The flawed and automatic application of the safe third country concept used to be a major problem of the Serbian asylum system since its very establishment. Throughout the years, asylum authorities automatically relied on the Safe Countries List denying prima facie refugees the possibility for their asylum claim to be decided in merits. Moreover, this practice was equally damaging for the applicants who did not have prima facie claim regarding their country of origin, but had an arguable claim regarding the risk of torture and other forms of ill-treatment in the third countries through which they had travelled before arriving in Serbia and which were proclaimed as “safe” in the asylum procedure.
However, in 2020, the Asylum Office stopped applying this concept, which has led to a significant improvement in practice and the sharp increase of the cases being decided on the merits. One of the main reasons for the shift of the Office’s attitude towards the safe third country notion is the fact that there are currently two cases pending before ECtHR and which are expected to be decided in 2021. Additionally, the provisions of the new Asylum Act have introduced certain types of boundaries against the automatic application of the safe third country concept. For that reason, the concept was applied in a total of 10 decisions in 2019 concerning 11 persons and none in 2020.
Article 42 of the Asylum Act prescribes that an asylum application may be dismissed without examination on the merits if the concept of a safe third country can be applied. Although the new law significantly improves the framework of the safe third country concept, there are still ambiguities that may obstruct its adequate application. Namely, according to Article 45 of the Asylum Act, a “safe third country” is a country where the applicant is safe from persecution, as well as from the risk of suffering serious harm. Additionally, the safe third country must ensure that the applicant enjoys the protection from refoulement, which includes access to an efficient asylum procedure.
Interpreting the Asylum Act as a whole, it follows from Article 32 that the Asylum Office collects and considers all the relevant facts, evidence and circumstances when deciding on the merits of the asylum application as well as on the assessment of a certain third country as “safe”. Under “facts, evidence and circumstances” it considers “current reports about the situation in… countries of transit [of the applicant], including the laws and regulations of these countries and the manner in which they are applied – as contained in various sources provided by international organizations including UNHCR and the European Asylum Support Office… and other human rights organisations.”
Additional provisions regarding the application of the safe third country concept have been provided in Article 17 of the Asylum Act which refers to specific personal circumstances that must be taken into account in decision-making and relative to which individuals must be granted special procedural and reception guarantees. Specific circumstances are present if the applicant is a minor, unaccompanied minor, person with disabilities, elderly person, single parent with underage children, victim of human trafficking, severely ill person, a person with mental disorder and persons subjected to torture and other forms of abuse (“psychological, physical or sexual violence”). By analogy and following a logical interpretation of the above provision, it is evident that a person falling into one of the above categories must be ensured equal reception guarantees in the receiving country if subject to application of the safe third country concept. Moreover, the competent authorities must consider proprio motu the extent to which these special guarantees could be enjoyed in the receiving country.
In establishing conditions for application of the safe third country, each asylum application is assessed individually, examining whether the country fulfills the conditions set by Article 45(1), and whether there is a connection between that country and the applicant on the basis of which it could be reasonably expected that he or she could seek asylum in that country. The new approach of the Asylum Act is encouraging as it implies an individual consideration of each case and not the application of the Safe Countries Decision or any other regulation proclaiming a country “safe” without transparent criteria.
Article 45(3) states that the applicant will be informed in good time about the application of the safe third country concept so as to allow him or her the possibility to challenge it. It may be reasonable to assume that the information i.e., challenging of the safe third country concept would take place during the interview.
This assumption is founded in the provision of Article 37 setting out that an officer of the Asylum Office authorised for interviewing, shall establish facts related to the travel routes of the applicant after leaving his or her country of origin or habitual residence, and whether he/she had previously sought asylum in any other country. If this is not the case, the future application of this provision by the Asylum Office remains to be seen.
The issue that remains unclear in the provisions regarding the safe third country concept is the certificate that the Asylum Office issues to the applicant, having ruled on dismissing his or her application due to application of the concept. Namely, the new Asylum Act only states that the certificate shall include an information for the authorities of a third state that the Republic of Serbia has not examined the asylum application on the merits.
Consequently, it is not clear whether applicants will have to go to the border crossing points themselves and present the certificate on the “safe third country” to the authorities or if the authorities of the safe third country be officially informed that the application of a certain individual had been dismissed as it was concluded that it could and should have been examined on the merits in that country. It is still not clear how will this function in practice.
Practical ambiguities of this provision aside, the issue of major concern is the absence of clear and accurate provisions on individual guarantees, being the key issue relating to every forcible removal procedure. The issues that remain open after the beginning of implementation of the Asylum Act are the manner in which the said guarantees would be obtained from the states assessed to be safe, what exactly would these guarantees include, and to what extent would they be personalised to each individual. Based on the above, however, it follows that, before the final evaluation, it is necessary to wait for the first decisions of the Asylum Office that will apply the safe third country concept in line with the Asylum Act.
Finally, the Asylum Act provides that the Republic of Serbia would examine a foreigner’s application on the merits if a third country considered safe refuses to admit him or her.
 AIDA, Country Report Serbia, 2020 Update, May 2020, p. 57-58.
 ECtHR, El-Masri v. ‘The Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia’, Application No 39630/09 Judgment of 13 December 2012, para 165; M.S.S. v. Belgium and Greece, Application No 30696/09, Judgment of 21 January 2011, EDAL, available at: https://bit.ly/2ErG9VZ, para 296.
 Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, Recommendation on the Right of Rejected Asylum Seekers to an Effective Remedy Against Decisions on Expulsion in the Context of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, 18 September 1998, Rec(98)13, Rec. 1.
 ECtHR, A.K. v. Serbia, Application No 57188/16, Communicated on 19 November 2018; M.H. v. Serbia, Application No 62410/17, Communicated on 26 October 2018.
 Article 45(1) Asylum Act.
 Article 45(2) Asylum Act.