On the ground in Serbia

On the ground in Serbia

There are currently approx. 6000 refugees and asylum seekers stuck in Serbia. There are 17 official camps, a number of squats in urban locations and some permitted sites ran by volunteer groups and other NGOs. The situation here is not the same as Bulgaria or Hungary where the general population is regularly fiercely hostile to refugees. Many people in Serbia appear more sympathetic to migrants, yet violence does still occur, especially in the border regions (#link to border violence email newsletter). Strong prejudice against Roma communities can also sweep dark skinned refugees into this sphere.

The camp situation is, like Greece, managed by Government commissariat and either the Ministry of Defence or Ministry of Social Welfare, though different departments are involved with other aspects of refugee provision. MoD and MoSW do not run their respective camps in the the same way. MoD camps are close to Belgrade with adult male populations and many boys and teenagers. MoSW camps are closer to Bulgarian and Hungarian borders, they include family camps. They are reported to have much greater provision such as schooling, and be managed with a more considerate approach than the MoD camps. The biggest camp, Obrenovac, is 45 minutes outside of Belgrade with a population that fluctuates between 700-1000 people. It is in an army base, other camps are in various factory, old military facilities and campsite locations.

These replace the desperate situation of informal camps that existed before, notably the infamous Belgrade Barracks, scene of so much suffering last winter. The current camps are mostly shared dorm accommodation, but a few have tents. Two meals a day are provided by catering companies or through volunteer NGOs in partnership with groups such as Oxfam. The MoD camps are pleasant and although it remains nervous, the government is now encouraging activities such as sports and recreation. The EU is assisting the Serbian government with camp funding including food, infrastructure and some other social projects. However it is reported that funding is tight and it is not clear how long the EU plans to continue provision. For now the camps are open and residents can move freely, however volunteers report that this has not always been the case. There have been instances where movement in and out is suddenly restricted without warning. Groups have also witnessed arbitrary arrests and sudden rounding up of sections of camp populations to detention facilities.

MSF and others have stated that mid-term government strategy is to move to a detention centre or ‘hotspot’ system once the refugee numbers have decreased to a manageable level. This would look somewhere between the open prison system operating on the Greek islands and the migration detention facilities operating in many European countries (for instance Yarls Wood in UK). Additionally the Serbian asylum system is notoriously difficult to negotiate, with less than 150 successful applications in the past two years. This gradual transfer towards a smaller detention system is tacit acceptance that many of these migrants will cross illegally through closed borders into Hungary or the more popular route through Croatia.

The majority of migrants in Serbia are from Afghanistan and so do not qualify for European relocation schemes, but are highly likely to still be due international protection as refugees. There are also many from northern Pakistan, Eritrea and a host of other African and Asian countries. The situation here remains serious, with smuggler gangs both providing hope to these stuck populations and exacting a cruel cost including extortion, kidnapping and violence. As is always the case, certain individuals in the police, border authorities and other official bodies are complicit in both the smuggling and the sometimes illegal and violent operations to counteract illegal crossings.

Regionally this is still a tense political situation, as Balkan countries as well as the wider European community struggle to create cohesive policy. Locally refugees in Serbia are treated with varying dignity and compassion, but they are undeniably seen as an unwanted problem by the state. The state wants to reduce visibility of refugees in public spaces, putting restrictions on where they can congregate and banning activities like football in certain parks. It is the height of summer now, but the freezing Serbian winter remains fresh in the refugees’ minds. Winterisation planning for camps is not yet being discussed by the government.

Refugee organisations such as BelgrAID (facebook.com/belgraid/) are working with INGOs to stockpile winter clothing and bedding and are appealing for funding to help with insulation and other infrastructure assistance for camps and highly vulnerable urban populations.