Francesca Bonelli, UNHCR Representative In Serbia

Pandemic Response Must Be Inclusive

UNHCR will continue to assist Serbia in keeping the response to the COVID pandemic sensitive and inclusive, also for refugees and people in need of international protection. The support UNHCR is extending to Serbian institutions in terms of fundamental rights, migration and asylum is complementary with Serbia’s EU accession process, especially with regard of chapters 23 and 24, respectively

More than 25,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Serbia from January to November 2020. According to the statistics of the Serbian Government, almost 7,000 refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants are currently accommodated in 19 governmental asylum/reception/transit centres in Serbia. Most of them are men (86%), followed by children (10%) and women (4%). A significant percentage (38%) of all the children accommodated in the centres represent unaccompanied minors. Around 2,000 refugees and migrants are estimated to remain outside the centres, bringing the overall presence of refugees and migrants in the country to a total of approximately 9,000, representing slightly more than 0.1% of the Serbian population as a whole.

The gap of 14,000 – between the 25,000 arrivals and the actual presence of 9,000 – represents the number of refugees and migrants that arrived and already left the country within 2020 (Jan-Nov). This is an indication that Serbia is still perceived as a transit country by refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.

The worldwide explosion of COVID-19 has not stopped movements, as we continue to record a constant influx of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers across the entire Western Balkan region, but refugees’ human rights and their status have definitely been impacted negatively by the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 emergency has forced an overall worldwide restriction on human movements, not only among countries but also within the territory of each country. That has impacted on refugees’ human rights twofold. Firstly, the capacity of refugees to escape persecution at home and move toward safety has been further hindered by the overall restrictions on movement imposed by the pandemic. Secondly, limitations on working and movement restrictions brought by the emergency response to the virus have provided a tough challenge to the capacity of Governments, UN Agencies and civil society actors in responding to needs for the protection of refugees,” says UNHCR Representative in Serbia Francesca Bonelli.

As a consequence of this, COVID-19 has restricted overall access to asylum and protection in many parts of the world.

“Nevertheless, Serbia has shown exemplary solidarity towards refugees, notwithstanding the challenges of the pandemic. Refugees and asylum- seekers were received at the centres with a COVID-19 prevention mechanism in place, in order to ensure the minimal risk of infection. UNHCR responded promptly to the authorities’ requests for the provision of preventative equipment and hygiene supplies for the staff and residents of centres. UNHCR has intensified awareness-raising activities and provided psycho-social assistance.

In view of the requirements of online schooling, UNHCR also supported children from the refugee, asylum-seeker and local population by providing school equipment. UNHCR will continue to assist Serbia in ensuring that the response to the COVID pandemic is sensitive and inclusive for refugees and people in need of international protection,” underlines our interlocutor.

Together with the very experienced and committed UNHCR Serbia team, I plan to maximise the capacity of operations to achieve objectives in close synergies with the Government, donor community, civil society and refugees themselves

You’ve said that anti-immigrant rhetoric in Serbia is gathering momentum and that anti-refugee movements are a cause for concern, yet they don’t show the true face of the Serbian people. How do you explain the rise of this rhetoric?

Part of the answer can be found in all the challenges brought about by this very moment that has seen the entire planet paralysed by the pandemic. The measures introduced to prevent the spread of the virus have already taken their toll – economically and psychologically. When faced with looming insecurities, people tend to seek answers and explanations, and it is easier for them to identify someone to blame for the unpleasant situation. In such an oversimplified picture of reality, the most vulnerable groups – in this case refugees and migrants – can become an easy target. This is not an exclusive characteristic of this particular moment, or of Serbia in general, but those using hate speech and anti-immigrant rhetoric do not base their messages on facts. Even a cursory glance at the relevant data provided by the authorities and international organisations shows that there is no room for any assessment that ‘migrants are stealing our jobs and land’.

Similarly, there is no room for talk of “invasion” and large numbers that cannot be handled. State statistics also show that the number of criminal offences registered among the migrant population is negligible relative to the total number of registered criminal offences in the country.

I am confident that the Serbian authorities will further address the issue of hate speech and xenophobia directed towards people who are in need of international protection.

With that in mind, how do you assess the overall position of refugees in Serbia?

Serbia has extensive experience of hosting refugees. The response to the 2015 European Refugee Crisis, when both government institutions and civil society organised humane and dignified assistance to refugees, was consistent with that experience. Citizens themselves helped and showed formidable compassion towards newly arrived refugees. Since the 2015 crisis, UNHCR has supported Serbian Institutions in responding to the refugee crisis, expanding asylum/receptions centres, providing protection assistance and strengthening the asylum process, from identification to referrals of who is in need of international protection. The refugee child protection system was also strengthened, including with regard to providing assistance to unaccompanied children with legal counselling and education, as well as the support of their integration process.

Francesca Bonelli

As many refugees and migrants still perceive Serbia as a transit country, just a few have decided to stay in Serbia and follow the path to full integration. Although still low, the number of recognised and integrated refugees in Serbia has been increasing steadily since 2015. That is clear evidence that Serbian society has recognised their potential and is seeking to benefit from their contribution. UNHCR fully supports the authorities and partners in strengthening this integration. To this end, UNHCR works in close cooperation with the private sector, with private companies like IKEA and others, to promote the inclusion of refugees in the job market.

You have been in the region for quite some time and know Serbia well. How have your mandate and the issues in your focus changed?

Yes, it was back in 2000 that I had my first professional experience in Serbia, with the assistance of refugees in the collective centres organised across the country at the time. Since then I’ve served in various emergency missions in Asia, Africa and America, but I came back to Serbia in 2015, when I was part of the UNHCR response at the peak of the European refugee crisis. Five years later I’m back again in the capacity of the High Commissioner’s Representative.

Many things have changed since my first experience with refugees in Serbia 20 years ago. Serbian Asylum legislation has evolved, procedures for determining refuges status have developed further to factor in the new refugee reality of a mixed movement of asylum seekers and migrants. New receptions centres have been opened to receive refugees and migrants with proper standard conditions. The protection of unaccompanied child refugees and the guardianship system has been strengthened in both legislative and operational terms. Efforts are also being exerted to ensure the inclusion and integration of refugees.

What issues are in your focus today and how do you assist the refugee population?

While a full picture for 2020 is yet to be established, UNHCR estimates that the number of forcibly displaced persons globally is nearing 80 million. This unprecedented figure in the records of the UN Refugee Agency constitutes 1% of humanity.

UNHCR in Serbia supports refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and those at risk of statelessness. Every one of these groups has specific needs that vary from the provision of legal assistance, via support in building new homes and acquiring personal documents, to the most basic needs like food, shelter and medical treatment.

That represents a vast task requiring an extensive amount of professional and financial resources. At UNHCR we are very grateful to our main donors in Serbia, both institutional donors – such as the EU, U.S., Czech Republic and Russian Federation – and private sector companies like IKEA, UNICREDIT and UNILEVER.

The commitment to support Serbia in ending statelessness will remain an important area of our engagement in 2021

How satisfied are you with the cooperation you enjoy with the Serbian Government?

UNHCR has spent almost 45 years supporting the Serbian Government, and prior to that the Yugoslav Government, in helping displaced persons. Throughout all these years, UNHCR’s cooperation with the Serbian authorities has been positive and productive. The focus of UNHCR’s operations in Serbia has shifted over the course of time. In the early years, UNHCR provided integration and resettlement assistance to refugees from Eastern Europe and Africa. During the conflicts of the ‘90s, the focus shifted to emergency and humanitarian assistance to refugees and displaced persons from the region. Serbia has to date provided more than 5,100 housing solutions for the most vulnerable refugees from the former Yugoslavia through the Regional Housing Programme financed by the EU, U.S. and many other donors.

Since the 2015 European Refugee Crisis, UNHCR has been supporting Serbia in ensuring the protection of a sensitive approach to mixed movement. In synergy and cooperation with the Serbian Government, donor states and civil society, UNHCR actively identifies persons in need of international protection, providing them with relevant data and assisting their integration.

The support that UNHCR extends to the Serbian institutions, in terms of fundamental rights, migration and asylum, is also complementary with Serbia’s EU accession process, especially in regard to chapter 23 and 24, respectively. UNHCR is looking forward to continuing its close cooperation with the Serbian Government, with the invaluable support of donor countries in fulfilling these important tasks.

What are your plans for 2021?

UNHCR is fully committed to continue supporting the Serbia authorities and civil society in 2021 when it comes to ensuring protection during the pandemic and beyond for refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and those at risk of statelessness.

For 2021, UNHCR has a protection-sensitive approach to mixed movements in Serbia and throughout the entire Western Balkan region that promotes synergies, the complementarity of mandates and responsibility sharing among all actors, and which will strengthen and enable national asylum systems to better respond to the rights and needs of refugees and asylum seekers. In this regard, The UN Refugee Agency is also planning to establish closer cooperation with local municipalities in order to support the inclusion and integration of refugees and asylum seekers.

In parallel, UNHCR will continues to support Serbia in addressing the still remaining needs of displaced people from the conflicts of the ‘90s. Our support to implementation of the Regional Housing Programme will continue, as will our engagement in finding solutions for internally displaced persons from Kosovo*, with the help of international partners.

The commitment to support Serbia in ending statelessness will remain an important area of our engagement in 2021. UNHCR’s work on the prevention of statelessness, together with the Ombudsperson and relevant government ministries, as well as civil society, will be also relevant during the coming months.

The EU Pact on Migration will also have an impact on the countries of the Western Balkans. UNHCR will identify synergy between the EU Pact and the Global Compact on Refugees, and will support the Government of Serbia in fulfilling its international obligations.

UNHCR colleagues past and present take great pride in the differences they have made, in the lives they have protected, changed and saved. They take pride in rising to new challenges, such as the impact of climate change or, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic – factors which magnify the already significant problems posed by displacement.

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