By Gloria Laker Aciro and Casaba Lukacs
‘How Covid-19 is Exacerbating the plight of Migrants and Refugee children with borders still closed in Uganda and Sebian in Hungary’.
In this joint reporting collaboration Ugandan journalist Gloria Laker Aciro and her Hungarian-based counterpart Casba Lukacs examine the fate of Refugees, Migrants and their children today in Serbian border point in Hungary and previously on arrival at Elegu border point in Uganda, What is next after the two border points have turned into hot-beds for Corona virus?
She had just turned six in July 2016 when fresh violence erupted in South Sudan. Vicky Duku is now 9 and peacefully living in Boroli refugee settlement in Adjumani, a border district in northern Uganda. She is one of the many unaccompanied refugee minors and separated children who found their way into Uganda through Elegu border point in Amuru district. Today she is happily living with a foster family in Adjumani.
Amidst the war women and children were either separated from their parents or husbands respectively by armed men to prevent them from crossing to Uganda. Women and girls continue being subjected to sexual violence inflicted on them by armed men. Elegu border is a ‘safe heaven’ and gateway to the beginning of a peaceful life in Uganda. Here at Elegu over 1000 south Sudanese refugees were received by the Ugandan government daily during the peak of violence. According to statistics 90 per cent of the fleeing refugees at that time were women and children https://www.refworld.org/docid/579748a74.html. They are running from continued violence in Eastern Equatorial region and other parts of South Sudan.
Despite the precarious situation across the border, the anxiety imposed by Corvid-19 pandemic that has forced Uganda to close all its international borders. To date reports from South Sudan reveal continued fighting, killings, raids and destruction by armed gangs. On Uganda’s western frontier, the endemic volatility in Eastern DR Congo is still far from stability. The chronic strife has pushed over 10,000 fresh migrants into Uganda. The minister of state for refugees, Hillary Onek, says that a health unit for testing and managing Corvid-19 has been set up. As they flee to Uganda, some expectant mothers give birth along the way.
“On arrival, refugees may look physically tired and weak but they try to put on a smile when they come to buy a drink or snacks at my shop. Indeed, you see hopeful faces radiating relief from violence, sleepless nights and hunger” Nancy Akumu, a trader at Elegu border, describes the emotional respite exuded by refugees.
Patrick Idrifua has handled many children under Save the Children, a humanitarian organization that focuses on children. He says the refugees are usually very traumatized by the horrifying experiences they encounter. “Young boys are abducted by gunmen and forcefully conscripted into the rebel armies while women and girls are raped when they come across armed men.” Idrifua narrates the psychological distress suffered by refugee children.
According to Kiden Grace, a south Sudanese refugee youth, the journey to Uganda is tiring “Most refugees use trucks to the border while others walk. When you’re lucky enough you can land on kind people who give you a free lift in their vehicle all the way to the border” Kiden.
However, given the remoteness of South Sudan, means of transport are hard to find. “But before one gets transport you have to walk for miles and even days moreover through communities infested with armed men”, concludes Kiden.
Arrival at Elegu Border Point Pending Documentation and the feeding of small children.
Idrifua explains that before the Covid-19 lockdown and during influx of refugees. on arrival children usually cry for food but there’s none immediately. ‘At this stage only some energy-giving foods like biscuits are distributed by humanitarian agencies. However, these are too light to sustain them for long’. Most of the children arrive when they are weak and malnourished; a factor for opportunistic infections like dehydration, malaria, diarrhea due /to lack of better feeding and exposure to cold along the way.
Emergency postnatal medical services are given to mothers and their children are also immunized.
Dire Conditions of Adolescent Girls & Young Women (AGYW)
Looking completely weary are adolescent girls from South Sudan who are also increasingly conceiving at tender age. Pregnant girls as young as 14 years climbing the back of a truck or trekking to Elegu transit point in search of a peaceful environment are a dismaying exasperating sight. Some deliver along the way and arrive at the border point malnourished with infants wrestling with multiple frailties.
Generally, their stay at Elegu is usually between one to two weeks during periods of high influx of refugees which slow the documentation process. After which they are moved to Nyumanzi reception center where UNHCR distributes them to different settlement areas across Uganda.
Kiden, a youthful refugee who came to Uganda alone with the help of neighbors, spent two weeks at Eegu. “While at Elegu we were eating snacks and the number of refugees was overwhelming. Much as authorities endeavored to provide food and speed up documentation, the number of new arrivals was too high. Even children found themselves surviving on biscuits and drinks” Kiden recalls the high refugee inflows.
Despite Uganda’s good model refugee policy that has been acclaimed by other countries and development partners, it is impractical to provide a holistic package of support interventions. “Situation of refugees at Elegu border point is not a luxury. Fleeing from violence refugees arrive physically emaciated and they survive on what is available until when they are finally re-settled”, Julius Musinguzi, the communication officer at the office of the prime minister describes.
Solace after Resettling at Nyumanzi
It is at Nyumanzi where refugee children and their families begin to eat real meals of beans, cowpeas and posho. “Beans and posho are popular in East Africa” Idrifua explains.
Nyumazi is the second center after Elegu. It is from here that allocation of refugees by UNHCR to the ultimate settlement camps in northern Uganda takes place in reference to the first documentation at Elegu. In the final resettlement camps refugees not only receive food relief but they are also allocated land for growing food crops to supplement on the food donations.
Beside emergency medical attention, the health team at Elegu also provides psychosocial support services to refugees with cases of mental distress arising from psychologically traumatic experiences. Special attention is also given to people with special needs including Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) and separated children, Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) and victims of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV).
When refugees arrive they go through documentation; the sick are immediately moved to a health unit including new mothers. “When I had just arrived at Elegu, we had younger children in our group who were immediately taken to a shelter where they were served with biscuits and drinks”.
Given their vulnerable state, international human rights frameworks provide that children should be accorded first priority for protection during situations of war. “The officials at the border point tend to give more attention to children than adults, regardless of whether they are with their parents or unaccompanied”, Kiden elaborates the preferential treatment given to children.
The police spokesperson for Aswa region Patrick Okema stated that asylum seekers are checked for guns. “For security purposes police posts are strategically positioned at the border. Before any refugee is allowed into Uganda, border police make sure they don’t possess guns or no drugs”. Previously there were reports of armed refugees entering Uganda with weapons forcing Ugandan security to step up its vigilance.
Fleeing Refugees and Corvid 19
Although the intensity of violence in South Sudan has subsided, uncertainty still hovers so people continue to flee to Uganda. The closure of Ugandan borders with neighboring countries has not stopped south Sudanese and DR Congolese refugees from entering Uganda. Elegu, for instance, remains closed and dry. Today, one stands at Elegu and only sees trucks laden with trickling across the border.
Traders at the previously busy border post acknowledge that they have lost business amidst the Corvid-19 pandemic especially as more and more truck drivers continue to test positive for Corvid 19. “Because of Corona virus, our businesses are collapsing. Even truck drivers who were our major customers have become a health threat as many of them are suspected of carrying corona virus’.
To avoid transmission of corona virus communities at border posts and on towns along highways have been cautioned against associating with truck drivers many of whom have tested positive for corvid 19. “In a day I used to make close to 100 USD but now I even struggle to make 5 USD. Refugee parents sacrifice to buy eats for their children from our shops. Despite their vulnerable state, refugees still endeavor to feed their small children to supplement what is given by humanitarian agencies” Akumu narrates.
Elegu Border Point; The Hotbed of Corona Virus in Uganda
According to Dr. Paska Apiyo, the doctor in-charge of Gulu referral hospital, majority of Corvid 19 positive cases at the beginning were originating from truck drivers. By virtue of the geographical location Uganda serves as a transit route for the entire great lakes regions. With nearly 3,000 cargo trucks passing through Uganda, the convergence of road terminals has inevitably turned the ‘Pearl of Africa’ into a hot bed for corona virus.
While it is dry and boring here at Elegu, the bushy borders and water/rivers are being exploited by refugees. This has compelled Ugandan first Deputy Primer and legislator for Adjumani West Constituency General Moses Ali to donate a motorized boat to Adjumani Covid 19 Task Force to help in patrolling to deter entry of South Sudanese refugees through the water into Uganda.
Adjumani district is one of the refugees hosting districts in Uganda with 213, 000 refugees in the 18 settlements across the five sub counties in the district
District Health Officer Dr Bhoka George says one of the challenges the district is battling with during the covid-19 lockdown is the in and out movement of the refugees caused by the porosity in the borders.
Dr Bhoka says , “Every night we still receive not less than 10 entrants or exists , we are in conversations with the Office of the premier minister, UNHCR, medical team, World Food Programme, Lutheran World Federation among other entities to see how to respond to the unique needs of the refugees”.
To circumvent the river patrols refugees are also adapting by using shortcuts along the borders to enter Uganda with the support of local communities whom they pay only about 5 USD to navigate them through porous border points. Unnoticed and unchecked they eventually join their families in settlement camps-exposing entire refugee communities to a high risk of infection. There is need for Uganda security to reinforce its border patrol and sensitize communities to prevent refugees trickling into the country during this crisis of corona virus.
State of Sabian Migrants and feeding
Meanwhile, thousands of migrants are still stuck in Serbia, where the pandemic situation is worse than ever
Casaba Lukacs reports that Serbia is affected by the second wave of the pandemic, which seems to be bigger than the first one.
The local people are protesting against new restrictions, the anti-migrant incidents are increasing, while, according to the latest information, almost nine thousand migrants and asylum seekers are under lockdown in Serbia.
Despite numerous efforts by different civil society actors and NGOs from Serbia to raise awareness on growing anti-migrant campaign and intimidation of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, the unregistered extremist group “Narodne patrole” organized a rally against migrants in Belgrade on Sunday 8 March. The poorly attended (200-300 people) gathering was used to spread racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and other anti-migrant propaganda and fake news as they were marching through the so-called refugee district (Savamala area). Some protestants threw stones on one-stop center “Miksaliste” run by the state’s Commissariat for Refugees but luckily there were neither injured nor damage.
A few days earlier some civil organizations advised the Serbian Ministry of Interior with additional information on the anti-migrant meeting, including legal evidence that the organizer’s invitation contained elements of serious criminal acts against the constitutional order and the security of the Republic of Serbia. The municipal police department in Savski Venac refused to comply with the Law on Public Gathering so the extremists. got a green light for the rally. The decision raised serious concerns about the potential links of the anti-migrant activities with the deep state.
In March the number of refugees and other migrants in the state-run centers in Serbia started to grow, due to an increase of new arrivals and stricter border controls which make it harder for people to cross the borders irregularly. According to the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration (SCRM), as many as 5,245 people (4,249 men and 996 women) were accommodated in reception and asylum centers across the country. Many of them are underaged boys, some of whom are traveling alone.
Recently, a local NGO called Info Park launched a Viber community group for all refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants interested in relevant news and information. It started with notifications about coronavirus update in Serbia, however, it grew into a group where they share other information relevant for the wellbeing of those who are still in Serbia, either in camps or outside. All the content was shared in English, Arabic, and Farsi.
In April the local NGO-s reported almost nine thousand migrants and asylum seekers under lockdown in Serbia. Due to this, asylum and reception centers where overcrowded. At least 600 unaccompanied children were also temporarily accommodated in Asylum Centers/Refuge Centers, most of them in what is universally considered as an unsafe environment surrounded by adults. Given no local or national public transport, the new arrivals completely depend on smugglers’ networks. They find also new routes – a boat with migrants was capsized on the Serbia-Romania border, according to Romanian police.
Allegedly, the boat carried 2 Serbian smugglers and 16 migrants of different origins (Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Palestine). Two persons drowned, eight were reported missing and eight were rescued.
In that time the situation in the camps was calm and under control with some preventive measures in place. However, beneficiaries were no longer wearing protective face masks and gloves. In addition, they complain about unequal criteria for obtaining the right to exit the camp arguing that some can leave multiple times while others cannot. The biggest issue was the inability to buy certain things they need and withdraw money from ATM and Western Union.
In several camps, migrants continued joint activities such as trees and flower planting. Still, the camps remained surrounded by strong and heavily armed Serbian military units, such as the 72nd Special Operation Brigade in Obrenovac and Krnjača. During his visit to Obrenovac RTC on April 16, Serbian Minister of Defense Aleksandar Vulin stated that migrants present a security and health risk to Serbian citizens, stressing that the camps will remain locked until the end of pandemic, guarded by the Serbian Army. Soon after, Obrenovac migrants demolished an internal CCTV system installed for camp’s surveillance, continuing tense relations with the authorities.
According to local media, another massive incident occurred on Easter Sunday in Adasevci Reception Center when approx. 50 migrants tried to leave (as an act of non-violent protest). This protest also came as a result of dissatisfaction over being locked in overcrowded government-run centers, inadequate services, and in this case, repeated complaints about poor food quality. The riot was halted when an officer of the Serbian Armed Forces fired warning bullets into the air. This is the second time those live bullets were used in Serbian camps against non-armed refugees and migrants in the state of emergency.
The Belgrade Center for Human Rights published a new periodic report entitled “Right to Asylum in the Republic of Serbia for January – March 2020”. The report puts the spotlight on the state of emergency as well as the current negative public discourse on migration in Serbia. Since the beginning of the year, 839 people, most of them from Afghanistan, have expressed the intention to seek asylum in Serbia.
This month a local was arrested in Obrenovac on suspicion of a racially motivated crime. Allegedly the man was yelling in front of Refugee Centre Obrenovac and calling for the camp shut down, according to the Serbian media. The police immediately reacted by detaining him for 48 hours. This is one in a series of similar incidents against the migrant population in Serbia that have occurred lately linked to hate speech campaigns based on online fake news.
Info Park interviewed several beneficiaries about their plans once the current lockdown is lifted. Majority plans to leave the camps as soon as possible, depending on travel arrangements. In case the end of emergency state would mean the end of strong military presence around the camps, the attempts to continue the journey might start rapidly Due to problems in money transfer, majority of migrants will wait for the restored regular intercity bus or train lines since smugglers’ tariffs soared during state of emergency. For example, North Macedonia – Serbia transport charge became 900 euro, 2-3 times higher than before.
In May on the website of the Defense Ministry was published a process of public procurement of razor wire and other material to be used for fencing in the reception and asylum centers in Serbia. According to the civil organizations, the realization of this project would signify the opening of a new, negative chapter in Serbia’s treatment of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, legitimizing a sped-up militarized approach to migration management, which was already announced by the use of the army in the reception centers in Sid municipality.
After several months of unconstitutional deprivation of liberty justified by the alleged danger of spreading the coronavirus, surrounding the reception centers with razor wire would represent another step towards arbitrary abolition of liberty for the refugees and migrants, which is against Serbian Constitution and all international standards for the protection of the human rights of this population – says NGO-s from Serbia. The action by the Defense Ministry is reminiscent of the practice that has been going on in Hungary for years, leading to Budapest being found responsible for the abolition of the rights of the asylum seekers in Hungary’s detention centers, which are also surrounded by the razor wire.
A video featuring a truck driver from Serbia beating up two migrant boys went viral on 30 June. At an undisclosed location, the truck driver allegedly noticed the boys in the back of his truck only when he had arrived at the border. The incident stirred a heated debate on social media with some defending his move and others strongly condemning it. So far, no state official or institution has reacted to it.
When the second wave of the pandemic was coming, in the first days of July, the South-Western Serbian region of Sandzak (Novi Pazar, Tutin, and Sjenica) was facing a crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tutin Asylum Center was also hit by the crisis with two staff members being tested positive. However, there are no positive cases among asylum seekers and other migrants accommodated in the AC yet. Twelve migrants are isolated – five of whom were tested negative, while the other seven entered the country from Romania and had to spend 14 days in the quarantine. The local authorities imposed obligatory two weeks of isolation within centers for all new arrivals in order to curb the spread of the virus.
Now, the current situation in Serbia its quite difficult. When I am writing this article, thousands joined anti-government protests in the Serbian capital of Belgrade for the fifth consecutive day of demonstrations. Originally sparked by a decision to reimpose a lockdown on Belgrade – the unrest is now directed at President Aleksandar Vučić’s coronavirus response which protesters are blaming for the second spike in infections in the country. As of the 15th of July, in Serbia, a country of 8.7 million people has registered19.334 COVID-19 infections and 429 deaths.
Gloria and Lukacs participated in the 2019 September School on Media and Migration in Rabat Morocco.