Refugees in an abandoned building in the southwest of Serbia. Photo: klikAktiv

Serbia stands as the final country along the so-called Balkan refugee route that lies outside the European Union, yet shares borders with four EU member states. In this context, we can witness efforts to fortify the external European borders. Milica Svabic, part of our partner organization klikAktiv, provides further insights into the situation.

Mili­ca, at first: Who are you, who is klik­Ak­tiv and what are you doing?

My name is Mili­ca Sva­bic. I’m a lawy­er in Ser­bi­an orga­niza­ti­on cal­led klik­Ak­tiv which pro­vi­des free legal aid and psy­cho­so­cial sup­port to peo­p­le on the move, asyl­um see­kers and refu­gees in Serbia.

Klik­Ak­tiv was foun­ded in 2014 as an orga­niza­ti­on for psy­cho­lo­gi­cal and medi­cal aid for home­l­ess peo­p­le. One year later, with the so-cal­led refu­gee cri­sis on the Bal­kan, it shifted its acti­vi­ties towards peo­p­le on the move.

Klik­Ak­tiv curr­ent­ly has six team mem­bers. Lawy­ers, pro­ject mana­ger, social workers and cul­tu­ral media­tors. We don’t have a major donor and I think this is real­ly good, becau­se it keeps us inde­pen­dent. We get our funds from dif­fe­rent foun­da­ti­ons and orga­niza­ti­ons, most­ly based in the Euro­pean Uni­on – as PRO ASYL. We are working tog­e­ther sin­ce Janu­ary 2022.

In the last five years the majo­ri­ty of peo­p­le who are stuck in Ser­bia don’t have access to asyl­um pro­ce­du­re and sta­te pro­tec­tion in Ser­bia. So we are try­ing to reach tho­se peo­p­le, most often loca­ted at Ser­bi­an Nor­t­hern bor­ders, which are at the same time EU exter­nal borders.

So, how is the situa­ti­on at the Ser­bi­an bor­ders right now?

Ser­bia is the final non-EU coun­try on the so-cal­led Bal­kan refu­gee rou­te. The majo­ri­ty of peo­p­le con­ti­nue to   enter Ser­bia at the sou­thern bor­der, coming from the direc­tion of Bul­ga­ria.  In recent months, howe­ver, the rou­te via North Mace­do­nia have beco­me incre­asing­ly important. Last year, we also noti­ced an alar­ming increase in the num­ber of push­backs from Ser­bi­an ter­ri­to­ry. This increase cor­re­sponds with the pre­sence of Fron­tex on this border.

Also, not only Fron­tex but other for­eign poli­ce offi­cers are pre­sent on the Ser­bi­an sou­thern bor­ders based on bila­te­ral agreements.

For many years alre­a­dy, Ser­bi­an nor­t­hern bor­ders were hea­vi­ly affec­ted by push­back prac­ti­ces. This remains the case. We are docu­men­ting unlawful push­backs and a lot of poli­ce vio­lence at all four bor­ders: the bor­der bet­ween Bos­nia and Ser­bia and the three EU exter­nal bor­ders to Croa­tia, Hun­ga­ry and Romania.

»Ser­bi­an govern­ment is fol­lo­wing the far right poli­ci­es like in other Euro­pean count­ries as well – and they don’t actual­ly want peo­p­le to stay.«

Mili­ca Sva­bic, klikAktiv

You men­tio­ned the pre­sence of Fron­tex cor­re­sponds with incre­asing bor­der vio­lence – could you say in which ways?

So alt­hough Ser­bia is not a mem­ber of the EU, we have Fron­tex pre­sence. Ser­bia signed the agree­ment with Fron­tex in 2019 and in 2021 the first Fron­tex offi­cers came to Ser­bia. At the begin­ning, they were only pre­sent at the bor­der bet­ween Ser­bia and Bul­ga­ria. Over the time they gai­ned pre­sence at the bor­der with North Mace­do­nia and also on the Ser­bi­an nor­t­hern bor­ders. Until the end of Octo­ber last year, the majo­ri­ty of peo­p­le were try­ing to lea­ve Ser­bia through Hun­ga­ry. Then the­re was a huge shift in the rou­te, now most peo­p­le are exi­ting Ser­bia to Croa­tia and Bos­nia-Her­ce­go­vina. When Fron­tex beca­me pre­sent on the Ser­bi­an ter­ri­to­ry, we star­ted see­ing more push­backs from the south, but also we star­ted noti­cing more poli­ce vio­lence on the north borders.

It’s very dif­fi­cult to deter­mi­ne the invol­vement of Fron­tex in the­se unlawful ope­ra­ti­ons. What we see on the ground is that Fron­tex offi­cers are not pro­per­ly mark­ed, and often peo­p­le on the move can not assign the per­pe­tra­tors to a unit with cer­tain­ty. Howe­ver, very fre­quent­ly we do hear about vio­lence and push­backs by for­eign poli­ce offi­cers who are pre­sent on the Ser­bi­an ter­ri­to­ry. But it’s dif­fi­cult to estab­lish whe­ther they were pre­sent as part of Fron­tex mis­si­on or as part of bila­te­ral agree­ments that Ser­bia has with the­se states.

How is the actu­al situa­ti­on in the camps in the north?

Curr­ent­ly, all camps in the north of Ser­bia are clo­sed. They were clo­sed at the end of last year in Decem­ber, after the big poli­ce action which star­ted in October.

The­re has been a shoo­ting bet­ween rival smugg­ling gangs and three peo­p­le died – after that, the poli­ce ope­ra­ti­on began. While the level of vio­lence has taken on new dimen­si­ons, the poli­ce ope­ra­ti­on was nevert­hel­ess direc­ted against peo­p­le see­king pro­tec­tion, who are them­sel­ves affec­ted by this vio­lence, and not pri­ma­ri­ly against the traf­fi­cking gangs. Befo­re, the­re have been more than 35 infor­mal sett­le­ments on the north of Ser­bia and three offi­ci­al sta­te run camps. They all have been evic­ted. It’s unclear why they evic­ted the offi­ci­al camps as well but the­re is not a sin­gle per­son left the­re at the moment.

They seem to expand the capa­ci­ties the­re now. We heard seve­ral rumours and dif­fe­rent sto­ries of what might hap­pen with tho­se camps. One of them is that it might ser­ve to accom­mo­da­te peo­p­le who will be retur­ned from the neigh­bou­ring mem­ber sta­tes, based on read­mis­si­on agree­ment. Other rumours are that they might ser­ve as EU tran­sit camps on for­eign soil in the future or as natio­nal detenti­on centers.

Dis­hes left behind in the forest in Batrov­ci, near the Croa­ti­an bor­der. Pho­to: klikAktiv
Camp­fi­res are lit in the unof­fi­ci­al camps to com­bat the cold, like here in Sje­ni­ca. Pho­to: klikAktiv

Whe­re did the peo­p­le living in tho­se camps go to?

Peo­p­le were trans­fer­red to the camps in the south. Unfort­u­na­te­ly, also many peo­p­le were kept in detenti­on cen­ter and in gene­ral jails for the offen­se of ille­gal resi­den­cy, and it’s very likely that many peo­p­le were also pushed back to Bul­ga­ria and North Macedonia.

Tho­se camps in the south, how is the situa­ti­on there? 

When this poli­ce action star­ted at the end of Octo­ber, all of the camps were over the capa­ci­ty and they were quite full. And for a few days peo­p­le were not allo­wed to lea­ve the camps. We know that Ser­bi­an poli­ce, tog­e­ther with Euro­pol, was pre­sent in all of the camps and they took the fin­ger­prints and per­so­nal data of peo­p­le. It’s unclear for what pur­po­se and who will have access to this data. After a few days, camps were open and peo­p­le were allo­wed to move free­ly. Majo­ri­ty of peo­p­le at that time left towards Bos­nia and Her­ce­go­vina – and what we hear from peo­p­le is that they were also encou­ra­ged by the Ser­bi­an poli­ce to take this rou­te. As a result, the situa­ti­on in the camps has eased and they are no lon­ger overcrowded.

So on one side, Ser­bi­an poli­ce is play­ing a good part­ner to the EU, show­ing that they will keep peo­p­le on the Ser­bi­an ter­ri­to­ry. But on the other side, Ser­bi­an govern­ment is fol­lo­wing the far right poli­ci­es like in other Euro­pean count­ries as well – and they don’t actual­ly want peo­p­le to stay. So we also see the encou­ra­ge­ment of the Ser­bi­an poli­ce and Ser­bi­an govern­ment to push peo­p­le fur­ther to the Wes­tern Europe.

Which pro­blems can be obser­ved in the offi­ci­al camps in general?

Ser­bia has 19 sta­te run camps. Accor­ding to the law, peo­p­le can be accom­mo­da­ted in the camps only if they’­re asyl­um see­kers and the poli­ce are the body that should refer an appli­cant to a spe­ci­fic camp. Howe­ver, in prac­ti­ce, Ser­bia has deve­lo­ped the nar­ra­ti­ve of being a tran­sit coun­try, this is lea­ding Serbia’s poli­cy. So camps are dee­med to ser­ve as tem­po­ra­ry accom­mo­da­ti­on only. This crea­tes gre­at con­fu­si­on and ulti­m­ate­ly lea­ves pro­tec­tion see­king peo­p­le wit­hout offi­ci­al sta­tus and sup­port in Serbia.

In prac­ti­se, peo­p­le on the move go direct­ly to a camp whe­re then a regis­tra­ti­on is done by the camp manage­ment – but it’s prac­ti­cal­ly a fake regis­tra­ti­on. They take peo­p­le’s fin­ger­prints, pic­tures, and per­so­nal infor­ma­ti­on. Peo­p­le are then issued what is cal­led a »camp card«. It is a small pie­ce of paper with their pic­tu­re and per­so­nal infor­ma­ti­on. But again: this docu­ment is not pro­clai­med by law, but it makes peo­p­le belie­ve that they have appli­ed for asyl­um and that they have regu­la­ted their resi­den­cy in Ser­bia. The­re is no refer­ral to the office actual­ly respon­si­ble for the asyl­um appli­ca­ti­on. Very often peo­p­le are being kicked out from the camps after some days and left wit­hout any access to help.  At the same time, cri­mi­nal traf­fi­ckers are pre­sent in both the infor­mal and for­mal camps.

In my opi­ni­on, this is one of the big­gest pro­blems in the Ser­bi­an camps. But also vio­lence, which was incre­asing­ly repor­ted in the last few months, both by sta­te insti­tu­ti­ons as well as by cri­mi­nal groups in the offi­ci­al camps, is a major concern.

You say that smugg­ling gangs are acti­ve both out­side the offi­ci­al camps but also inside? 

Yes. It’s very clear that some of the peo­p­le who are in Ser­bia for a very long time have pri­vi­le­ged posi­ti­on in the camps. And it’s quite visi­ble that the sta­te and the Com­mis­sa­ri­at for refu­gees and migra­ti­on, which runs the offi­ci­al camps, are quite sup­port­i­ve of the­se cri­mi­nal groups. Again, they under­stand Ser­bia as a tran­sit coun­try, and the­se groups are »hel­ping« peo­p­le lea­ving Ser­bia. It’s been com­mu­ni­ca­ted quite often in the infor­mal mee­tings that the only way how peo­p­le can actual­ly lea­ve Ser­bia is with the help of smugg­lers and cri­mi­nal groups. Next to this, of cour­se, over the past years we have also seen many cases of cor­rup­ti­on and bri­be­ry in the offi­ci­al camps.

Over­all, Ser­bia is also try­ing to pre­vent access to the pro­cee­dings. But in theo­ry, how should the asyl­um pro­ce­du­re actual­ly work from a legal point of view? 

In theo­ry, it is pos­si­ble to get asyl­um in Ser­bia, but in prac­ti­ce it is quite hard. Ser­bia first estab­lished its natio­nal asyl­um sys­tem in 2008 and from 2008 until today less than 250 peo­p­le got asyl­um, which is an extre­me­ly low reco­gni­ti­on rate. The asyl­um pro­ce­du­re is very bureau­cra­tic, and it’s quite dif­fi­cult to have access to it.

»The poli­ce is doing ever­y­thing pos­si­ble to enable peo­p­le from ente­ring asyl­um procedure.«

Mili­ca Sva­bic, klikAktiv

An appli­ca­ti­on for asyl­um should be lodged with a poli­ce sta­ti­on. In the majo­ri­ty of cities, howe­ver, the poli­ce refu­ses to regis­ter peo­p­le for asyl­um. Ins­tead, the poli­ce regu­lar issues expul­si­on orders, which pre­vent a later appli­ca­ti­on for asyl­um. Hence, the poli­ce is doing ever­y­thing pos­si­ble to enable peo­p­le from ente­ring asyl­um procedure.

For exam­p­le, the­re was this woman from Mon­go­lia. A sin­gle mother of five child­ren. She was stuck in one of the infor­mal sett­le­ments, whe­re she was hea­vi­ly pres­su­red by cri­mi­nal groups to pay addi­tio­nal money in order to take her across the bor­der. She deci­ded to app­ly for asyl­um in Ser­bia. We sup­port­ed her and accom­pa­nied her to two poli­ce sta­ti­ons in the Ser­bi­an north. We infor­med the poli­ce via email that she will arri­ve, about her vul­nerable posi­ti­on and said that she wants to app­ly for asyl­um in Ser­bia. Howe­ver, she was kicked out from both poli­ce sta­ti­ons, and they refu­sed to regis­ter her. At the end she went to one of the offi­ci­al camps, but was not pro­per­ly regis­tra­ti­on – which means that she could not file the asyl­um appli­ca­ti­on. She stay­ed the­re for two weeks and then she dis­ap­peared. We can assu­me that she went back to the cri­mi­nal groups.

Very, very few peo­p­le actual­ly do mana­ge to app­ly for asyl­um, usual­ly with the assis­tance of local NGOs. And then the pro­ce­du­re is very, very long. It takes around one year for peo­p­le to get a decis­i­on in avera­ge. Very often, the first decis­i­on is nega­ti­ve, so then you have to appeal, and the appeal pro­cess can last even lon­ger. Some peo­p­le are in the pro­cess for more than ten years, wai­ting for a posi­ti­ve decis­i­on. All of this is quite dis­cou­ra­ging – and this is the reason also why many peo­p­le don’t see Ser­bia as a final coun­try and move towards other count­ries in Europe.

You men­tio­ned the »expul­si­on orders«. What is that?

An »expul­si­on order« is an admi­nis­tra­ti­ve decis­i­on issued by the Minis­try of Inte­ri­or, which says that the per­son does­n’t have a legal resi­den­cy in Ser­bia and gives them a cer­tain amount of time to lea­ve Ser­bia on a vol­un­t­a­ry basis. In case you don’t obey by the orders of the Minis­try of Inte­ri­or, you can be forceful­ly retur­ned to the coun­try of origin.

And with such an expul­si­on order, you are not allo­wed to app­ly for asylum?

Yes, exact­ly. If you get an expul­si­on order, you can­not app­ly for asyl­um any lon­ger. The Minis­try of Inte­ri­or inter­prets this as a misu­sa­ge of asyl­um, say­ing that you are actual­ly app­ly­ing for asyl­um only to pre­vent depor­ta­ti­on and force rem­oval to the coun­try of origin.

Alre­a­dy ear­lier, you men­tio­ned “read­mis­si­on agree­ments” which ser­ve as ground for retur­ning peo­p­le to Ser­bia. So the­re are agree­ments with EU mem­ber sta­tes to take refu­gees back?

In prac­ti­cal terms, yes. But offi­ci­al­ly it looks a bit dif­fe­rent. Ser­bia has a read­mis­si­on agree­ment with the EU from 2007 and artic­le 3 of this read­mis­si­on agree­ment says that Ser­bia can take third coun­try natio­nals from the ter­ri­to­ry of neigh­bou­ring mem­ber sta­tes if the per­son has ente­red the mem­ber sta­te direct­ly from the ter­ri­to­ry of Ser­bia in the last two years or three years. Even though refu­gees and asyl­um see­kers should remain unaf­fec­ted, they also fall vic­tim to this prac­ti­ce. This is quite often used by the neigh­bou­ring mem­ber states.

We coll­ec­ted mate­ri­al, pro­ofs and tes­ti­mo­nies of peo­p­le being retur­ned from Roma­nia, from Croa­tia or from Hun­ga­ry as well. In prac­ti­ce, if a per­son just says that he or she ente­red the mem­ber sta­te from Ser­bia, this will be enough for tho­se Mem­ber Sta­tes to return them back. And in Ser­bia they don’t have the access to asyl­um again.

This is also one of the big­gest issues in the nego­tia­ti­ons for Ser­bia to join the Euro­pean Uni­on. It’s always empha­si­zed that Ser­bia should admit more third coun­try natio­nals based on read­mis­si­on agree­ments. And this is some­thing that we do see is hap­pe­ning in prac­ti­ce. Howe­ver, this is, again, the dou­ble stan­dards that the Ser­bi­an govern­ment has on one side, peo­p­le are taken back but on the other side, don’t allo­wed to app­ly for asyl­um, they don’t get sup­port or pro­tec­tion – so they will try to get to the Euro­pean Uni­on again.

The bor­der to North Mace­do­nia is being for­ti­fied. Pho­to: klikAktiv
One of the camp ID cards left behind. Pho­to: klikAktiv

Refer­ring to the Ser­bi­an socie­ty, the­re are a lot of peo­p­le with an own refu­gee sto­ry. How is their opi­ni­on on refu­gees and their situa­ti­on in Ser­bia? Is the­re an acti­ve civil socie­ty in this regard?

The peo­p­le wit­hout an own refu­gee histo­ry have the same nar­ra­ti­ve towards the refu­gees today as they had in the 1990s towards the refu­gees from Bos­nia and Croa­tia: »The refu­gees came to take our land, our hou­ses, our jobs«. So even towards the refu­gees from Bos­nia and Croa­tia – and tho­se were peo­p­le who spo­ke the same lan­guage, had the same reli­gi­on, went through same edu­ca­ti­on pro­grams – the peo­p­le in Ser­bia had a nega­ti­ve attitude.

Unfort­u­na­te­ly, when we are tal­king about peo­p­le who have refu­gee expe­ri­ence them­sel­ves, who are ori­gi­nal­ly from Bos­nia and Croa­tia, and now they live in Ser­bia, very often you will get this simi­lar nega­ti­ve nar­ra­ti­ve about the refu­gees from Syria and Afgha­ni­stan and other count­ries even there.

But the­re is also a net­work of civil socie­ty orga­niza­ti­ons which is sup­port­ing peo­p­le on the move, asyl­um see­kers and refu­gees. Unfort­u­na­te­ly, the majo­ri­ty of tho­se civil socie­ty orga­niza­ti­ons has only one big­ger donor, usual­ly the UNHCR or IOM, which means that then they have to fol­low the poli­cy of the­se big inter­na­tio­nal donors. That’s why we are hap­py to be very independent.

Thank you very much, Milica!

klik­Ak­tiv is a Ser­bi­an NGO based in Bel­gra­de. The team offers free and inde­pen­dent legal advice and psy­cho­so­cial sup­port for peo­p­le see­king pro­tec­tion in Ser­bia. The team regu­lar­ly tra­vels to Ser­bia’s EU bor­ders and docu­ments the human rights situa­ti­on of peo­p­le see­king pro­tec­tion the­re. The orga­niza­ti­on has been sup­port­ed by the PRO ASYL Foun­da­ti­on sin­ce 2021.

(Inter­view: mk)