COVID-19: No one is safe until All are protected!

Open Letter from the Transbalkan Solidarity Group

Currently there are tens of thousands of refugees and other migrants in the Balkans. Some of them are accommodated in official collective centers, while 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. Yet with the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the already difficult situation in which they find themselves is becoming even more challenging and demands urgent action of those in charge – local and international actors – and solidarity from all of us.

The State of Emergency now in force in many countries of the region is a basis for the continuation and reinforcement of social inequalities and unfortunately is already serving as a rationale for the further stigmatization and repression of the most unprotected among us. But this exceptional situation must not become an excuse for continued politics of exclusion, restriction and expulsion, suffering and distress.

The fear for our own lives and the lives of those around us that we are faced with currently have for many been everyday realities for much longer. These uncertainties of the present lead us to radically question the system of geopolitical hierarchies, racial and class distinctions that divide and rank us, producing a population of undesired and rejected people across the world and in our countries alike. In these conditions we are left with nothing more than to work towards the removal of imposed inequalities based on social and citizenship status.

We therefore call for an end to all official and unofficial discriminatory and dehumanizing practices, for the end of violence at the borders, and for the legalization of everyone’s existence, for the closure of all forms of detention and collective centers that restrict freedom of movement and fail to secure humane and hygienic conditions. As individuals we call for an affirmation of the values of equality and freedom, appealing to acts of care and solidarity.

At the same time, as a form of emergency measures, we demand of the member governments of the European Union, the states of the region, and all relevant institutions and organizations to ensure that all who are forced to live on the street, in abandoned buildings without minimal sanitary conditions, or in inadequate collective centers are systematically provided accommodation in humane, safe, and sanitary conditions. We call for adequate and healthy living conditions to be secured for all, that public and other (unused, privately owned) buildings, including tourist facilities, should be put to use for this purpose. In a pandemic such as this, basic accommodations for all vulnerable people needs to be the priority of all responsible public policies and states.

In that sense, we remind that the European Union and especially the European Commission bear particular responsibility towards refugees and other migrants “stuck” in our countries. As they have openly shown with their recent actions on the Greek-Turkish border and other borders, they want to keep refugees and migrants out of their territory at all costs and using any means.

Within the framework of measures envisioned and implemented by local and state authorities as well as international organizations like IOM and their partners that have in some states of the region taken on a leading role in work with refugees and migrants, we ask for the immediate formation and activation of mobile teams to bring water and food, disinfectants, cleaning supplies, and toiletries to all those in need living outside the camps. Citizens should be included in this process without restrictions, on a voluntary basis and in line with the recommendations of health and epidemiological specialists.

We call on citizens, local and international volunteers in the region who wish to help in whatever way to respect the instructions of health experts and epidemiologists in order to reduce the possibility of putting themselves and those they help at risk. We call on everyone to cooperate and coordinate their work because only in this way can we conquer the pandemic of fear and reduce the serious risks that the most unprotected among us face.

In addition, we ask that people who already live in collective centers across the region are offered adequate protection and quality nutrition as well as hygienic conditions that support basic human dignity. Among them are many who fall into vulnerable categories such as those with chronic diseases or people with weakened immunity. It is necessary to improve care especially for these people. The collective centers in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which are managed by IOM, are probably in the worst state and below every measure of dignity. The majority of them are overcrowded, without adequate conditions for maintaining regular hygiene, regular access to warm water for bathing or clean water for drinking, and basic materials for personal hygiene and disinfection. Those responsible should provide these basic resources at all times, not only under conditions of pandemic.

We ask for the engagement of all who have the capacity and duty to act: UN agencies and their partners, especially IOM which has the greatest jurisdiction, Doctors without Borders, the International Red Cross and their local branches, Danish Refugee Council, Merhamet, Caritas, and all other organizations and groups that are in any case involved in the care of people on the move.

Finally, we demand that all people be equally afforded unrestricted access to the health care system, that people on the move – refugees and migrants – are treated without discrimination, and that concrete measures for their protection be made part of all measures for the protection of the population as a whole. We demand that people are provided with access to information in languages they understand about this virus, how it functions in local micro-contexts, as well as about how it spreads from person to person and how to protect oneself from contracting it. In the battle against this pandemic, leaving out one part of the population from protection measures will cancel out all other efforts to stop the spread of the virus.

Our governments are required by law to ensure access to emergency treatment for all people regardless of status, which COVID-19 will require for many. For this reason, we also call on the authorities to make available regular and free medical treatment for this population, especially in cases of people contracting the virus or when there is reason to suspect contagion. At the same time, this situation requires caution and openness while calling us to maintain organized support to refugees, migrants, and other groups at risk. 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!