The Asylum Act explicitly envisages that, in the course of the asylum procedure the specific circumstances of certain categories requiring special procedural or reception guarantees will be taken into consideration. This category includes minors, unaccompanied minors, persons with disabilities, elderly persons, pregnant women, single parents with minor children, victims of trafficking, severely ill persons, persons with mental disorders, and persons who were subjected to torture, rape, or other serious forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence, such as women who were victims of female genital mutilation.
Screening of vulnerability
Article 17 of the Asylum Act envisages that the procedure for identifying the personal circumstances of a person is carried out by the competent authorities on a continuous basis and at the earliest reasonable time after the initiation of the asylum procedure, or the expression of the intention to submit an asylum application at the border or in the transit zone.
However, it is still not entirely clear in which form the Asylum Office, Asylum Commission or Administrative Court determine that an asylum seeker is in need of special procedural or reception guarantees, i.e. whether this should be declared through separate decision, or this fact will be indicated during the asylum interview. Yet, in several decisions which related to UASC, the first instance authority explicitly stated that special procedural and reception guarantees were secured in UASC’s cases since they were appointed legal guardian, legal representative and were accommodated in social care institution designated for children.
However, it has become undisputable in 2020 that certain types of vulnerabilities should be identified by other state institutions, while asylum authorities should take these in consideration during the decision-making process, which so far has been the case only with regards to UASC and victims of human trafficking. The best interest determination assessment is conducted by the Social Welfare Centres (SWCs) under the supervision of IDEAS, psychological reports are mainly provided by PIN, victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) by DRC, mental health assessment by psychiatric clinics, human trafficking assessment by the Government’s Centre for Human Trafficking Victims’ Protection (CHTV), etc.
Regardless of the type of vulnerability, the common feature of all kind of screening mechanisms is that they largely depend on the work of different CSOs, but are conducted in cooperation with different state institutions. Thus, the State support system can be described as partially effective and strongly dependant on limited resources of CSOs who assist USAC, victims of trafficking in human beings, victims of SGBV, persons with health and mental issues, torture victims, etc. It should be also born in mind that the capacities of CSOs are also limited and not always of the highest quality. For that reason, it is safe to say that only small number of vulnerable persons that may be in need of international protection receive the comprehensive support and mainly after they are introduced in asylum procedure. For those persons who are in need of international protection but are not registered as asylum seekers, the limited support is almost exclusively provided by CSOs. However, the past several years has shown some improvements in the joint work of state institutions and CSOs.
In practice, UASC who have a genuine desire to apply for asylum in Serbia undergo a detailed vulnerability and needs assessment, which in the best-case scenario is concluded with the best interest determination assessment (BID). According to the UNHCR, 1,749 UASC were recorder entering on Serbian territory in 2020, but only 71 of them were issued with the registration certificate, and only five effectively lodged an application for international protection. On the other hand, the Centre for Research and Social Development (IDEAS) indicated that temporary legal guardians worked with less than 250 children who received urgent assistance. Out of the 71 children with a registration certificate, around 50 received a more detailed support, while at least 20 underwent best interest assessments (BIA). Thus, substantial support was provided to less than 5% of totally recorded USAC. On the basis of Memorandum of Understanding signed with the Ministry for Social Affairs, IDEAS has been conducting supervision of all social care workers in Serbia working with UASC. This assistance implies counselling on individual cases, providing general guidelines and assistance in conducting BID. Thus, out of 1,749 children recorded in 2020, only 71 of them were registered, 5 of them lodged asylum application, while the rest remained in legal limbo, being at risk of being issued with expulsion order or penalised in the misdemeanour proceeding. Moreover, since registration certificate does not provide for any legal status, even the children issued with this document were in the same situation as those children who were not registered at all.
The screening of USAC vulnerability is conducted by the temporary legal guardians of IDEAS – an implementing partner of UNHCR and legal guardians funded by IOM and who were deployed from IDEAS in 2020. However, this is not done in line with Article 17 of the Asylum Act, but in line with the Family Act and social care professional standards. The Asylum Office did not submit any request for BID in 2020, and in general, 2020 was the year in which only a few UASC applied for asylum – only 5. For that reason, IDEAS has started to provide free legal aid to UASC in the second half of 2020, applying the multidisciplinary approach which implies that initial assessment, legal counselling and preparation for lodging of asylum application and hearing is conducted by a team comprised by legal representative, legal guardian and psychologist. This has led to first comprehensive written asylum applications submitted by UASC in November and December 2020 and all of them were submitted by IDEAS. Thus, in the first 10 months, and when it comes to the work of UNHCR implementing partners (BCHR, IDEAS and HCIT), only one UASC submitted asylum application, while it is reasonable to assume that two UASC submitted asylum application with the help of APC lawyers.
Also, CHTV can be considered as an authority that can contribute to the effective implementation of Article 17 of the Asylum Act. In 2020, CHTV identified 18 refugees and migrants as potential victims of trafficking in human beings. Out of that number, 7 of them were girls (3 Afghanistan, one from India, one from Syria, one from DRC and one Somalia), 4 boys (3 from Afghanistan and 1 from Syria), 6 women (2 from Eritrea, 2 from Syria, one from Somalia and one from Tunisia) and 2 men (from India and Guinea). Also, one girl from Congo and one boy from Pakistan obtained the status of a victim of trafficking in human beings. Still, in the vast majority of cases, CSOs are those who report alleged cases of human trafficking. According to Astra, CSO specialised in providing assistance to the victims, Serbia does not have an official procedure for the victim’s identification.
The psychological assessment is usually conducted by the Psychosocial Innovation Network (PIN), also implementing partner of UNHCR. In the period 2017-2019, PIN’s psychologists performed 45 psychological assessments for the purpose of asylum procedure (21 in 2019). In 2020, PIN provided 64 psychological assessments for BCHR, HCIT, IDEAS and UNHCR, 4 assessments for the Asylum Office and 9 assessments for Social Welfare Centres. Thus, most of the psychological assessments were conducted upon request from legal representatives in 2020. Several asylum seekers were examined by the psychiatrist. The reports were then submitted to the Asylum Office with the aim to indicate vulnerabilities. In 2020, PIN’s psychological report was outlined in at least 9 decisions of the Asylum Office.
According to PIN’s 5-year research published in 2019 and conducted in partnership with UNHCR, between 79% and 89% of refugees in Serbia are in need of psychological assistance and support as evidenced by the mental health screenings. Prevalence of depression and anxiety related difficulties varied from 35%-48% to 29%-37% over the years, while the number of those experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder related difficulties ranged from 19% to 28%.
As a response to the identified needs, standards for mental health protection of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in Serbia are defined in Guidance for protection and improvement of the mental health of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Serbia , issued in 2018 by the WHO Office in Serbia, with PIN as one of the authors, and adopted by the Ministry of Health and Commissariat for Refugees and Migration. In line with these standards, mental health protection services should be delivered on four levels – initial screening, prevention activities, psychological interventions, and psychiatric care. It is recommended that these services are available through the public healthcare system, while civil society organisations would fill in the gaps in line with identified needs. The four layers of screening are yet to take place in practice.
At this moment, all asylum and reception centres in Serbia are covered with medical teams (medical doctor and nurse), while 5 out of 18 centres have a psychologist as a part of the medical team who represents a focal point for mental health protection services. In the remaining 10 centres, psychological services are provided by CSOs (PIN, Indigo, and Group 484), while at the moment 3 centres are without available psychological services except for PIN’s online support program (Preševo, Sombor and Bosilegrad).
PIN has identified, assisted, counselled and further referred 706 asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in 2020 (545 male and 161 female), including 170 UASC. PIN also provides group support to UASCs. PIN’s psychologist also assisted 42 visits to specialised institutions for mental health and has been a focal point for mental health protection of refugees at 5 asylum/reception centres (ACs Banja Koviljaca, Tutin and Sjenica, RC Sid and RC Principovac), and at 4 out of 5 shelters for unaccompanied and separated children (UASC) in Belgrade and Loznica. In collaboration with CRM, PIN established a national coordination mechanism – Working Group for Protection and Improvement of Mental Health of Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Migrants, that gathers representatives of governmental institutions, international agencies and NGOs involved in mental health protection of refugees and migrants in Serbia, as well as International Consortium on Refugees’ and Migrants’ Mental Health (CoReMH). The goal is to gather experts that will work together towards establishing a common framework for the provision of mental health and psychosocial services to the refugee, asylum seeker and migrant populations on the European transit route.
In 2020, DRC has implemented projects which aimed to provide assistance to SGBV survivors in refugee and asylum seekers’ population. This organisation was the only one who provided legal assistance to the refugees and asylum seekers in cases of SGBV in 2020. Also, DRC established the first Women Safe Space inside Asylum Center in Krnjača. The space has been used by 3 organisations (DRC, ADRA and Atina) where they conducted activities raising awareness of women rights and to provide direct assistance to the beneficiaries. Community based protection has been integral part of DRC field activities and therefore DRC trained three female asylum seekers to be gender focal points in AC Krnjača.
In order to fill the gap in lacking of trained staff in the field, DRC and IDEAS conducted two online workshops on prevention of and protection against SGBV for 15 outreach social workers from: KrnjacaKrnjača, Sid/Adaševci/Principovac, Kikinda, Knezevac, Vranje and Loznica. The workshops for outreach social workers were activities implemented by IDEAS, approved by Ministry of Social Affairs. IDEAS invited DRC to join the training with session on SGBV. The session were organised in August 2020.
Within cases identified by DRC in 2020, specific follow-up was conducted in relation to 30 SGBV survivors. The vast majority of supported SGBV survivors suffered from intimate partner violence (54%). That figure is followed by 23% of survivors who suffered sexual violence, 13% suffered sexual harassment and 10% of were identified as sexual exploitation cases. DRC Legal Counsellor has been providing assistance in form of counselling, writing submissions and representation before relevant state institutions. It is important to mention that provided statistics took into account the form of violence that was primarily identified. Unfortunately, in-depth work with SGBV survivors showed that majority of them suffered multiplied forms of violence. For instance, one case showed that a woman was trafficked and sexually exploited before she met her abusive partner. In the other case, which involved rape, survivor lived with the abusive partner and escaped from the perpetrator, but was later on raped on the way to Europe. Furthermore, vast majority of identified SGBV survivors were married before 18 and those marriages were arranged.
Regarding the national structure of the survivors, DRC supported SGBV survivors from: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Palestine, Burundi, Lebanon, Turkey, Tunis, Chechenia and Ukraine. DRC supported SGBV survivors at various locations, but majority of the cases were identified in AC Krnjača and AC Banja Koviljača (where DRC was regularly present in the course of 2020). DRC has also provided occasional assistance to SGBV survivors who were accommodated in Reception Center in Šid, and Asylum Centre in Tutin, as well as in the shelter for SGBV survivors run by NGO Atina. The assistance was also provided to survivors accommodated at the private addresses.
When it comes to the response of the State institutions, DRC outlined that the practice varies from one location to another, which implies that CRM staff is lacking training and knowledge on SGBV. Also, prejudices among professionals toward asylum seeking and refugee women in regards to their culture and origin prevail in many facilities, affecting the timely reactions to SGBV.
The majority of SGBV incidents happened during late evening hours or weekends, when specialised organisations or institutions like social welfare centres were not present. Response usually depends on knowledge and believes of persons who are on duty in reception facilities. In almost all cases police was informed, but practice shows that further prosecution still depends on willingness of the survivor to testify even though it is not mandatory by the law. The Public Prosecutor usually drops the charges after the survivor refuses to testify, the professionals do not take into consideration the existence of other evidence, like medical certificate of injuries and testimonies of other witnesses, etc.
On the other side, there are challenges in psychosocial support of the survivors as well. The survivors usually lack information about their rights and existing support services. Furthermore, according to the relevant legal framework, after receiving the report of SGBV case, SWC is obliged to conduct the interview with survivor and to prepare an individual plan of measures and services for each SGBV survivor including the plan for their family members. The survivor has the right to participate in the creation of the plans and to be informed about the measures and services which are written within the plan in a language that she understands. According to DRC experience, in almost all cases the survivors were not informed about the plans and measures prescribed by SWC. DRC was the only organization who provided legal assistance to the refugees and asylum seekers in cases of SGBV.
In 2020, lockdowns, quarantines, and other movement restrictions during the State of Emergency have also disrupted access to police, legal, and social service, as well as access to counselling, safe shelters, medical treatment, and sexual and reproductive health services. The COVID-19 pandemic has further deteriorated the situation of SGBV survivors. First, survivors were stuck with their perpetrators in overcrowded centres due to the lockdown. Second, a majority of institutions and organisations suspended their activities in the field following the imposed measures in order to prevent further spreading of infectious disease. DRC Protection Team was in contact with two SGBV survivors who suffered domestic violence during the state of emergency. One case was recorded in AC Banja Koviljaca and another in AC Krnjaca. In both cases institutions were involved – CRM separated spouses in different rooms, SWC conducted the interview with SGBV survivor in AC Banja Koviljača while in AC Krnjača police intervened. Due to the pressure of their families, both survivors decided to reconcile with their spouses which results in dropping off charges against perpetrators. It is worth mentioning that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, during the state of emergency almost all court hearings were postponed. However, cases related to domestic violence, determination of preventive measures, minors were excluded from that decision.
Accordingly, CSOs who provide legal and other assistance to asylum seekers are the ones who usually provide care to vulnerable applicants in terms of referral to appropriate accommodation, medical care, psychological or other needs assessment. Also, the fact that asylum authorities have recognised asylum seeker’s vulnerability (age, state of health or other vulnerability) can mainly be found in positive decisions of the Asylum Office, while the decisions rejecting their asylum applications usually disregard the vulnerabilities of the minor applicants put forward by their legal representatives.
Identification and Age assessment of unaccompanied children
Serbia considers as an unaccompanied child “a foreigner who has not yet reached eighteen years of age and who, at the time of entry into the Republic of Serbia or upon having entered it, is not accompanied by their parents or guardians.”
Although the Asylum Act prescribes that children for whom it can be determined reliably and unambiguously to be under 14 years of age shall not be fingerprinted at registration, it is not prescribed how the age would be established, leaving it up to the competent authorities to arbitrarily ascertain the age of persons lacking personal documents form the country of origin. On 16 September 2020, IDEAS has received a legal opinion from the Ministry of Justice in which it was stated that Serbia does not have an age assessment procedure in its legal framework.
There is no proper or developed method for ascertaining the asylum seekers’ age, meaning that the asylum seeker’s word and the official’s personal observations are the only criteria for identifying minors in the greatest number of cases. On 4 April 2018, the Ministry of Labour, Employment, veteran and Social Affairs adopted the Instruction on Procedures of Social Work Centres which envisages that the field social worker is in charge for identifying and coordinating support to USAC as long as the child is not put under the jurisdiction of professional social worker.
Still, the identification of unaccompanied minors continues to be done on the spot by officials (most often police officers) and CSO employees, establishing first contact with potential asylum seekers The SWC are understaffed and they usually react when the MoI or CSO inform them on a USAC’s presence at the territory of Serbia. Thus, it is clear that a large number of children residing in Serbia have never been recorded and that the numbers published by different state authorities, but also non-state entities (CSOs, UNHCR, IOM) significantly differ. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, and the Human Rights Committee, underlined these problems as well. During 2020, there were two cases in which the age assessment arose as a problem. One case refers to an Afghan boy who suffers from serious psychiatric condition and who was shortly deprived of legal guardianship, on the basis of the flawed assessment of his age. IDEAS and PIN intervened and the boy was later on put under temporary guardianship and submitted his asylum application with the help of IDEAS multidisciplinary team. In other case, a boy from Guinea, is still deprived of temporary guardianship. The Social Welfare centre in Belgrade is still reluctant to accept the boy’s statement that he is underage without conducting any kind of age assessment procedure.
An additional problem the authorities face in identifying USAC lies in the fact that minors often travel in groups together with adults, making it difficult for the police to ascertain whether or not they are travelling together with their parents or legal guardians.
Over the course of 2020, the asylum authorities issued registration certificates to a total of 71 UASC, out of a total of 1,749 registered arrivals. The remaining children were travelling with their family members and relatives. However, bearing in mind the above-mentioned challenges in identifying UASC, their real number is without any doubt far greater and it is undisputable fact that the vast majority of UASC reside on Serbian territory unregistered and, thus, at risk of being treated as irregular migrants and forcibly removed. In order to encourage more UASC to register their stay in Serbia, IDEAS, DRC and CRPC has facilitated several trainings with UASC who were granted asylum in Serbia and who will act as peer educators for newly arrived children.