Interview with UNHCR on real conditions of migrants in Serbia

Along with the presentation of the New Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan for Europe in Belgrade held by the UNHCR and IOM, Mirjana Milenkovski, from the Public Information Unit of the UNHCR in Serbia, has kindly agreed to answer some of our questions to shed the light on the current situation in the country.

The last days, due also to heavy weather conditions, many international media have covered the situation of migrants in Serbia, speaking of about 7,000 migrants living in dramatic conditions. What is the situation on the ground, actually?  

Currently, there are some 7,300 refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in the country. Of them, over 6,200 (85%) are accommodated in 17 government centres and the rest are still sleeping rough in the Belgrade city centre. Some 49% are from Afghanistan, 19% from Iraq, 10% each from Syria and Pakistan, 5% from Iran and 7% from other countries. 46% are children, 39% adult men and 15% adult women.

Severe weather conditions across the country effected especially refugees/migrants not sheltered in government centres and in response, authorities invited all asylum-seekers to move to government centres. In Belgrade, UNHCR and partners intensified support in counselling, registration and transportation of asylum-seekers to designated governmental centres. In addition, in coordination with authorities and NGO partners, UNHCR provided lifesaving aid, counselling, and support to registration with the police, as well as referrals to child protection and medical services.

The authorities, supported by UNHCR and partners, arranged additional temporary emergency shelter by refurbishing a facility in Obrenovac near Belgrade, for voluntary relocation of refugees and migrants from Belgrade city centre. In support of the authorities’ efforts to put the facility into use as quickly as possible, UNHCR  contributed all new clothing, blankets, bed sets and hygiene kits, cleaning services, and other items. To date, some 300 men and boys were moved from the city centre to Obrenovac. The authorities, UNHCR and partners continue working towards further expansion of shelter capacities there and to ensure that all necessary protection and other services, particularly to support the unaccompanied minors, will be provided to all current and future residents of the new centre.

In the North, the authorities offered asylum seekers near the border with Hungary to move to the Transit Centre in Subotica. As a result only around 20 asylum seekers remained outside the “transit zone” in Horgos and “transit zone” of Kelebija, waiting admission to Hungary. UNHCR and partners provide humanitarian aid, including food, non-food aid, hygiene packages, support to maintenance of the sanitary conditions, medical assistance, referrals, as well as legal and other counselling.

New arrivals

New arrivals

Could you explain to our readers how does the process work when a refugee/migrant enter in Serbia and decides to register her/himself?

According to the 2008 Law on Asylum of the Republic of Serbia,  a foreigner wishing to seek asylum  may approach any officer of the law and inform him of his/her intention to seek asylum. The officer should then refer him to the nearest police station for registration of the intention to seek asylum. Following the registration, the asylum seeker is given document asserting his legal stay on the territory of the country and 72-hour to access a certain reception centre. Once in a centre, the asylum seeker should wait for the staff of the Asylum Office to come and interview him/her. The interview is done in the language of the asylum-seeker (ideally mother tongue, or another language he understands well) Thus, asylum seeker lodges an official claim for asylum in Serbia. The staff of the Asylum Office should then review the statements made and decide in the first instance whether the asylum claim is well-founded or not. If found to be well-founded, the claimant will be granted either refugee status or subsidiary protection by the authorities. In case of a rejected claim, the claimant will be given 15 days to lodge a complaint against the decision. Upon examination of the complaint in the second instance, the persons will either be granted one of the above statuses or given a notice that he/she must leave the territory of Serbia within 30 days. Serbia is not enforcing expulsion of rejected asylum-seekers from its territory.

According to the Ministry of Interior, 12,821 persons registered their intent to seek asylum in Serbia in 2016 while 574 submitted an official asylum application. In 2016, the authorities granted refugee status to 19 and subsidiary protection to 23 persons. 40 asylum applications were rejected.

Which are the main decisions and the operative activities proposed in the new Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan for 2017?

The Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan (RRMRP) for 2017 was launched by UNHCR, IOM and 72 other partners in Geneva on 19 January. The Plan covers Turkey, Southern Europe, Western Balkans, Central, Western and Northern Europe.

The RMRP aims at complementing and reinforcing Governments’ efforts to ensure safe access to asylum and the protection of refugees and migrants. It also aims to support long-term solutions and orderly and dignified migration management. Strengthened partnerships and coordination will also be given priority in 2017.

The Serbia Chapter of RMRP builds on the experiences and achievements of 2016. The 2017 financial requirements are set at USD 39 million divided per sector, the biggest being: Shelter and NFIs, Support to Local Communities and Protection, but also Health and Nutrition, Non-Food Items, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, Education, Livelihoods, Logistics and Telecoms and Operational support. The RMRP Serbia was developed in close cooperation with the authorities, other UN agencies, national and int’l NGOs.

UNHCR and IOM presented the Serbia Chapter of the RMRP to the media and the public in Serbia on Monday, 23 January, appealing to potential donors to urgently contribute funding to the Serbia chapter of 2017 RMRP.

Reception centre for asylum seekers in Krnjaca housing 1,100 refugees, 50% of whom are children

Reception centre for asylum seekers in Krnjaca housing 1,100 refugees, 50% of whom are children

UNHCR Serbia is cooperating with many international NGOs. What is the commitment and the involvement of Serbian civil society in coping with this phenomenon that can’t be considered anymore an emergency?

Over the past 1,5 years, civil society has played a significant role in complementing, together with UNHCR and the UN, the efforts of the authorities in responding to the refugee and migrant crisis. UNHCR Serbia implements its activities through 12 partners, 11 of which are national civil society organisations. They provide a wide range of services from construction and rehabilitation works, information sharing, counselling, referrals to relevant government institutions and services, direct assistance through to psychosocial support. They have been working relentlessly to alleviate the suffering of refugees and help the authorities at the national and local level.

Many persons are afraid for the risk of communicable diseases relatable to the flux of migrants. What is the situation?

According to the findings of the line ministry (Ministry of Health) , there is no risk from communicable diseases. Many persons who arrived in mid-2015 were treated from exhaustion, dehydration and minor injuries. , Currently, according to the national medical institutions, refugees and asylum-seekers are mainly treated for the illnesses that the general population also experiences. Those with serious or chronic medical conditions as well as pregnant women are referred to specialised medical services/secondary health care institutions. Special emphasis is also placed on immunisation of children in line with the relevant national protocols.

How would you evaluate the cooperation with police offices and the coordination with the various administrative bodies of the Republic of Serbia and which are the areas for improvements?

UNHCR opened an office in Belgrade (then SFR Yugoslavia) back in 1976 at the invitation of the Government. Since then, we have cooperated with all the bodies mandated for one or several aspects of our work: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, Commissariat for Refugees (and Migration as of 2008), Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Affairs, Ministry of Health as well as bodies at the local level.

The collaboration has been further strengthened also through co-chairing various sectoral working groups established with the aim of avoiding duplication of efforts. UNHCR will continue supporting the authorities to improve the existing accommodation capacities and provide new if needed, the local services and communities, working with the authorities on improving the asylum process.

In the current refugee and migrant crisis, UNHCR has supported the Government of Serbia with up to USD 20 million in 2015 and 2016.

Snow in reception camp in Presevo

Snow in reception camp in Presevo

As we already said, migration is not a temporary phenomenon. What is (if any) the long term strategy to tackle the immigration in Serbia and the Balkans?

Ever since the spring of 2015, the High Commissioner for Refugees has proposed orderly, harmonised procedures that – carried by in the spirit of true international solidarity – address the needs of refugees wherever they can be addressed best. That means more efforts to contain and stop conflicts and persecution that create refugees, massively supporting protection and solutions in first countries of asylum such as Turkey or Lebanon, as well as legal pathways for particularly vulnerable refugees – including more resettlement and family-reunification – to find protection elsewhere if and as needed. In December 2016, UNHCR reissued these recommendations for Better Protecting Refugees in the EU and Globally: UNHCR’s proposals to rebuild trust through better management, partnership and solidarity. Also here in Serbia the UN Refugee Agency is supporting orderly family reunion and refugee resettlement to other countries, while the International Organisation for Migration assists the voluntary return of migrants. In the right environment, this could be up-scaled substantively.

Functioning refugee protection is supported by effective migration management. Effective law enforcement, detecting and arresting smugglers, goes hand-in-hand with effective humanitarian action for their victims. States of origin must accept back their citizens without obstacles, if it has been determined in fair and efficient procedures that they do not need international protection, that they are not refugees. If states do not put in place protection sensitive procedures, opportunities for smugglers and economic migrants, including criminals and extremists, are created to abuse the asylum system.

Interview by Biagio Carrano

Photo by courtesy of Public Information Unit, UNHCR Representation in Serbia

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