Serbia assesses health system capacity to manage large migration

WHO/Sara Barragán Montes

Migrant child in a temporary camp for refugees in Preševo, Serbia.

The Ministry of Health of Serbia and WHO/Europe conducted a joint assessment of the country's capacity to cope with the public health challenges of migration from a health system perspective. A joint report will be made public soon with the findings from the mission, including recommendations, the identification of potential gaps where technical assistance may be provided and best practices.

Growing instability in African and Middle Eastern countries has resulted in a large influx composed mainly of refugees crossing south-eastern Europe during their journey to reach European Union counties. In particular, Serbia has experienced a sharp increase in the number of refugees and asylum seekers crossing its borders, from about 5000 in 2013 to 16 500 in 2014 according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The stories behind the numbers

Upon arriving in Preševo, the WHO/Europe team interviewed 3 people waiting outside the police station for the registration of their asylum application.

Khaled (pseudonym) is a 27-year-old Syrian man from Kobane. Before his departure, he worked as an English teacher. When the civil war in the Syrian Arab Republic started in 2011, he fled with his family across the border to Turkey. After living in a Turkish refugee camp, Khaled decided to attempt the long journey to the United Kingdom in order to create a better life for him and his family. With the advice of his friends and the help of the global positioning system (GPS) on his phone, he started the journey trying to avoid smugglers, afraid of exploitation. He was arrested in Turkey for attempting to illegally cross into Greece, and was imprisoned for 15 days before being released. Eventually he managed to cross into Greece, and from there began his journey by foot, car and bus to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and later on to Serbia. Khaled spoke about fear of imprisonment, harsh treatment, violence and exploitation from people he encountered during his travels. In Serbia, he said he felt safe. What struck him the most was seeing infants and young children making this journey under the same conditions.

Tahir (pseudonym) is a Sudanese man who joined this group of migrants in Greece. Living in Darfur, Sudan, he had no regular income and no prospects for his future, so he decided to follow the steps of a friend who had successfully made the journey to the United Kingdom 6 years previously. Tahir left Darfur and travelled to Khartoum, and from there took a boat up the Nile River to Aswan, Egypt, and then to Cairo. Once in Cairo, he travelled on a crowded boat of 260 people across the Mediterranean Sea with the hope of reaching Italy. They ran out of water, food and petrol, and after 10 days a rescue boat collected them and brought them to Greece. There he joined a group of around 30 refugees and asylum seekers who went by foot to Serbia through the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Zeinah (pseudonym) left her home in Damascus, Syria, 6 months ago. After the start of the civil war the Syrian Arab Republic in 2011, she had to interrupt her university studies on technical analysis and her work as a graphic designer. Her husband left the country first, and successfully made it to the Netherlands. Zeinah decided to follow his steps afterwards, and took a plane from Damascus to Istanbul, Turkey. She continued her journey by foot to Greece, then to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia. She started suffering from fatigue and was seen by medical staff in refugee camps both in Greece and in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. At some point, she had an electrocardiogram (ECG) and was diagnosed with a heart problem. Though medical staff advised her to seek further care for this heart disorder, she had not done so at the time of the interview. She stated that her dream was to continue the journey to the Netherlands, where she hopes to reunite with her husband, visit a doctor and continue her studies and work.