Death of the Balkan route: UNHCR and IOM’s strategy in Serbia

On 23rd January, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) presented the new strategy in response to the situation with the migrants and refugees in Serbia at a press conference at Belgrade’s Media Centre. The press conference was also attended by the State Secretary in the Serbian Ministry of Labour, Employment, Social Policy and Veteran Issues, Nenad Ivanisevic.

The strategy is part of the wider plan (Regional refugee and migrant response plan – RMRP), which covers the period from January to December 2017on the regional level, and which was presented by the  UNHCR and IOM in Geneva on 19th January, 2017.  In line with the plans of the Government of Serbia, 16 NGOs and eight United Nations organizations that have participated in the drafting of the strategy proposed humanitarian and development aid worth a total of over 39 million US dollars. So far, the donors have generously contributed to a figure of close to 2.7 million USD in 2017 to fund the UNHCR’s activities in Serbia.

Lidija Markovic, head of IOM’s office in Serbia, and Francesca Bonelli, a field coordinator for the UNHCR, presented the plan to the press, and underlined that the strategy was devised to provide an adequate response to the substantial changes that had occurred with the refugee and migrant situation in Serbia.

conference pressOn behalf of NGOs, Marina Cremonese, from DRC Serbia, stressed the importance of concrete actions through which the plan was supposed to lay the foundation for the lasting solution to the current situation.

Death of the Balkan route

Following the closure of the Balkan route in March 2016, it has been estimated that between 150 and 200 people have continued arriving to Serbia from Bulgaria and Macedonia on a daily basis. Consequently, the number of refugees and migrants in the country had continued to grow from 2,000 in March 2016 to 6,000 in October 2016. In recent weeks, it reached over 7,000.

The scenario had to change, considering the migrant and refugee situation in Serbia in the course of 2015, and a part of 2016. The change was also evident from the data provided by the Serbian Interior Ministry according to which, from January to November 2016, 11,084 people expressed their intention to apply for asylum. This created the need to start with a systemic registration of migrants and refuges in the area, and for the intergovernmental policies to be redefined, namely to switch from the emergency approach adopted in 2015 to a more systemic and systematic approach within the framework of improving the existing asylum system.

In September 2016, Serbian government adopted the “Response Plan to the Increased Number of Migrants on the Territory of the Republic of Serbia for the October 2016 – March 2017 Period”, in line with the approach stipulated in the UNHCR’s Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan. The response plan devised activities and identified resources needed to accommodate 6,000 people in the state-run facilities during winter. However, the capacity of reception centres remains insufficient in many cases.

According to the data published by the UNHCR in early January this year, the number of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants who applied for registration and a place in shelters in Serbia totaled 7,200. As confirmed at the press conference, 82% of them were accommodated in 16 state-run reception centres. At the beginning of December 2016, 6,400 refugees and migrants were housed in 16 facilities managed by state institutions.

In addition, thousands of refugees and migrants found shelter in downtown Belgrade, while approximately 150 asylum seekers camped near the border with Hungary, pending the resolution of their asylum application. It should be noted that, in November 2016, Hungary expressed its willingness to grant asylum to 100 applicants compared to 210 on the previous occasion.

New scenario, new requirements, new responses

Considering the current situation, as well as the one from the late 2016, the UNCHR has devised plan for 2017, focusing on the needs of those 6,000 people that currently remain in Serbia, not to mention those that want to apply for asylum, or have entered the country illegally.

As pointed out by Francesca Bonelli (UNHCR), the plan is devised to provide assistance in priority areas of refugee protection and with asylum registration, as well as to support local communities. The plan is also intended to help Serbia to deal with the situation, and, at the same time, to provide lasting answers and hope for the people who found themselves on the Serbian territory.

The current need for funding is more complex and extensive compared to the recent past, while the continuous illegal flow of migrants should not be underestimated because it dictates the need for constant and immediate response.

Nevertheless, the UNHCR and IOM are now focusing not only on protecting the children, but also on their education with the view of ensuring longer-term stay while adequate facilities are being prepared, in addition to creating bridges that facilitate integration and protection against sexual exploitation and abuse of migrants. The IOM official also underlined that better results could be reached through joint efforts and cooperation, while highlighting Serbia’s efforts which “did not build barriers, but rather extended existing facilities”.

Only 3,500 places in the reception centres were identified as compliant with the international standards for long-term stay. A substantial number of people will be, therefore, still housed in temporary facilities which are inadequate considering the current weather and the duration of their stay. State-run facilities, both temporary and permanent, have to deal with the problem of overcrowding on a daily basis.

With this in mind, the State Secretary in the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Social Policy and Veteran Issues, Nenad Ivanisevic first thanked the UNHCR for their support and cooperation, as well as being resolute “not to abandon Serbia” while dealing with the migrant and refugee situation. The State Secretary underlined that, despite the Balkan route now being officially closed, the pressure on Serbia remains constant, as does the number of people to which Serbia continues to provide assistance on its national territory.

Creating a system

Pressed by the journalists, the State Secretary clarified government’s position on two points that are not directly included in the strategy, including the support for the activities of the Serbian border police. Regarding the illegal immigration, Ivanisevic reiterated that the government intended to clamp down on the scourge of smugglers, while making an indirect reference to the different attitude adopted by other countries towards stopping the trafficking activities.

In reference to the situation with the migrants staying in the abandoned warehouse close to the central bus station in Belgrade, the State Secretary pointed out that he did appeal to volunteer organizations to redirect their efforts toward supporting those migrants that were housed in government shelters. “We have to create better conditions at reception centres and we are not going to deny accommodation to anyone who had registered. We have appealed a lot, though. Migrants cannot create migration policies. That’s the job for the government.”

The UNHCR and IOM’s strategy aims to provide assistance to the government in devising further actions relating to refugee protection and migration management. The strategy is divided into four strategic areas namely (i) Protection (access to territory, legal support, family reunification, assisted voluntary return, protection of unaccompanied minors); (ii) Logistics (increasing reception capacity through provision of shelter solutions for short-term and longer-term, transportation assistance), (iii) Health and Nutrition; and (iv) Support to Local Communities (strengthening local services to ensure adequate provision to local communities affected by the crisis).

bisogni finanziari_quoteWith the support from the UNHCR and IOM, the Migration Task Force, set up by the Government of Serbia, will continue to be responsible for operational implementation of the strategy, in collaboration with the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, the Commission for Refugees, the Interior Ministry, and other key stakeholders. The joint work falls within the guidelines established by the UN Refugee Theme Group which will coordinate the four task forces led by the government, and will be active in the four areas of action identified by the strategy.

In the meantime…

The press conference took place just one day after the EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, Christos Stylianides issued a statement on the occasion of his official visit to Belgrade:

“Vulnerable refugees and migrants, including young children, are still in need of assistance. We can’t leave them to face the harsh winter conditions alone. We are stepping up our humanitarian assistance in Serbia bringing it to a total of €20 million, and we will continue working closely with the Serbian authorities with the help of UN agencies and other humanitarian organizations to meet the most urgent needs, in particular to ensure that centres are adequate for the winter. Together, as Europeans, we have a moral obligation and humanitarian duty to act and help.”

Meanwhile, a dark shadow looms over the prospect of effective regional cooperation. The testimonies, collected by Human Rights Watch, show that the Croatian police had been extraditing asylum seekers from Croatia to Serbia, in some cases violently, without giving them an opportunity to apply for protection. Similar accusations came from Serbia too, as well as from volunteer organizations, according to which migrants were forced to go back to Bulgaria or Macedonia. The Serbian Refugee Commissioner, Vladimir Cucic said that Serbia should not be held liable at all, clarifying that “smugglers are creating confusion by driving the refugees from border to border two or three times so that, in the end, they don’t know where they actually are.”

And the end of winter is nowhere near….

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This post is also available in: Italiano

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One Reply to “Death of the Balkan route: UNHCR and IOM’s strategy in Serbia”

  1. jj says:

    “assisted voluntary return”

    Have there been any of these in Serbia who have agreed to return to their home countries?

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