Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
f. Protection of Refugees
Refoulement: Humanitarian organizations noted the government lacked the resources and expertise to provide sufficient protection against refoulement. Various press and humanitarian reports indicated that authorities pushed back irregular migrants without screening them to see if they were seeking asylum. In the first half of year, according to reports provided by UNHCR field staff and partners, 1,022 persons were apprehended and prevented from entering the country’s territory across land borders (48 percent occurred at the border with North Macedonia and 38 percent at the border with Bulgaria). This represented a 350 percent increase in apprehensions, compared to 2018. In addition, according to information attributed to the Ministry of Interior, 1,186 denials occurred at the Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport, representing a significant increase, compared with 2018 (771 denials). There were unconfirmed reports that potential asylum seekers arriving at the Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport, for instance Kurds from Turkey, may be sent back on the next flight. Concerns regarding the practice of the border authorities at the Belgrade International Airport were also expressed in the report of the UN special rapporteur on torture, who noted a number of problems regarding access to the asylum procedure and the conduct of the border authorities at the airport.
The government’s Mixed Migration Group was inactive during the year and did not deliberate on any of the issues in its portfolio or communicate the number of illegal entries prevented.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has a system for giving protection to refugees. The Asylum Office within the Ministry of Interior is responsible for implementing the system but lacked the capacity, resources, and trained staff to do so effectively.
The law provides procedural guarantees to asylum seekers and outlines procedures pertaining to refugee children. It recognizes a range of grounds for granting international protection, including gender-based violence and sexual orientation.
According to UNHCR, the law does not meet international standards by providing for judicial review early in the asylum proceedings or containing safe third country and safe country of origin provisions that align with international standards. Provision of free legal aid to asylum seekers and interpretation services (as basic procedural guarantees) in the asylum procedures was dependent on international funding.
The intention to seek asylum was expressed by 1,061 children, 355 of whom were unaccompanied by their parents or guardians. UNHCR estimated that most of the unaccompanied children did not have adequate protection services due to the government’s lack of capacity. The country lacked quality guardianship protection and appropriate models of alternative child care. The Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veterans, and Social Policy was responsible for three institutions for unaccompanied migrant children with a total capacity of 45 beds, and two additional institutions run by NGOs had a total capacity of 30. Most unaccompanied minors were accommodated in the asylum center Krnjaca in Belgrade and Sjenica in inadequate conditions and without adequate guardian care.
The government had the capacity to accommodate approximately 6,000 persons in the 18 state-run asylum and reception centers, three of which were closed in 2018 due to a decline in asylum seekers from 2017. In January, 4,200 migrants were living in reception and asylum centers in the country; by August the number had fallen to 2,500.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: Since the adoption of the new asylum law in 2018, the first country of asylum and safe third country concepts had not been applied by the Asylum Office. According to UNHCR, authorities assessed each case on its individual merits but did not automatically apply these provisions.
In one example, the Asylum Office issued a positive decision in May for an Afghan citizen who applied for asylum in March. Rather than apply the safe country of origin or transit concept, the Asylum Office found the applicant, who transited Bulgaria, was at risk of persecution in his country of origin based on his ethnicity and membership in a social group. The asylum seeker had been a target of the Taliban’s verbal and physical assaults because he worked in various ministries in Kabul and because he was an ethnic Tajik. In addition, before arriving in Serbia, the asylum seeker was in Bulgaria, which the Asylum Office considered a “safe country of transit.” The Asylum Office accepted his claims that he could not apply for asylum there because he was under constant surveillance by a group of smugglers, who controlled his movements and prevented him from approaching Bulgarian asylum officials. Since he could not contact the relevant Bulgarian authorities, the Asylum Office decided to review the facts of relevance to his asylum application, rather than apply the safe third country concept.
Employment: Asylum seekers have the right to work nine months after an asylum application is submitted. Employment is also available once an applicant is recognized as a refugee at the end of the country’s refugee determination process.
Access to Basic Services: Asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees have the right to access health and education services, although barriers including language and cultural differences limited access.
Durable Solutions: The government provided support for the voluntary return and reintegration of refugees from other countries of the former Yugoslavia. Those who chose the option of integration in Serbia rather than return to their country of origin enjoyed the same rights as citizens, including access to basic services such as health care and education, and had access to simplified naturalization in the country; they did not have the right to vote unless their naturalization process was complete.
Together with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro, the country participated in the Regional Housing Program to provide housing for vulnerable refugee families who had decided to integrate into their countries of residence. During the year, 1,303 housing units were provided in Serbia.
For refugees who originated from countries outside the former Yugoslavia, refugee status did not provide a pathway to citizenship. The government provided integration assistance that included financial assistance for accommodation for a period of one year and obligatory Serbian language courses. Despite harmonization of by-laws providing for individualized integration plans, which UNHCR considered a good model, coordination between relevant line ministries remained insufficient.
Temporary Protection: The government made no decisions on temporary protection during the year.