They have traveled hundreds, even thousands of miles. They have journeyed by truck and car and on foot, for weeks, months, even years. They have fled violence in their home countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and elsewhere, many of them seeking a better life in Central Europe. On route, they have been stopped and searched and detained, and they have just endured the frosts of winter.

And now, at migrant and refugee reception centres in Bosnia and Herzegovina, they face one of their greatest challenges yet: COVID-19.

While the numbers of COVID-19 cases in Bosnia and Herzegovina are still considered manageable—under 500 as of 1 April—the infection rate is rising fast and is expected to experience peaks in the coming weeks. Authorities have taken measures to prevent the spread of the virus nationwide, such as curfews and school closures, as well as restrictions on movement in and out of the reception centres.

Meanwhile, UN agencies have been working around the clock with the authorities to ensure that these most vulnerable of people—5,500 migrants and refugees in the country’s reception centres — are protected, too. Staff from IOM, UNICEF, UNHRC, UNFPA and WHO are at work.

With schools closed, learning goes online

“Most refugee and migrant children have already lost several years of schooling,” says Amila Madžak, an officer with UNICEF Bosnia and Herzegovina. “The COVID-19 pandemic makes their experience even more difficult, now that all schools have been closed.”

For children residing in three temporary reception centres — Borići, Sedra and Bira — online classes have been organized by UNICEF and Save the Children in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, and with the support of the European Union. “We are making sure that these kids have access to public education, including online education,” says Madžak.

Children participate in online instruction at a migrant and refugee reception centre in Sedra, Bosnia and Herzegovina. United Nations photo: UNICEF and IOM Bosnia and Herzegovina

In the country’s Una-Sana region, teachers from schools that refugee and migrant children attend have been doing the hard work of preparing materials for online classes, including live streaming or preparing videos with schoolwork instructions.

One local teacher, Senka Rekanović, says, “Given that teachers weren’t trained in online education, it’s a challenge for us to adapt. But we’re already achieving a lot, including higher attendance rates. We have ‘cultural mediators’ who are helping children access lessons online and follow instructions for their homework. I’m proud of our kids.”

“When learning online, children from the centres need more psycho-social support and more help overcoming language barriers,” says Adnan Kreso, adviser to the Minister of Education of Una-Sana. “But thanks to our dedicated educators and all the support of UNICEF and Save the Children, we’re meeting those needs.”

In good weather, reception centres allow students to study outside. UNICEF and IOM Bosnia and Herzegovina

Some in-person classes are taking place at reception centres, too, only with smaller groups of children, all of whom are given personal protective equipment and disinfectant. When the weather permits, classes will be held outside – which brings joy to children and a positive atmosphere to learning.

Pitching in to boost public safety

The Borići reception centre in Bihać hosts 320 asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants, nearly half of whom are children, whether with their families or unaccompanied. In the wake of the new coronavirus cases in Bosnia and Herzegovina, refugee and migrant women in Borići have started making cloth protective face masks in a “social” section of the centre where people can play board games, make tea or just relax.

That space is outfitted with two new sewing machines and lots of fabric, thanks to the UNHRC in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Danish Refugee Council (DRC) with the support of the European Union. Now refugees and migrants, with help from the local NGO Žene sa Une (Women from Una), have started to sew cotton face masks for the centre’s population. They’re using fabric that was previously used for bed linens for the Bihać hospital.

A woman sews face masks at a migrant and refugee reception centre in Borići, Bosnia and Herzegovina. United Nations photo: UNICEF and IOM Bosnia and Herzegovina

“My husband has joined me in making the masks for people in the centre,” says Rozhan, who, with her husband Ibrahim and three children fled Iraq and have been at the Borići reception centre for six months. “I’m not sure how many we’ve made so far, I’ve lost count.”

While some of the women have a professional background in sewing and are leading the activities, others, including centre staff, are learning as they go. Sewing is just one of the activities that keep people busy in difficult times of social distancing and isolation.

Woman prepare face masks at a migrant and refugee reception centre in Borići, Bosnia and Herzegovina. United Nations photo: UNICEF and IOM Bosnia and Herzegovina

Taking care in uncertain times

IOM is working to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among people in the centres by installing sanitizer stations, educating staff and residents about safety, cleaning the facility even more thoroughly, and temporarily closing community kitchens to avoid large gatherings.

Rozhan, the Iraqi woman at the Borići centre, says, “We fled from home to save our lives, to escape war, and now we are faced with this new coronavirus. I first heard of corona here at the centre. Everyone was talking about it, and there were posters and we were taught how we should protect ourselves.”

For now, at least, in the middle of a long and perilous journey, Rozhan and her family are okay. She says, “We are safe here."