy.
APC collected and analyzed relevant data and the statistics, undertook interviews with relevant stakeholders and with representative number of migrants who experienced health challenges regarding COVID-19 pandemic, to conclude that successful implementation of COVID-19 measures was questionable in practice and even impossible in some of accommodation centers. Unexpectedly, number of migrants officially recognized to be infected with COVID-19 was surprisingly low in spite of limited living space, overcrowded camps, initial lack of protective gears, partially because migrants and camps management staff didn’t recognize initial symptoms as signs of COVID-19 and medical assistance and COVID-19 testing were not sought.
In line with the COVID_19 measures introduced worldwide, Serbia was among the first countries to impose restrictions on movement in the form of suspending or restricting cross-border mobility, as well as internal mobility, chiefly by imposing curfews of varying duration. Same lasted during the declared state of emergency period to get different modalities afterwards, on course of the general pandemic duration in Serbia.
The study showed that number of migrants who had received information on COVID-19 virus and protection methods in Serbia was alarmingly low. APC further found that a third of the respondents were not familiar with the mechanisms for accessing the right to health care in case of suspected COVID-19 infection; Many of these were respondents staying out of reception and asylum centres or private housing. Access to the health care system through health clinics in reception centres clearly did not suffice, instead, it was essential to ensure access in local communities, through primary health care centres, COVID clinics, hospitals and other health care institutions. The number of those who were provided with information on vaccines and those who had been offered vaccination in Serbia was extremely low, although they were entitled to it. Almost all respondents staying in centres reported that the anti-COVID-19 measures existed, but the successful implementation of those measures was questionable in practice and even impossible in some centres. The number of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees recognized to be infected with COVID-19 was surprisingly low; Given the expected higher risk of infection in collective facilities, involving more difficulty in implementing prevention measures, including physical distance, the real figure of COVID-19 infected migrants was suspected to be far higher in reality. It was assumed that the COVID-19 symptoms as fever, cough, fatigue, very similar to the symptoms of common cold, were simply not recognized by migrants nor by camps running CRM staff as COVID-19 and medical assistance and testing were not sought.
Nevertheless, access to the health care system for migrants was not significantly hindered by the COVID-19 challenges, while the centralization and project-based funding of overall health care for irregular migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Serbia by the European Union covered almost all services needed by this population. In addition, same EU health project provided a better system for referrals to health care institutions, access to therapy or hospitalization when needed. Nevertheless, despite health system improvements and smoother access to health care, it is worth recalling that system’s project-based funding raises the issue of long-term sustainability of such an important and institutionally formed system.
You can download the whole research here.