Serbia: A life in limbo for refugees and migrants

The European Commission, through its Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations department, has allocated more than €20.1 million to assist the Serbian government in providing shelter and basic services to refugees and migrants. Read their stories.

It’s been a long journey for 27-year-old Aziz Hussain. “I was on the road for eight months,” he explains. “From Islamabad in Pakistan I travelled through Iran, Turkey, Greece, but now I have been stuck here for 6 months.

27-year-old Aziz. © EU/ECHO/Mathias Eick

“Here” is Serbia, the Balkan nation bordering EU Member States Hungary and Croatia, two countries at the front line in the EU migration crisis.

Aziz, who studied to be a pharmacist, recounts why he had travelled towards Europe, “We have bombs, we have gangs, but most of all, we have terrible corruption,” he explains. Having arrived in Serbia some six months ago, Aziz at first slept rough in the centre of Belgrade.

Finally, after conditions deteriorated over the winter, the refugees and migrants in central Belgrade moved to disused military barracks in nearby Obrenovac, a suburban Belgrade municipality. The barrack-type housing in Krnjaca has seen many waves of refugees, starting with the Serbian refugees from the wars in Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990’s, to the Serbs fleeing Kosovo in 1999–2000.

With the financial support of the EU, the UN Refugee Agency, UNICEF, Oxfam International and BelgrAid, several buildings have been renovated to accommodate some 1000 refugees and migrants, and basic services are being provided. Cooked food is served daily while UNICEF and SOS Children’s Village have equipped a “social centre”, including a music sound system and IT facilities. This allows the organisations to offer a variety of activities such as language courses in English and Serbian, basic IT skills, and cultural events. Aziz appreciates these efforts, “We really needed these activities as most guys were just hanging around with nothing to do.

One remarkable feature of Obrenovac is the large number of unaccompanied minors amongst the refugees and migrants. In July, the centre accommodated 900 men, of that number, around 300 were unaccompanied minors. According to Serbia’s Commissariat for Refugees, there are approximately 700 unaccompanied or separated children in Serbia, out of a total refugee and migrant population of around 4000.

Food preparation in a centre in Obranova, Serbia. © EU/ECHO/Mathias Eick

Despite all the efforts to provide for the refugees and migrants, most of them spend their days in small groups huddled under trees, idle as life passes by. Their lives in Obrenovac appear to be in suspension. “Nobody wants to stay,” explains Aziz.

The frustration of being “stuck” in Serbia is taking a toll. As Diba Rezuli, a 16-year-old girl who fled northern Afghanistan with her parents and three brothers more than a year ago explains in tears, “My mother has high blood pressure from the months of worry. We just want to be able to settle in a country where we can live normal lives.

For refugee and migrant families stranded in Serbia, options are even more limited. Mukhinu Masoudi, a former police officer fled Afghanistan two years ago with his wife and four children fearing the growing threat of the Taliban. He has another son, 18 years old, who is in Austria. They have been living in a center in Krnjaca for close to a year hoping and waiting to move to Germany.

Regional information officer Mathias Eick (back, second to the left) with Masoudi (left) and his family. © UNICEF

Masoudi does not see a future for himself and his family in Serbia, “We know that Serbia has its own economic problems,” explains Masoudi. “If we stayed in Serbia, would we ever be able to build a normal life?” His children have been attending Serbian language classes and they hope that with the help of UNICEF they will soon be able to attend local public schools.

Like most refugees and migrants, Masoudi has not tried to apply for refugee status in Serbia, given the low success rate. In the first half of 2017, Serbia only accorded refugee status to one person out of over 3000 applications*[1] .

Masoudi hopes that he will soon be able to leave Serbia legally as Hungary is currently accepting up to 50 people per week to have their asylum applications processed in closed camps near the border with Serbia. However many are afraid that the Hungarians will implement the “Dublin Regulation” and repatriate them to Greece or Bulgaria if they have already been registered as refugees there.

Yahiha, a 17-year-old teenager who fled Afghanistan. © EU/ECHO/Mathias Eick

While families such as Masoudi’s and many of the young men such as Aziz still hope to cross into the EU, there are some who do want to take up the opportunities available in Serbia. Yahiha, a 17-year-old teenager from Kabul, hopes to become a dentist. Together with a group of friends, he travelled for three months from Afghanistan until he arrived in Serbia. After eight months in Krnjaca, he has vastly improved his English and can converse easily in Serbian.

First I wanted to go to Germany,” he explains.

But since the border closed I have studied hard and maybe I will be able to study here in Serbia.

[1] UNHCR figures, January — June 2017

Some 4000 people have become stranded in Serbia and are hosted in government run reception centres in the west and the south of the country. The European Commission, through its Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations department, has allocated more than €20.1 million to assist the Serbian government in providing shelter and basic services to the refugees and migrants. Projects include providing basic health services, warm clothing, food, water, child-friendly spaces and protection. Since the closure of the so-called Western Balkans migration route in March 2016 and the entry into force of the EU-Turkey statement, the number of refuges and migrants reaching Serbia has dropped significantly.

By Mathias Eick, Regional Information Officer, EU Humanitarian Aid

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