Doctors Without Borders are present in the field on the Balkan route 24 hours a day. Thousands of refugees are stranded in this area due to EU closing its borders to refugees. In Kontrola leta we spoke to Francisca Baptista da Silva, a doctor from the Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières- MSF) team about the situation the refugees in Serbia and Macedonia are in.
What is the impact of the border closure on the refugees’ health?
For the last four days, there was a moment when there was a population 450 who were literally stuck in the mud in the border, between the two borders of Serbia and Macedonia. And they were unable to pass to Serbia or to go back to Macedonia because they were caught up in the middle of the changing of policies and the border closure and they were not allowed in each of the countries. They had no shelter, no water, no humanitarian assistance, so MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières- Doctors Without Borders) enlisted other actors. MSF set up emergency shelter and other actors were providing food, clothes, etc. because it was raining very heavily.
Now they’re allowed to go back to Macedonia but the question remains that we have population stranded in each country that can not go on and for now their options they’re not quite aware of what it is. We’ve seen of course medical cases also because it has been raining but mainly we’re also seeing many issues related to mental health with acute emotional reactions, anxiety, and even some psychotic episodes. A mother, for instance, didn’t even recognize her child. Because people are very stressed, very anxious, they don’t know about their future and what is going to happen.
They’re coming already from countries, the reasons why they fled their countries, they were already at risk, with very difficult situations. And the journey itself also is very difficult and now not knowing and being stopped in the middle without much explanation has created a lot of anxiety as well and people are desperate because they’ve come all this way and now are being stopped without any explanation aside from what is a claim to asylum.
Are there any information in the field about what will happen next?
That’s exactly the problem- that people need a legal solution to the situation that they’re facing. Particularly in Serbian terms of humanitarian assistance things have improved but it’s the legal situation that’s causing the problem. There is no information regarding their future, it’s not clear yet what is going to happen to these people and there has not been an official border closure either, so we don’t know anything and it’s important to understand what will happen. The problem is that if the border closes and the route as it is, is closing, or at least with no movement, people will resort more to the smuggling system, where they will be more at risk and that is exactly our concern. Because until now, the Balkan route, was the safest way for people to cross to Europe and right now over 60 per cent of the population are women and children of the population crossing. If the border is closing, they will resort to the smuggling system and it will put them further at risk and it will be much more dangerous and that is for sure a concern. There should be safe and legal options for people to apply for asylum and to be able to reach Europe, and with the Balkan route closing, it’s even more difficult to (do) for people now.
What are the most common symptoms the MSF are encountering in the field?
The main symptoms we are seeing are respiratory tract infections, also gastrointestinal, skin diseases as well and trauma related to the journey. All these conditions are a result of the journey, so it’s the journey itself that’s making people sick. But of course we also have the chronic cases and many pregnant women as well. We’ve even had children that were born during the journey. So, it’s all those regular cases that we have that are a consequence of the journey but also the illnesses that you have with the chronic diseases and of course for children and especially the pregnant women the journey is very hard and it’s debilitating them very much.
What are the refugee health issues in asylum centres in Serbia?
MSF is present both in Preševo, at the border with Macedonia and also in Šid, at the border with Croatia, but also in Belgrade and of course we’re mobile. The situation now at the centre, it’s the same population, there’s the stranded population that cannot move. One of our concerns mainly is with food because we’re looking at a population stranded for a while and there needs to be food that’s diverse to make sure that they will not have nutritional problems in the future. But for now, yes, people are stranded there and there’s shelter capacity and for now that’s it.