Humanitarian and political background
The many refugees, migrants and asylum seekers who arrive in Greece and the Western Balkans are hoping to continue north. Serbia is a major flow point for people arriving from Greece, by way of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and from Bulgaria. It also receives a flow of refugees coming from Afghanistan and neighbouring countries, who travel by land through Bulgaria and arrive in Serbia.
During the last two months of 2015, an average of 4,050 refugees and migrants arrived in Serbia each day. Since the closure of the Croatian border in March 2016, most asylum seekers move onward from Serbia to Hungary, which still allows a small number of people to enter daily at the official border crossing points.
NRC began to work in Serbia in December 2015 in close cooperation with our partner Praxis.
Ill-prepared and slow to respond
European countries are becoming even less open to the growing number of refugees reaching their borders. Lack of coordination between national immigration authorities and an unwillingness to accept refugees through safe, legal means (such as the EU Relocation scheme agreed upon in September 2015) has led to the closure of all borders along the Western Balkans route. Each country tries to ensure it does not become burdened with a "stranded" refugee population.
It is not the borders that are in urgent need of protection, it is the refugees.
Jan Egeland, Seecretary General of NRC (2016)
One consequence of this is backlog is the unacceptable humanitarian conditions in Greece, one of the first European countries on the route. Transit locations across Europe, including Serbia, are also affected.
Dangers of exploitation
Another consequence of the lack of options for safe migration is that desperate refugees turn to smugglers to continue their journey. Often, they attempt to join family members already in Western Europe. Smugglers generally charge extortionately high prices for their illegal services. They also blur the line between smuggling and trafficking, frequently holding their "customers" temporarily hostage. They then extract additional payments from refugees or their family members through abuse, intimidation, blackmail and violence.
In worst case scenarios, refugees are sold or exploited for profit, including through forced labour, coerced commercial sex and organ harvesting. Refugees are familiar with these horror stories, but in their desperation, and with safe mechanisms unavailable, they see no other option.
NRC in Serbia
Through our Serbia programme, we help those seeking safety in Europe.
We work with our partner Praxis, multiple aid organisations, and the Serbian authorities to protect displaced people passing through Serbia. In addition to our emergency aid, we equip people with information to help them make informed decisions.
NRC worked with Praxis on the Serbian-Bulgarian border from December 2015 until the official closure of the border in March 2016. Activities now continue in Belgrade.
NRC expects to wrap up its activities in Serbia in 2016, given the reduced numbers of refugees in the country and the sufficient number of competent actors to help them. We will maintain our close ties with Praxis and continue to monitor the safety of vulnerable people in the country.
Our priority in Serbia is to protect displaced people from smuggling and trafficking, and to make sure they have the information they need as they request asylum. This is done through the presence of Praxis colleagues in the field.
Mobile teams patrol Belgrade monitoring for new arrivals, and provide them with information on available services and their legal options in Serbia. Staff also accompany people to seek asylum from the Serbian police, explaining the process and translating when possible. This is what we refer to as "protection by presence".
NRC deployed NORCAP experts to Serbia, supporting the UN's response to the crisis.
We work to give people the immediate assistance they need.
In partnership with Praxis, our emergency response activities:
- Provide water, food packs and hot meals.
- Provide emergency supplies including clothing, shoes and hygiene items.
- Reinforce the work of Miksaliste, a local humanitarian centre that brings together agencies and volunteers to provide health services, child protection, and washing and sanitation facilities.
- Upgrade Miksaliste's infrastructure, including its distribution facilities, electrics, and create a child-friendly space.
- Assist Praxis staff as they patrol Belgrade's city centre to identify unaccompanied minors, sick or injured people, and people at risk of being trafficked.
- Provide up-to-date information on legal options in Serbia, as well as the risks of illegal movements in Europe.
- Assist asylum seekers in the registration process.
- Coordinate with other organisations to avoid duplication of services, to refer refugees to the best service provider, and to react appropriately as new needs develop.
Statement on the Western Balkan migration route
As national and international organizations working along the Western Balkan migration route in Greece, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, and Croatia, we strongly condemn the latest discriminatory and dangerous measures adopted by European countries as part of a broader package of deterrence policies intended to stem the flow of vulnerable people seeking safety.