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Challenges of Forced Migration in Serbia: Position of Refugees, Internally Displaced Persons, Returnees and Asylum Seekers

Originally published



Serbia is a country of origin, transit and refuge to many people who have been forced to flee their homes. This text discusses the issues of refugees, internally displaced persons, returnees from Western Europe and asylum seekers in Serbia. They differ in their position, social status and rights as realised in Serbia, but have in common the fact that they have migrated against their will. In order to be able to decide on their future, it is impossible to focus only on the policy of Serbia. The exercise of rights in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo and Metohija requires the full engagement of both Serbia and the international community. The restitution of rights in the country of origin, and the creation of conditions for the protection of previously acquired rights are of great importance not only for permanent return, but also for any other durable solution, i.e. integration.

Furthermore, the expectations from international and European integrations, though often unrealistic, allow the European and international communities to seek the fulfilment of international commitments and insist that the rights of returnees, refugees and IDPs are exercised under the same conditions in the entire region. Durable solutions and fair compensation for refugees as direct victims of the war should be the essence of the reconciliation process after the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

In 2008, the UNHCR included Serbia among the five countries in the world with a protracted refugee situation whose solution requires joint action, and the cooperation of regional countries and the international community. With 86,000 refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and 206,000 internally displaced persons from Kosovo, Serbia is still the first country in Europe for the number of refugees and IDPs. There are willingness and the initiatives of the Serbian authorities, UNHCR, European Commission and international donors to find additional funds to facilitate the position and find durable solutions for refugees and displaced persons. However, despite the considerable support, huge gaps have remained. In the region of the former Yugoslavia, the process of resolving issues of refugees, the Road Map, that to which the authorities of Croatia, BiH, Serbia and Montenegro have been committed by the Sarajevo Declaration, has been stalled primarily due to unresolved issues of tenancy rights. In Serbia, despite government efforts to integrate refugees, the institutional and legal framework has not been reformed in that direction.

As for displaced persons from Kosovo and Metohija, the right to return remains a priority for the Government of Serbia, but the status of long-term displacement has been gradually recognised for the vast majority of these people. After the self-proclaimed independence of Kosovo, the Serbian authorities have continued to invest in the Serbian community and parallel institutions in Kosovo. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, the Serbian authorities refuse any cooperation with bodies associated with Kosovo statehood. The dialogue of the authorities of Serbia and Kosovo about “technical issues”, as they put it, should result in solutions to at least some of the contentious issues being initiated. The current status quo largely hinders the position both of people in Kosovo and IDPs in Central Serbia.

Within the European integrations and according to the Law on Asylum, in 2008 the Serbian authorities completely took over from the UNHCR the procedure for determining the refugee status of people outside the former Yugoslavia. In 2010, a total of 522 people expressed an intention to seek asylum in Serbia, mostly Afghan nationals (311). Often they are people who are caught while attempting to reach Western Europe illegally via Serbia. An asylum policy is a new experience for Serbia, and the necessary institutions have yet to be built.

Serbian nationals, mainly Roma, who have been refused asylum or whose temporary protection has been terminated, continue to return from Western Europe. Many have been returning without any property and accommodation after having spent ten or even 15 years abroad. The Strategy and Action Plan for Reintegration of Returnees have been adopted, but the issue of financing projects that would lead to the humane and safe reception of returnees is still unresolved. One year after the abolition of visas for travelling to EU countries, many citizens of Serbia understand the right to visa-free travel as an opportunity to solve their social problems by filing asylum claims. It is an abuse of the asylum system as a back door for illegal migration, and the Serbian authorities have failed to respond. Because of such a trend, the EU and the member states have set up a visa requirements review regime for Serbia and other Western Balkan countries.

The contribution of international organisations to solving the problem of forced migration is huge, but the fact is that the funds from foreign donors are limited and that in the process of European integrations, priorities must be set. It is now necessary to develop national development programmes in order to solve the social problems of vulnerable groups. In circumstances where there is even less foreign aid for the most vulnerable, the Serbian government should accurately decide on the priorities and funds from the state budget, international donors, local and other authorities, along with providing comprehensive information and a clear definition of the responsibilities of all stakeholders in charge of solving the problems of forced migration. By working with migrants, recognising their needs, analysing the problems and pointing out the irregularities, civil society organisations are an important factor in policy-making with regard to the interests of these people and their places of origin or the places in which they have found refuge.