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Serbia: civil society builds bridges between migrants and health workers during the COVID-19 pandemic

Every year more than 50,000 refugees and migrants pass through Serbia. Many on arrival are physically exhausted, traumatized and in need of medical attention and assistance.

However, migrants on the move often have priority to continue their travel rather than worrying about their health or receiving treatment for serious illnesses. Although health workers have encouraged them to take protective measures to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, report symptoms, and get vaccinated as soon as possible, many migrants have low levels of trust and understanding in health services Have access to them.

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

The WHO Regional Office for Europe supports the Center for Research and Social Development IDEAS, a Serbian civil society organization, in working with migrant communities in Serbia and the health workers who treat them in reception, transit and asylum centers.

The initiative is one of the 8 community engagement projects that take place 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 is committed to ensuring that real migrant experiences are incorporated into policy-making and has helped develop new structures, guidelines and professional roles that fill the gaps in responding to this vulnerable group.

The close cooperation of the project with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veterans and Social Affairs led to the rapid adoption of specific guidelines for the benefit of migrants.

Health mediators help improve the accessibility of services

30 health mediator posts have been created within the medical staff of reception, transit and asylum centers, with guidelines being drawn up to reduce the negative effects of language barriers, sociocultural differences and ethnic tensions.

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

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

“Now if a doctor asks me to undress and I am not feeling well, I will say so and ask if there is a health mediator,” said a 16-year-old Pakistani boy.

Adapted health care for refugees and migrants

Health workers employed in primary care facilities received training on approaches and practices of cultural literacy, COVID-19 prevention and intervention, and mediation 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 addicts.

“I understood the cultural competence training as a way of appreciating the context that migrants come from and how better services can be offered to them,” said one of the health professionals who attended the training.

In addition, a workshop was organized at the Medical Faculty in Belgrade for 174 law students who will one day give legal advice to refugees and migrants in order to develop more appreciation and understanding for these vulnerable groups.

IDEAS has also developed informational materials on the right to health and health mediators and distributed them to over 2,000 migrants.

The CSO initiative in the WHO European Region

The WHO Regional Office for Europe’s Civil Society Organization (CSO) initiative is working with governments to test new bottom-up approaches to empower communities in plans that affect their lives and to ensure they are involved in policy-making.

The CSO initiative helps respond to COVID-19 by building community preparedness and resilience to emergencies, connecting vulnerable communities to services, and promoting inclusive governance. Serbia is one of eight countries in the region and 40 worldwide that are trying out such approaches.

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