Human Rights Watch reported today that asylum seekers and migrants in Serbia experience harassment and abuse at the hands of Serbian police. Human Rights Watch interviewed migrants and asylum seekers who described violent assaults, threats, insults, extortion, denial of the required special protection for unaccompanied children, and summary returns to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Some families and unaccompanied children said they had been turned away when they tried to register as asylum seekers and were sleeping outside in the bitter cold.
“Serbian authorities should be protecting asylum seekers and immigrants, including children fleeing war and persecution, not allowing the police to victimize them,” said Emina Ćerimović, Koenig fellow at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should put an immediate stop to police intimidation and abuse and hold those responsible to account.”
Between November 2014 and January 2015, Human Rights Watch interviewed 81 asylum seekers. Twenty migrants and asylum seekers, including seven children ages 13 to 17, described extortion and abuse by police officers in and near Subotica. Most are Syrians or Afghans. They said the police stopped them on the street or found them in the Ciglana brick factory, a makeshift camp for migrants. They said the police forced them to hand over their money and mobile phones, insulting them and threatening violence and deportation. Five, including children, said the police hit, kicked, and punched them. Two said police shot them in the eyes with pepper spray.
Serbia not granting asylums
In this past year alone 16,500 people asked for asylum in Serbia, which is more than twice what it was in 2013 when Serbia received 7, 000 asylum requests, according to Commissariat for Refugees and Migration. Despite those numbers, Serbia is tragically slow in deciding on asylum requests: only 7 people received asylum, or, as Commissioner for Refugees and Migration Vladimir Cucić says, “waited til the end of the process”.
In other words, 0.042 % of all undocumented migrants received asylum in this Balkan country.
As part of its bid to join the European Union, Serbia has modernized its asylum laws. Article 46 of the Asylum Act lays down a general obligation of the Republic of Serbia to: commensurate with its capacities, ensure conditions for the integration of refugees in social, cultural and economic life and facilitate the naturalization of the refugees. Not much has yet been done to enable their integration, and funds in the budget for that purpose are seen as insufficient after historical floods that hit Serbia last year.
Democrats and far right together against migrants
In 2014 and 2013 citizens of the city of Mladenovac organized demonstrations against migrants. First time over 1.000 took the streets to oppose opening of the asylum center in their little town not far from capital city of Serbia. Near by muncipalities Topola and Smederevska Palanka and their mayors supported demonstrants. Second time protests hit the streets of village Mala Vrbica, and caused a lots of fuss because at that point far right movement “Dveri” co-organized protests with political party that is traditionally perceived as center /left party. Democrat party leader Branimir Kuzmanović , who was a candidate for chairman of Democratic party in internal elections in 2012, and American National Democratic Institute (NDI) instructor, supported protest because allegedly “Mladenovac is not good location for asylum center”.
Heart-breaking testimony of whistleblower
Nonetheless, Human Rights Watch is years behind with drawing attention to mistreatment of undocumented migrants and refugees from war zones is Serbia. In 2013 Serbian whistleblowing site Pištaljka published a publication related to whistleblowers in Serbia. From over 30 testimonies, most of the people who exposed corruption, abuse of power and violence actually had that in their job description – they were either judges, professors on Law faculty, or inspectors employed in government. Most of them answered “no” when they were asked “Would you report it again”.
Ms. Svetlana Jovanović worked as Adviser to the exercise of rights of returnees and primary acceptance by readmission in Commissariat for Refugees. Ms Jovanović reported suspicions of corruption at the asylum center in Bogovađa; she suspected that money is taken from asylum seekers to apply for granted leave, and for accommodation.
“I reported irregularities in the work of the administrator of the Asylum Stojan Sjekloca. It is also a case of nepotism, because Stojan Sjekloća, cousin Commissioner Vladimir Ćućić, employed in the centre, did not take into account health care of refugees and introduced the asylum seekers to forced labor. One of the asylum seekers was abused for two days and was put on starvation regime, yet the third day he was forced t o perform hard physical work”, testified Svetlana Jovanovic (read the full story)
Bogovađa Center has only 200 beds, and no capacity to accommodate all immigrants. Hundreds of them are forced to wait for some people leave the city and fail to cross the border with the European Union, which is the goal of most of them. Meanwhile, those who are lucky top get accomodation get a meal once a day.
Illegal migrants from Kosovo attempting to get a-hold in “Fort Europa” via Serbia
Number of attempts to illegally cross the border on “Western Balkans route” has been dramatically increased. Only on Serbian border to Hungary 12, 000 attempts of illegal crossing was registered in December 2014. Among the identified people trying to escape to EU were numerous inhabitants of Kosovo (40%) and people from Afghanistan.
Current situation on Kosovo is dramatic because of poverty, and migration rate is high regardless of being pacified with Serbia, and that there is no horrors of persecution and murder. It is estimated that since the autumn of 2014. more than 50,000 residents have left Kosovo. Official numbers from Eurostat show that last year 37,000 inhabitants of Kosovo sought asylum in the EU. Many schools disbanded the entire classes because children went with their parents in emigration, and from villages number of people who migrated went up to 10% of the population.
Dramatic is the very way in which these migrations are operated. Persons who possess documents issued on Kosovo are not consdidered “illegal” in Serbia; with their documents they have granted implicit transit visa in Serbia, valid for 15 days. This s based on an agreement between Belgrade and Pristina on the expansion of freedom of movement reached in September 2014. This agreement enabled the smooth transit through Serbia to people who lived in Kosovo and have proper documents, which is why “Western Balkans route” became unexpectedly wide channel of migration.