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.
The countries in the region are obliged to find durable solutions for refugees. Upon the initiative of the European Commission, OSCE and UN, representatives of countries in the region: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro adopted the Sarajevo Declaration in January 2005 by which they were committed to facilitate the process of return or local integration in their countries and agreed on joint activities and mutual cooperation. However, the Sarajevo process remains stalled, despite additional encouragement and initiatives of the international community.
The annual report of the European Commission reveals that the Republic of Serbia is the country with the largest number of refugees and internally displaced persons in Europe. The number of refugees from the republics of the former SFRY in the Republic of Serbia decreased by more than 80% in the period between 1996 and 2010. 538,000 refugees and 72,000 war-affected persons were listed in the census of refugees and war-affected persons in 1996, 346,000 persons in the census of 2001, and 104,246 persons in the registration of refugees in 2004/2005.
In 2010, Serbia has 82,600 registered refugees, of which 61,200 from Croatia and 21,400 from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The reduction in the number of refugees is largely the result of their integration into the Republic of Serbia. About 300,000 refugees have acquired the citizenship of the Republic of Serbia. Through the process of return, implemented with varying success in BiH and Croatia, the number of refugees has decreased by another 149,000. It is also estimated that another 49,000 refugees have found refuge in third countries.
Although the number of persons with formally recognised refugee status has dropped significantly, the Republic of Serbia still has 300,000 people essentially in the position of refugees, which represents 4% of its total population. In 2008, the UNHCR classified Serbia among five countries in the world with the protracted refugee situation whose resolution requires a joint action and cooperation of the countries in the region, with the support of the international community.
Local integration of refugees in Serbia is not only a voluminous, but also an expensive process, the nature and extent of which go beyond humanitarian programmes. The primary responsibility for integration lies with the Government of the Republic of Serbia. However, the still fragile economy and the high level of poverty of the general population in Serbia create an environment in which it is difficult to set aside sufficient funds for various integration programmes. Therefore it is necessary to attract the attention of international and bilateral donors to support development programmes of the Republic of Serbia. To achieve this, it is essential that integration of refugees finds its place in the wider system of social and development policy, and that refugees are treated as one of the vulnerable population groups, with all its specific characteristics.
Integration of refugees in Serbia and sustainable return of refugees to Croatia is greatly restricted and slowed down by the difficult access to property and other rights acquired in countries of origin. Besides employment, housing is the most important precondition for the return of refugees and their families. According to the OSCE estimates, about 100,000 Serbian refugees from urban areas have been affected by the deprivation of tenancy rights in Croatia. While international documents and decisions put the issue of tenancy rights violation in the human rights framework, the Croatian government treats it solely as a humanitarian issue. In the case Vojnovic v. Croatia, the UN Committee on Human Rights took the view that the abolition of tenancy rights under Croatian law is an arbitrary interference with the right to a home, which is a violation of Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The existing legal framework related to housing is incomplete, fragmented and does not ensure equality of citizens before the law and their legal security. The housing programme is not transparent; it is unpredictable and often left to arbitrary decisions. Due to the present restrictive conditions, the Housing Programme will provide accommodation for a very limited number of former tenancy rights holders (only about 5% - 10% of refugees whose tenancy rights have been taken away).
Having in mind the severity of the problem, its continuing negative consequences for some 100,000 refugees who have been denied return to their homes, mostly in urban areas, as well as the failure of negotiations and alternative measures created to meet the needs of these people, it is essential that this issue is finally resolved in a comprehensive, equitable and sustainable manner, in accordance with international human rights standards and international legal obligations of the Republic of Croatia.
According to the number of internally displaced persons, with 205,000 displaced persons from Kosovo, Serbia is among the top 20 countries in the world. The majority are Serbs (68%), followed by Roma (12%) and Montenegrins (8%). Internally displaced persons are different from refugees both in terms of their status and the way their problems are solved.
Since they have not crossed an international border, and in the absence of binding international system that would protect them, the responsibility for the situation of displaced persons lies primarily in their homeland, which must offer them complete equality with other citizens. In practice, which is the case with Serbia, displaced persons are exposed to numerous problems in exercising their basic civil, economic and social rights, such as obtaining identification documents, realisation of property rights, access to health care, social assistance, rights to adequate housing, etc. Without special protection measures, the legal equality that IDPs reportedly enjoy often leads to discrimination, i.e. the inability to realise human rights and difficulties in accessing public services.
Internally displaced persons are among the most vulnerable groups in society in terms of poverty. According to the living standards survey, poverty among IDPs is more than double the general population. Out of the total number of IDPs, 14.5% lived at or below living standards, while the percentage in the total population was 6.8%. The survey was conducted before the great economic crisis that has significantly impoverished a large portion of the Serbian population. Roma IDPs are in the most difficult situation. Many of them do not have personal documents, which hinders their access to employment, health care and social welfare services.
After more than ten years of displacement, the situation of IDPs is further aggravated. The reasons for this are the depletion of funds and property that IDPs have taken with them, the inability to use property left in Kosovo, the problems in the realisation of social benefits, withdrawal of humanitarian assistance and closure of collective centres.
Since the Serbian authorities were solely focused on the return of displaced persons to Kosovo and Metohija, the activities of major international organisations were limited to proposing measures within the possibilities of return. On different initiatives, the Serbian authorities have often responded that integration projects for the displaced could be considered only when the conditions for their return to Kosovo and Metohija were made possible. The position that the freedom of choice between return and integration could be discussed only when the conditions for the return were met has led to a situation where IDPs have no opportunity to permanently resolve their situation, i.e. they can neither return nor integrate.
Given that it is assessed that the politics of open advocacy for the integration of displaced people is a politically oversensitive issue, insisting on access to rights and respect for the dignified way of life is the way for international nongovernmental organisations to initiate measures to promote the realisation of rights of people in places of displacement through contacts with Serbian authorities.
In the report following his visit to Serbia in 2005, Walter Kalin, Special Representative of UN Secretary General for Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons said that the integration and return were not mutually exclusive and that the quality of life in places of displacement could not mean giving up the return.
In his latest report in 2009, Walter Kalin recognised the change in policy towards IDPs, in terms of housing and commended the authorities of Serbia. “Positive and concrete progress since my last visit is that the institutions such as the Commissariat for Refugees have started assistance programmes (such as housing programmes) for displaced persons for leaving collective centres where living conditions are terrible:” and added: “ If you want to provide internally displaced persons with real chances for return, you must first enable them to live normally”. Kalin noticed that a small number of residents of collective centres registered for the planned return programme.
According to UNHCR, ten years after the conflict, only 19,244 members of minority groups have returned to Kosovo, of which only 8,539 Serbs, even though they are most represented among internally displaced persons. IDPs have returned, mostly in predominantly Serbian, rural parts of Kosovo, and Kosovo's declaration of independence has greatly slowed down the process of return.
The return has usually taken place in rural areas where Serbs are a majority, thus creating ethnically separated returnee ghettoes. The main reasons for the small number of returnees are: poor security situation coupled with the weak and overburdened judiciary; inability to use, recover and restore property; reluctance of the police to investigate cases of violence; impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity; lack of freedom of movement; weak rule of law (especially in some municipalities); poor economic prospects and the discriminatory practices that deny the access to employment in public and private sectors for returnees; prolonged and unjustified delays in connecting water and electricity to restored houses of minority returnees; inaccessibility of schools in which the language of minority returnees is used; problems in accessing pensions and health insurance, and non-participation in the privatisation of socially owned enterprises.
A large number of Serbian nationals who have been rejected asylum in countries of Western Europe or have been terminated temporary protection assigned for the purpose of their humanitarian care during the conflicts in the territory of the former Yugoslavia are being returned to Serbia. The return of these people is carried out according to the obligations undertaken by Serbia with readmission agreements as one of the steps towards European integrations. Readmission agreements are related primarily to people who should be forcibly deported, and formally do not include people who have returned “voluntarily” and those who have complied with the orders of Western governments to leave the country and avoid being returned by the police. One year after the abolition of visas for travelling to EU countries, many citizens of Serbia comprehend the right to visa-free travel as an opportunity to solve their social problems by filing asylum claims. They are mostly Roma and Albanians from southern Serbia. All these asylum claims are being rejected as unfounded. If this trend continues there is a danger that the decision for visa abolition is suspended.
Western countries and Serbia lack a reliable, timely, comprehensive statistics and the analysis of real and assumed number of returnees to Serbia, their needs, socio-economic status, demographic characteristics and place of origin in Serbia or in Kosovo and Metohija. The problem of returnees in a way overlaps with the minority, Roma issue in Serbia, since the majority of returnees are Roma. These people lack the system of social networks that would support their reintegration in the society. Moreover, due to the long period they spent abroad, the fact they do not speak the language and are deprived of their property, returnees are an especially vulnerable group within the Roma population.
On November 30, 2009, the EU Council of Ministers abolished visas for citizens of Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. A year later, on November 8, visa-free regime spread to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania. In the Western Balkans, the visa-free regime is not applied only in Kosovo. In a separate statement, the European Commission has pointed out that in cases of irregularities in the visa liberalisation regime, the measure of temporary cancellation of visa-free travel regime to the EU might be taken. In 2010, with 28,900 applications for asylum, Serbia (including Kosovo) was in the first place in the world. The UNHCR Statistical Yearbook of UNHCR Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries gives an overview of the total number of asylum seekers from Serbia, and from Kosovo. Based on the statistical report by Eurostat for the 27 countries of the European Union, Serbia (excluding Kosovo) was in the third place based on the number of filed applications for asylum (17.71), behind the citizens of Afghanistan and Russia. A number of German politicians have warned the authorities in Serbia that the decision on visa abolition for citizens of Serbia and Macedonia could be suspended if the influx of people applying for asylum is not reduced.
After the lifting of visa regime Serbian government failed to explain the substance of the visa liberalisation - that it could be used only for touristic travelling or visiting of relatives. The asylum system in Western countries is being abused by Serb nationals as a back-door for illegal migration. The informative campaign should be conducted in order to explain that economic reasons and poverty could not be grounds for granting asylum. Due to the lack of information many people have unrealistic perception of the situation in western countries. Some people have even spent large amounts of money just to lodge an asylum application. There are indications that some of them have been deliberately deceived.
The Republic of Serbia is a state party to the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees of 1951 and an Additional Protocol on the Status of Refugees of 1967, and is thus bound to respect and implement provisions of these agreements. Serbia is also bound by the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the European Communities and their Member States. In SAA Serbia is committed to approximate legislation in the relevant sectors to that of the Community, and to effectively implement it. The Serbian government has set the establishment of the asylum system as one of the important tasks in all the key documents within European integration.
The Asylum Act was adopted as part of legislation that was to be enacted to fulfil the “Schengen Criteria”, in November 2007. The law came into force on April 1, 2008. Although Serbia is still not formally bound by the standards established by the EU directives and regulations in the field of asylum, the existing law was being developed in compliance with the standards.
From the moment the Asylum Act began to be applied until the end of 2010, there was a steady increase in the number of registered asylum seekers in Serbia. Specifically, in 2008 there were 77 people registered, while during 2010 there were 522 registered asylum seekers. In the same period, 5 asylum claims were positively resolved, 5 were granted subsidiary protection and no one was granted the refugee status (in 2009, 4 four subsidiary protections were granted, and in 2010 one subsidiary protection). Serbia has been marked as a transit station of a large number of irregular migrants on their way to Western Europe. They reach the competent authorities of Serbia mostly through the territory of Macedonia or Kosovo and Metohija, transferred from the territory of Greece (to Greece they usually come from Turkey). In addition to nationals of Afghanistan who are the most numerous, the nationals of Palestine, Somalia and Pakistan use a similar "route".
The increase in the number of irregular migrants in Serbia has resulted in a growing number of asylum applications, which is a consequence of (in)sufficient knowledge of the asylum system of people who find themselves in the territory of Serbia. The behavioural pattern of majority of these individuals provides the basis for the claim that in most cases, according to asylum applications (expressed intent), they were the so-called irregular migrants without real intention to seek asylum in the Republic of Serbia. Of course this does not lead to the conclusion that among them there is no and will not be the persons with proper grounds for seeking asylum.
They come to Serbia with accurate information about their rights related to the current system and with information on the ways to avoid situations that are punishable under the laws of the Republic of Serbia. They are informed that the formal claim filed in Serbia (argumentum a fortiori expression of intent to seek asylum) does not prevent them from seeking asylum in EU countries, and they file asylum claim in order to make a break and prepare for further journey. Although these individuals express an intention to seek asylum, and apply for asylum, most of them disappear before the decision, usually the first instance one is made.
The growing trend in the number of asylum claims has definitely "surprised" the authorities in this field. The current capacities could meet the number of claims filed in Serbia in the period before 2009. In the future, it is necessary to establish not only the institutions that can respond to current challenges of the factual situation, but also the institutions that will be able to respond to changes that will be necessary in the asylum system, primarily in order to harmonise the system with the standards in this area imposed by the EU.
Brooking Institution – University of Bern, Protecting Internally Displaced Persons: A Manual for Law and Policymakers, October 2008.
Commissariat for Refugees of RS, Conditions and Needs of Refugees in RS, December 2009.
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