Serbia: Civil society builds bridges between migrants and health workers during COVID-19 pandemic – Serbia


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Each year, more than 50,000 refugees and migrants pass through Serbia. Upon arrival, many are physically exhausted, traumatized, and in need of medical services and assistance.

However, migrants on the move often prefer to continue their journey rather than looking after their health or seeking treatment for serious medical problems. Although health workers have encouraged them to take protective measures to prevent transmission of COVID-19, report any symptoms and get vaccinated as soon as possible, many migrants have a low level of confidence in health services and do not understand how to access it.

“I have been here for 4 years now and I am confused,” said a 23-year-old Afghan woman.

WHO / Europe supported the Center for Social Research and Development IDEAS, a Serbian civil society organization, to engage with migrant communities in Serbia as well as with the health workers who treat them in the centers. reception, transit and asylum.

The initiative is one of 8 community engagement projects underway across Europe. It aims to improve the accessibility, quality and cultural sensitivity of health services for migrants in order to strengthen the resilience of the health system.

IDEAS ensures that the real experiences of migrants are taken into account in policymaking and has helped develop new structures, guidelines and professional roles that fill the gaps in the response to this vulnerable group.

The project’s strong engagement with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veterans Affairs and Social Affairs made it possible to quickly adopt special guidelines for migrants.

Health mediators help improve accessibility of services

Thirty roles of health mediators have been created within the medical staff of reception, transit and asylum centers, with advice produced to reduce the negative consequences of language barriers, socio-cultural differences and tensions between ethnic groups .

In addition to conducting assessments for symptoms of COVID-19, mental health and other medical issues, health mediators specially trained in communication and cultural skills help migrants access legal and social services. Their close relationships with migrants help them provide relevant information to health workers, IDEAS and the Ministry of Health in order to improve the quality and accessibility of health services.

“Now it’s easier for me to talk about the health problems I have,” said a 28-year-old Afghan.

“If a doctor now asks me to undress and I’m uncomfortable, I will say so and ask if there is a health mediator available,” a 16-year-old Pakistani boy said.

Appropriate health care for refugees and migrants

Health workers employed in primary care facilities received training in cultural competency approaches and practices, COVID-19 prevention and interventions, and referral mechanisms between health and social services .

They also learned to support victims of trauma and violence, including survivors of gender-based violence, women and girls, unaccompanied and separated children, and drug addicts.

“I understood the cultural skills training as a way to appreciate the background from which migrants come and how to better provide services to them,” said one of the health workers who participated in the training.

In addition, a workshop for 174 law students, who will one day provide legal services to refugees and migrants, was held at the Faculty of Medicine in Belgrade to better appreciate and understand these vulnerable groups.

IDEAS has also developed and disseminated information documents on the right to health and on health mediators to more than 2,000 migrants.

** The CSO initiative in the WHO European Region **

The WHO / Europe Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) initiative is experimenting with new bottom-up approaches working with governments to give communities a say in the plans that affect their lives and to ensure that they are involved in policy making processes.

The CSO initiative contributes to the response to COVID-19 by strengthening community preparedness and resilience to emergencies, connecting vulnerable communities to services and improving inclusive governance. Serbia is one of 8 countries in the Region and 40 countries around the world piloting such approaches.

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