Interview with Miodrag Ćakić: A Field Perspective on the Serbian Response to Refugees

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Migrants in Belgrade. © Miodrag Ćakić, available on Flickr.

Second-year Columbia Law student Jin Sol Lee had an engaging conversation with Miodrag Ćakić, a photographer and Field Team Coordinator at Info Park, a refugee center in Belgrade which specializes in protection, information, communication, and education services. More photos from his series on Migrants in Belgrade can be accessed here.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Jin Sol Lee: Can you describe the current refugee situation in Serbia? How has it changed from the “refugee crisis” of 2015?

Miodrag Ćakić: In 2015, both before the opening of the so-called “Balkan route”, and after, Serbia’s state policy in connection with the “refugee crisis” was aimed almost exclusively towards providing safe and fast transfer of migrants across its territory, starting from its southern borders with the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia and Bulgaria to its borders in the north, with Hungary and Croatia.

Although the closure of borders along the Balkan route, in March of 2016, has caused a drastic drop in the daily numbers of migrants arriving in Serbia, it has even more significantly reduced the possibilities for these migrants to legally move forward on their journey towards EU countries. This has resulted in a slow but steady accumulation of migrants in a country that had based all its formal and informal policies to the migration crisis on an assumption that the average migrant would not reside in its territory for longer than seventy-two hours. Currently, the average migrant spends more than a month in Serbia, and this time period is expanding as the possibility of legally exiting Serbia to enter EU countries is becoming more and more difficult (While more than eighty migrants enter Serbian territory daily, Hungary is currently admitting only fifteen people a day into its “transit zones”), as the likelihood of successful illegal border crossing are becoming slimmer due to worsening weather conditions and increasing brutality by border police in both Hungary and Croatia.

Currently, all reception and asylum centers in Serbia are functioning above their maximum capacity (more than 6,000 migrants are residing within an asylum/reception system that can officially provide accommodation for no more than 5,000 migrants), and about 2,000 migrants are residing in Serbia illegally (approximately 1,700 migrants are living in squats within the vicinity of the central bus station in Belgrade).

While putting constant pressures on NGOs to reduce services (such as distribution of food, non-food-items, and medical services) for the “homeless” migrant population in Belgrade, state authorities have yet to come up with an effective solution for the growing numbers of illegal migrants in Belgrade that have increased due the increasingly difficulties, even for families, to get registered and gain legal status in the Republic of Serbia. Faced with the reality that they rank low on the priority list of state institutions overwhelmed with registration requests, most single men, even those initially willing to get registered, eventually give up and join the ranks of homeless migrants.

Migrants in Belgrade. © Miodrag Ćakić, available on Flickr.

JSL: How are the refugees coming from the Middle East different/similar to the refugees coming from other Balkan or neighboring countries?

MĆ: From my point of view, the main difference between refugees coming from the Middle East and those coming from Balkans is different expectations. When someone moves to a country within the same cultural sphere as his home country—even if not within the same language area—his or her expectations in connection with the political, legislative and social circumstances of the new country are likely to be more in tune with reality, and therefore he/she is able to quickly adapt to his/her new country. However, many refugees coming from the Middle East, come with expectations, predominantly of full commitment to protection of human rights and the rule of law, that are based much more on idealistic images of western democracies and Europe in general.

For them, facing a reality in which they are rarely treated as equals with the domestic population, both by regular citizens and state institutions, is a hard pill to swallow and requires a long process of adaptation and adjustment of one’s own hopes and aspirations.

Other noticeable differences, including practical aspects of living in a foreign country (like getting accustomed to the language, traditions, and daily routines) and cultural attitudes, are, at least in Serbia, usually a consequence of informal state policies that function as a self-fulfilling prophecy. State officials are always quick to state that because refugees have no intention to stay in Serbia, no integration efforts should be made, which is often an excuse to isolate and marginalize migrants (especially homeless ones) from the domestic population—thereby artificially keeping migrants “culturally different” and apparently uninterested in adapting to their new cultural environment.

Migrants in Belgrade. © Miodrag Ćakić, available on Flickr.

JSL: What do you think are the biggest legal or administrative challenges facing refugees entering Serbia?

MĆ: Right now, the biggest problem refugees face is the significant decrease in accessibility of the registration process (conducted by institutions under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior) as a result of the growing number of refugees attempting registration coupled with the Serbian asylum system’s inadequate capacity. Most families and persons belonging to vulnerable groups cannot register without the assistance of NGOs, while single men—especially those arriving from countries of origin other than Syria and Iraq—face unfavorable odds even with the help of NGOs. The efficiency of the registration process, which requires submission of an “Expression of the Intent to seek Asylum in the Republic of Serbia,” is further impeded by the fact that the registration document also requires referral to a particular asylum or reception center where they must file their form. In reality, this means that in order for someone’s “Expression of the Intent to Seek Asylum” to be registered, there must be an available spot for their accommodation at that particular asylum/reception center. Since the asylum/reception centers are managed by Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs while the registration process is conducted by the Ministry of Interior, comprehensive communications between state institutions functioning under the authority of different ministries is a prerequisite for every single registration document that is issued.

The consequence of the incapability to (timely) legalize their status in the Republic of Serbia not only blocks migrants from getting admission to an asylum/reception center, but also bars access to any kind of accommodation (in hotels, hostels, etc.) because renting rooms or apartments to undocumented migrants is forbidden under Serbian law. As a consequence, in Belgrade, migrants waiting for registration are forced to sleep in the open or in abandoned buildings around the central bus station. 

Migrants in Belgrade. © Miodrag Ćakić, available on Flickr.

JSL: How has the rise of more nationalistic or “right-wing” politics in Europe, such as Brexit or Hungary’s tighter border controls, affected the situation in Serbia? Do you think that Serbia will amend its asylum laws in response?

MĆ: While refugees frequently speak of the harsh treatment they’ve suffered at the hands of authorities in Bulgaria (on their way to Serbia), Hungary and Croatia (in their unsuccessful attempts to continue their journey towards Western Europe), in Serbia, the attitude of authorities and domestic population towards migrants is comparatively much more relaxed. There has been a relatively small number of violent incidents based on racism or xenophobia involving migrants and local citizens or police. However, the sociopolitical environment in Serbia is heavily influenced by the government, whose efforts to advance negotiations with the EU and be a reliable partner to the EU in connection with the refugee crisis (and therefore also possibly avoid proper examination of issues concerning freedom of the media, censorship and corruption), has resulted in heavy control both of the usually very influential right-wing media, as well as of formal and informal right-wing organizations that have significant support among the population.

Nevertheless, the rise of nationalism within the EU, and the fact that the Serbian government has not been able to find a solution for the growing number of migrants residing in its territory, is directing the public’s attention towards the migration crisis and creating conditions that is making control of the right-wing media harder to maintain.

Presently, there are no indications that the changing political climates in EU countries could influence Serbian asylum laws, as Serbian government is still determined to deal with the refugee crisis in close partnership with the EU.

Migrants in Belgrade. © Miodrag Ćakić, available on Flickr.

JSL: How has Serbia’s efforts to join the EU affected its asylum laws and procedures?

MĆ: The Ministry of Interior of the Republic of Serbia has proposed a draft law on asylum that would bring Serbia’s legal framework regarding migration closer to those of EU countries. Although Serbian Prime minister Vučić has stated on several occasions that new law on asylum and subsidiary protection would be presented to the Parliament for ratification by July 2016, this has still not happened.

JSL: Serbia’s Asylum Law is fairly new (entered into force in 2008). Do you think the laws are adequately being carried out in practice? Are there significant gaps between the law and its implementation?

MĆ: As the situation in Serbia drastically changed after the closure of the borders along the Balkan route, state institutions have adjusted to new circumstances by implementing an array of unofficial and informal policies and procedures. At the moment, starting with registration until eventual admission to transit zones on the Serbian-Hungarian border, all aspects of migrants’ residence in Serbia are in large part regulated by informal policies and procedures.

All migrants registered in the territory of the Republic of Serbia are officially registered as asylum seekers, but they are not all treated as such. Only a small minority of “real asylum seekers” are treated according to the asylum law, while others, unofficially labeled “migrants in transit” are treated according to policies and procedures outside the legal framework. How a migrant is treated within the asylum system in Serbia, whether as a “real asylum seeker” or as a “migrant in transit”, depends on the migrant’s own informal declaration made during the registration process (whether he wants to ask for asylum in the Republic of Serbia or continue the journey towards EU countries). Especially worrying is the fact that the NGOs providing legal representation to migrants often also work within the framework of these informal policies, often labeling migrants as “real asylum seekers” and “migrants in transit”, and refusing to represent and protect the rights of migrants who are not considered to be “real asylum seekers”, notwithstanding that members of both of these informal categories have been issued identical documents by state institutions and are legally indistinguishable.

Migrants in Belgrade. © Miodrag Ćakić, available on Flickr.

JSL: Serbia’s Asylum law is unique in explicitly including “gender” and “language” as enumerated categories of refugee protection. What impact have these additional protected categories had on the refugee regime in Serbia?

MĆ: Unfortunately, as the migration crisis deepens in Serbia, the influence of the asylum law on circumstances in the field is becoming increasingly suppressed by numerous newly introduced informal policies and procedures. Furthermore, as a consequence of the incomplete (or complete lack of) application of asylum procedures, in most of the cases for legally recognized asylum seekers in the Republic of Serbia, reasons for leaving the country of origin remain unknown in a large portion of the cases since no interviews with the asylum seekers are being conducted, which the law requires. This later makes it impossible to enforce the State’s obligation to adequately protect refugees. However, in interviews conducted with newly arrived migrants by NGO employees active in the field, there have been persons claiming to have left their country of origin because of gender-based discrimination, persecution and violence, mostly coming from Afghanistan and Waziristan region of Pakistan.

JSL: Specifically, do you know of any cases where the asylum seeker claimed language as the basis of persecution?

MĆ: Although I have not had direct contact with these refugees, I know that there have been cases of asylum seekers coming from Ukraine who have claimed to have been persecuted on the basis of language. However, the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers have no intention to stay in Serbia, nor do they complete even the initial phases of the asylum procedure; therefore, it is very probable that the number of asylum seekers in Serbia who fled from language-based persecution in their countries of origin is significantly higher.

JSL: More broadly, how have language barriers affected the refugees and asylum process generally, especially for those who come from less “common” countries of origin?

MĆ: After the closing of the Balkan route we have experienced a reduction in the diversity of countries of origin of migrants – presently, more than 90% of the migrants come from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Arabic-speaking countries. As a consequence, field teams are rarely in contact with migrants coming from less “common” language areas. However, language barriers are still present, although in less obvious ways. For example, most speakers of Farsi language, coming from Afghanistan and the Waziristan province of Pakistan, are much more fluent in Pashto, by the use of which they are able to express themselves much more clearly, and thus the lack of Pashto interpreters can have an impact on their status within the Serbian asylum system.

Migrants in Belgrade. © Miodrag Ćakić, available on Flickr.

JSL: Finally, could you share one particularly surprising or impactful experience that you have had in the field?

MĆ: On 25 November 2016, at 2:30 AM, I met the first family that was not able to register on the day of their arrival and had no other option but to spend the night in the open in temperatures nearing 2ºC (squats are not an option for families, for security reasons).

I was in the area near the central bus station when I got a panicked call from an independent volunteer confirming that the thing we had most feared has just happened. Nearly a thousand homeless migrants were sleeping out in the open in Belgrade at that time, about a hundred of them lying just 50 meters from us in the parking lot, while we were standing in the middle of an empty park. Now the first family was going to join their ranks – two adults and five children. Without registration documents, no hotel or hostel was allowed to admit them, and any person willing to take them in would be in a serious breach of the law. Meanwhile the only NGO able to provide temporary shelter for families waiting for registration was changing offices and thus unavailable.

Never in my life have I felt as useless as I did then, picking a place for the family to sleep among the shivering bodies in a nearby parking lot. The intention was to position them so they would lie in line of sight of the police patrol sitting in the van not far away, in case something bad happened. The mother was sure something bad would happen. Every time I directed my inquisitive look towards her while pointing at an unoccupied space on the asphalt, the only answer I received was a quick gesture of the hand below the chin – we’re going to die. But, they didn’t die. We swamped them with blankets and sleeping mats out of guilt so they would not freeze to death and employees of an NGO patrolling the parks during night kept an eye on them until the morning.

The next day we had three families sleeping in the parking lot, and the day after five. It was terrible. As the number of families unable to register grew, every day was worse than the last. Still, we managed to find solutions and cope with the situation. Nonetheless, the unbearable feeling of hopelessness and uselessness that hit me so hard that day changed me as I discovered what “crisis” can actually mean. That day I was the guy pointing at the asphalt and saying “Welcome to Serbia, this is where you sleep.”

Migrants in Belgrade. © Miodrag Ćakić, available on Flickr.


Jin Sol Lee is a second-year J.D. student at Columbia Law School and a staff member of the Journal of Transnational Law. She graduated from University of Virginia with a B.A. in Political Theory and TESOL Certificate. She interned at an NGO working with asylum seekers and refugees in Belgrade, Serbia during the summer of 2016.

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