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Between closed borders: Joint agency paper on refugees and migrants in Serbia 2017

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During the massive influx of refugees and migrants in 2015, Serbia was mainly a country of transit on the route to European Union for the several hundreds of thousands fleeing war and persecution. Even after the EU-Turkey Statement in March 2016 and de facto closure of the borders along the so-called Balkan route, the perception of those that remained stranded did not change and Serbia was still not considered as a destination country by most refugees and migrants, even though transit became ineffective and drastically prolonged compared to 2015 and early 2016.

Immediately after the closure of the Balkan route, the only safe pathway to EU across Serbia, led through established transit zones on the Hungarian border with Serbia, and a daily admission process. Despite “closed” borders, the influx of refugees and migrants continued throughout 2016 and 2017. According to official statistics, during 2017 the number of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Serbia changed and decreased from some 7900 in January, February and March, to 4500 as in early December 2017.

While humanitarian needs were mainly addressed and over 90% of refugee and migrant population was accommodated in 18 governmental facilities across Serbia, issues regarding legal status and access to rights and services became a more urgent problem for many that were living in Serbia for more than one year after the closure of the Balkan route in March 2016. The vast majority of all these foreign nationals remained without any legal status in Serbia, since only a small number submitted an official asylum claim. The Ministry of Interior of the Republic of Serbia issued 6199 certificates of expressed intention to seek asylum, but only 236 official asylum requests (less than 4%) were submitted to the Asylum Office.2 For the majority of those who obtained these certificates, the “police paper” as they referred to it, was mainly a mean to access accommodation, food, medical aid, psychosocial support and similar services refugees and migrants needed. The issue of registration through obtaining the expressed asylum intention paper came to focus especially in harsh weather conditions, when this population was in dire need of food and shelter.

However, majority of persons likely in need of international protection were generally confused and believed that “registration in Serbia” meant any possible contact with representatives of the Ministry of Interior (police officers) and/or any representative of the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration (SCRM) at asylum or reception/transit centres. Moreover, they perceived “registration” as any of these three types of procedures:

  • Procedure in police stations where they were receiving Intention to Seek Asylum Certificate (ISAC) within the Law on Asylum of the Republic of Serbia, in order to access much needed services;
  • Police processing where they were being issued with Cancellation of Stay paper, in line with the Serbian Law on Foreigners;
  • Process in which they were providing bio-data in order to be enrolled in the unofficial “waiting lists” for admission into Hungary.

Regarding the registration that is being implemented in line with the Asylum Law, the vast majority of refugees and migrants that HCIT and CRPC have been in contact with, were unaware of the true purpose of the paper they were issued with as the first step in the asylum procedure in Serbia. They mostly perceived this paper as a necessary document for accommodation at one of the existing accommodation facilities in Serbia which was a crucial issue during the extremely cold winter of 2016/2017.

Throughout the year, refugees and migrants in Serbia were in constant need of appropriate and timely counselling and adequate information in languages they could understand, often facing psychological issues, deprivation, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), a prolonged and an uncertain stay in Serbia while facing dilemmas regarding future strategies. Such issues influenced the work of CRPC and HCIT with this population on the local level.

Despite the changed situation, Belgrade with two large accommodation centres on its territory – Krnjaca and Obrenovac, continued to be an important location for refugees, migrants and asylum seekers and maintained its role as a junction on the route during 2017. Aside from Belgrade area, many refugees and migrants, single men, but also families and unaccompanied and separated children (UASC), were continuously sleeping rough in the border areas of Serbia, trying to leave this country and reach EU.

Stranded between borders, many refugees and migrants tried to find a way to continue their journey to desired EU countries by any means necessary. The number of reported push-back incidents and sometimes severe violence on borders was undoubtedly on the rise in 2017, affecting even the most vulnerable of all – children. In addition, many were exposed to different types of ill-treatment along the route to Serbia: exploitation, kidnapping, physical violence, SGBV and abuse.

Also, a change in public opinion and attitudes towards refugees and migrants influenced the situation. Fewer citizens donated clothes, food and other assistance. The general attitude toward refugees from the Middle East became less ambivalent in late spring 2017, compared to the same period from the year before and negative attitudes toward refugees increased from 19% to 33.3%. Regarding the improvement of refugee’s situation, public trust in local NGOs has dropped and expectations from EU, UN and similar institutions have risen.3 These changes reflected on local level as well. Among other things, this resulted in the closure of the Sid Transit Centre in May 2017.4 Furthermore, media focus started to shift from the humanitarian aspect to emphasising “problems caused by migrants” and this population became less publicly visible during this year, including unaccompanied children.

This joint paper provides an overview of refugees and migrants stranded in Serbia after the closure of the Balkan route and depicts problems, circumstances and conditions that shaped HCIT and CRPC work with refugees and migrants during 2017, with a focus on Belgrade and the border areas in Vojvodina.