The previous version of this report was last published in May 2022.
- Key statistics on arrivals: In 2022, almost 120,000 newly arrived refugees and migrants were registered by the relevant state authorities, which implies that the number of arrivals doubled in comparison to 2021. The vast majority of arrivals are people coming from Syria and Afghanistan, but also other countries in which the political turmoil and instability indicate the potential need for international protection. In other words, more than 60% of people whose arrival was registered in Serbia in 2022 might be in need of international protection and can be considered to have prima facie The above-mentioned number does not encompass the 148,000 Ukrainian refugees who predominately transited through Serbia until the end of February 2023, but also the significant number of Russian citizens who fled in fear of forced military recruitment, political turmoil and lack of business opportunities in the country hit by sanctions. Until the end of 2022, around 220,000 arrivals of Russian citizens were recorded.
- Access to the territory – Pushback practices: The systemic denial of access to territory prevails and practices of pushbacks and other forms of collective expulsions from Serbia to North Macedonia and Bulgaria have continued in 2022. From 2016 to 2022, a total of 227,183 ‘prevention of illegal entries’ was registered by the highest state officials, contributing to the narrative in which this kind of behaviour is acceptable and worthy of praise. In 2022, at least 45,965 instances of denial of access to territory were outlined by the highest state officials. Despite the decision of the Constitutional Court from January 2022 (finding a violation of the prohibition of collective expulsions to Bulgaria in February 2017) as well as the same case pending before the European Court of Human Rights, the practice of pushbacks prevails and will most likely intensify after the Declaration on cooperation between Hungary, Serbia and Austria was signed in December 2022, with an aim to ‘reduce the number of illegal arrivals to Serbia’. On the other hand, only 190 persons were officially readmitted from Serbia to Bulgaria and several other countries, which is a further confirmation that informal and illegal practices applied in the context of border control are predominately based on illegal and arbitrary acts of pushbacks and other risky forms of forcible removal such as refusal of entry decision rendered automatically, deprived of any risk assessment of refoulement, and without possibility to be challenged with the remedy that has automatic suspensive effect. In 2022, more than 9,000 foreigners were refused entry to Serbia, out of which 8,682 at the Belgrade Nikola Tesla airport. More than 60% of refusals of entry happened in the last quarter of 2022, when Serbia reintroduced the visa regime for citizens of Tunisia, India and several other countries. The practice of issuing refusals of entry implies a complete lack of risk assessment of refoulement, arbitrary detention in the transit zone of airports and removal of refugees to countries of origin or third countries which cannot be considered as safe. There were no reports of cases in which people fleeing from Ukraine were subjected to any form of denial of access to territory or asylum, temporary or other residential procedure. Thus, Ukrainian refugees are not subjected to pushback practices as well, nor there were instances in which they were refused entry or readmitted to third countries. This state of affairs clearly indicates unequal and beyond any doubt discriminatory and xenophobic treatment of refugees from Africa and Asia.
- Push-backs from other countries to Serbia: Due to its geographical position, being surrounded by countries which form the so-called external borders with the EU, at least several hundred instances of pushbacks from Hungary, Romania and Croatia to Serbia happened on a daily basis. Only from Hungary, almost 160,000 instances of pushbacks were reported by Hungarian immigration services, while several thousand more pushbacks from Croatia and Romania were reported by the UNHCR, but also CSOs. Many of the reported incidents were described as violent, implying different forms of physical or psychological ill-treatment. In general, at Serbian borders (entry and exit points) there is a crisis of the rule of law and respect for the human rights of refugees from Africa, the Middle East and other parts of Asia. On the other hand, formal ways of cooperation, such as readmission, are basically non-existing. Less than 1,000 persons were officially readmitted from EU countries to Serbia.
- Smuggling activities: The lack of respect for the rule of law at the external borders of the EU implies that organized crime flourished on the Serbian side of the border, leading to the situation in which different criminal groups involved in smuggling activities are controlling border areas with Romania, Croatia and Hungary, but also reception centres in Sombor, Subotica, Kikinda and others. Numerous violent incidents among smuggling groups, including armed shootings were reported and documented, as well as instances in which refugees and migrants were mistreated by such groups inside and outside official reception facilities. Numerous reports indicate the involvement of police officers and interpreters in the work of these groups, raising concerns about organised crime. People pushed back from EU countries to Serbia are exposed to numerous risks, including those originating from organized criminal groups, life in destitute in places of informal gatherings in the border area, poor and unsafe living conditions in reception facilities and denial of access to the asylum procedure, which can also lead to chain-refoulement to third countries from which people had entered Serbia (mainly Bulgaria and North Macedonia).
- Access to the asylum procedure at the airport: As outlined above, denial of access to territory and asylum procedure at Nikola Tesla airport in Belgrade continues to be a serious problem. People refused entry are arbitrarily detained in the transit zone from several days to several weeks, without detention decisions, access to rights of persons deprived of their liberty, the possibility to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before the judicial authority and other rights which form layers of the rights to liberty and security. The decision of refusal of entry is rendered in English and Serbian language, without any risk assessment of refoulement, and without the possibility of lodging an appeal which has an automatic suspensive effect. Moreover, even if the foreigner, legally incompetent, and detained in the transit zone holding rooms, would decide to lodge the appeal, this would be impossible from the transit zone. The current practice has been justified by the Constitutional Court of Serbia which assessed that people being held at the transit zone should not be considered deprived of their liberty because the Foreigners Act does not envisage detention in such situations. In 2022, the European Court of Human Rights adopted two requests for interim measures indicating to the Serbian Government not to refuse entry to a Turkish journalist and an Iranian political activist and his family, but there were several other instances of mistreatment at the Belgrade airport allegedly committed by the hands of Border Police Station Belgrade border guards. For that reason, and since the Constitutional Court has failed to make an autonomous assessment of the status of people held in the airport transit zone in line with the subjective and objective criteria of the Strasbourg Court, several applications before the European Court have been lodged and are currently pending.
- Registration and lodging of asylum applications: In 2022, a total of 4,181 registration certificates were issued, while only 322 asylum applications were lodged. This still means that only a handful of persons are genuinely interested to apply for asylum in Serbia. The registration of intention to lodge asylum application in Serbia still suffers from long-lasting flaws. First of all, registration certificates are issued in Serbian language and Cyrillic letters, which causes difficulties for asylum seekers to understand the content of this document. Moreover, registration certificates are frequently automatically issued and asylum seekers are referred to reception centres where they cannot effectively access the asylum procedure, or asylum centres (such as those in Sjenica and Tutin) in which Asylum Office does not facilitate asylum hearings. Thus, these need to be transferred to Asylum Centres in Krnjača or Asylum Center in Obrenovac where they would have the possibility to access the Asylum Office, but also competent legal representatives. Still, even though more than 4,000 registration certificates were issued, only 322 persons applied for asylum. This represents the continuation of the trend in which the number of persons who might be in need of international protection who entered Serbia (around 120,000 in 2022), who are registered in line with the Asylum Act (around 4,000) in the end decided to leave Serbia without even applying for asylum (only 322 in 2022). From the creation of the Serbian asylum system, a total of 653,028 foreigners were issued the registration certificate, while only 4,020 of them applied for asylum. Most of the asylum applications lodged in 2022 were in writing, which represents positive practice, taking into consideration the extremely low capacities of the Asylum Office (only 4 operational asylum officers in March 2023). The majority of applicants were from Burundi and Cuba. The 15 + 8 deadline to lodge the asylum application remains a serious concern, even though it is not applied in practice. However, if the policy changes, the failure of persons in need of international protection to respect this deadline would expose them to the risk of forcible removal to countries of origin or third counties which cannot be considered safe, but without any risk assessment against refoulement. These provisions were not addressed by the MoI in the set of amendments to the Asylum Act which are being discussed at the time of the conclusion of this Report.
- First-instance asylum decisions: In the period from 1 April 2008 to 31 December 2022, the asylum authorities in Serbia rendered 158 decisions granting asylum (refugee status or subsidiary protection) to 226 persons from 26 different countries. A total of 73 decisions were rendered in relation to 117 applicants who received subsidiary protection, while 85 decisions were rendered in relation to 109 applicants who were granted refugee status. In 2022, the Asylum Office delivered 248 decisions regarding 352 asylum seekers, which is a 117% increase in comparison to the previous year. Out of that number, 48 decisions regarding 62 asylum seekers were rejected in merits, while 20 decisions granting asylum to 30 applicants were delivered in the same period. As has been the case in previous years, most of the decisions rendered were related to the discontinuation of the asylum procedure due to absconding (180 decisions regarding 258 applicants). The length of the asylum procedure, but also prioritisations of several Ukrainian applications were additional problems detected. The overall recognition rate was 29%, and refugee status was granted through 6 decisions to citizens of Afghanistan (4), Iran (3) Ukraine (1), Libya (1) and Burundi (1). The remaining 10 decisions were related to subsidiary protection: Syria (10), Ukraine (3), DR Congo (2), Afghanistan (2), Cuba (1), Cameroon (1) and Niger (1).
The most notable decisions rendered by the Asylum Office are the following:
- Decisions on granting subsidiary protection to citizens of Cuba (HIV+ and LGBTQI+ applicant denied medication in Cuba and proclaimed by incompetent legal aid providers as non-credible cases) and Cameroon (a person with a serious physical disability which requires everyday support)
- Decision on granting refugee status to a SGBV survivor from Burundi on the basis of the Istanbul Protocol Report drafted by the multidisciplinary team consisting of forensic experts, a gynaecologist and a psychiatrist and supplemented by the first SGBV Report submitted as evidence in asylum procedure.
- Decision on granting refugee status to a SGBV survivor from Afghanistan on the basis of the Istanbul Protocol Report drafted by the multidisciplinary team consisted of forensic experts and a psychiatrist and supplemented by the SGBV Report.
The practice of the Asylum Office remains contradictory and one of the major problems detected by legal aid providers is the lack of capacity of Asylum Officers to apply the principle of in dubio pro reo (the principle of the benefit of the doubt). In other words, the burden of proof threshold has been set high, leaving the space for international protection only for those who have survived the most violent forms of acts of persecution.
The practice towards LGBTQI+ applicants and SGBV survivors remains negative, inconsistent, and it is oftentimes worsened due to the poor work of legal aid providers.
- Asylum Commission – the second instance authority: The practice of the second instance authority – Asylum Commission, continues to lack corrective influence on the work of the Asylum Office. In 2022 the Asylum Commission took 44 decisions regarding 59 persons, which is a significant decrease in comparison to 2021 when 74 decisions were rendered regarding 80 persons. No decision was taken after the hearing of the appellant, nor did any recognise international protection to the appellant. Notably, in the history of the body, there were only three positive decisions granting asylum to 4 applicants, the last one in 2019.
- Administrative Court –the third instance authority: The Administrative Court does not have a department or panel specialised in reviewing asylum cases and it rules on the lawfulness of a final administrative act in three-member judicial panels. Thus, the same conclusion can be drawn from the jurisprudence of the Administrative Court as it is from the practice of the Asylum Commission. In the past 15 years, this third instance body has failed to establish itself as the corrective authority in relation to the Asylum Commission and the Asylum Office. In the same period, this body has failed to conduct a single hearing of asylum seekers and to render a single positive decision. In 2022, the Administrative Court delivered 26 decisions regarding 41 persons from the following nationalities: Iran (19), Jordan (4), Bulgaria (3), Türkiye (2), Tunis (2), Syria (2), Libya (2) and 1 from BiH, Pakistan, Burundi, Cuba, Somalia, Afghanistan and 1 unknown country. Out of that, 21 complaints were rejected encompassing 36 persons, while 4 complaints were upheld in relation to 4 persons and 1 case was discontinued. What is common for Asylum Commission and the Administrative Court is the fact that decision makers comprising these bodies have failed to develop the necessary expertise in international refugee and human rights law. Thus, the most developed practice in the Serbian asylum system is the one originating from the first instance authority – Asylum Office.
- Legal aid: The quality of legal aid provided by CSOs and attorneys at law still lacks necessary quality assurance control and in the past several years many instances of unprofessional, incompetent and unduly behaviour was recorded, producing devastating consequences on applicants for international protection in Serbia.
- Asylum procedures: Serbia is not a part of Dublin, nor does the Serbian Asylum Act recognise the admissibility procedure. The border procedure is yet to be applied in practice, while the accelerated procedure is rarely applied. Also, the practice of the safe country concept is worth praising and asylum authorities resort to such decisions only in rare situations. Since the institute of subsequent asylum applications has been introduced in the 2018 Asylum Act, not a single subsequent applicant was successful in reopening his asylum case. Vulnerability assessments in terms of procedural, but also reception guarantees are still not clearly prescribed and it largely depends on the assistance of international Organisations and CSOs.
- Reception capacity and conditions: According to CRM, in 2022 the total capacity of the 19 asylum and reception centres increased from 5,915 to 8,155 beds. Realistic capacities which meet most of the relevant standards regarding dignified and safe accommodation, and which can be used for a longer stay are between 3,000 and 3,500 (Asylum and Reception Centres jointly). It is difficult to provide a clear picture of the realistic reception capacities which are in line with the relevant human rights standards, as no independent entity has ever conducted a non-biased, impartial and thorough monitoring of reception facilities. The situation with most of the RC is such that they cannot be considered places designated for a longer-term stay. Throughout the year numerous incidents were reported, including poor living conditions, poor hygiene, overcrowding, security incidents inside or outside the camps, presence of organized criminal groups prone to ill-treatment of other beneficiaries and others. MoI is still referring genuine asylum seekers to asylum or reception centres where the Asylum Office does not facilitate asylum procedures and they have to wait for a prolonged period of time to be transferred to one of the asylum centres where they could have their asylum hearing.
Detention of asylum seekers
- Freedom of movement/deprivation of liberty: Persons in need of international protection who enjoy the status of asylum seekers are rarely detained, while the same category of people who are not willing to apply for asylum can be detained and forcibly removed to one of the neighbouring countries. Living conditions in DC Padinska Skela are acceptable, while there are no credible reports which could indicate the realistic capacities or living conditions in the recently opened DC Plandište and DC Dimitrovgrad. The total capacities of immigration detention facilities are 310 places. Slightly less than 600 third country nationals, out of which 60% could be in need of international protection, were subjected to immigration detention, and only several of them expressed their intent to apply for asylum. The question that remains open is to which extent persons in need of international protection detained under the Foreigners Act have access to the asylum procedure, but also have the possibility to enjoy the right of persons deprived of their liberty, including the right to obtain legal representative who could assist them to challenge their detention, but also their expulsion. The systemic problem of arbitrary detention at airport transit zones continues to exist and there are several applications pending before the ECtHR. Alternatives to detention are yet to be used in practice.
Content of international protection
- Integration: The integration of refugees and inclusion of asylum seekers still largely depends on the assistance of CSOs, despite the clear mandate of the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration (CRM) to provide social, economic and cultural assistance. There is no precise data on how many persons granted asylum remained in Serbia, but it is reasonable to assume that it is a bit more than 100. This can also be attributed to the lack of prospects to access the labour market in the first 9 months of the asylum procedure.
- Access to education for all children seeking or granted asylum in guaranteed, but the quality of education remains low due to language barriers.
- Travel documents: In the absence of a legal framework on travel documents for beneficiaries of international protection, which was due to be adopted 60 days after the entry into force of the Asylum Act in 2018, the loophole persists and the right to freedom of movement of persons granted asylum is still undermined.
- Family reunification: For the first time in 2020, a family reunification procedure was carried out in Serbia, allowing an Afghan refugee represented by the APC to reunite with his family in 2020. The procedure took 10 months, but it is hoped that it will set a precedent for future family reunification cases. In 2021 and 2022, there were no instances of family reunification.
The information given hereafter constitute a short summary of the annex on Temporary Protection in Serbia. For further information, see Annex on Temporary Protection.
Temporary protection procedure
- Scope of temporary protection: On 18 March 2022, for the first time in the history of the Serbian asylum system, the Government adopted the Decision on Providing Temporary Protection in the Republic of Serbia to Displaced Persons Coming from Ukraine. The scope of temporary protection is related to ‘persons displaced from Ukraine’ who were forced to leave Ukraine as their country of origin or country of habitual residence or who were evacuated from Ukraine and who cannot return to permanent and safe living conditions because of the current situation prevailing in that country. On 16 March 2023, the Government extended temporary protection to displaced people through the Decision on Supplementing of the TPD which will be valid until 18 March 2024.
- Registration for temporary protection: In the period from March 2022 until April 2023, the total number of persons registered in line with the TPD was 1,293. Out of that number, 1,237 were Ukrainian nationals, 28 were Russian nationals and 28 were other nationals (China, Latvia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Belarus, Georgia, Uzbekistan and Armenia). A total of 840 registered individuals are female, while 453 were male. Out of 1,293 registered individuals, a total of 313 were children. Out of 1,293 registered individuals, a total of 1,257 of them were granted temporary protection. In the period March-April 2023, a total of 671 were extended temporary protection. Refugees from Ukraine have unhindered access to the territory, to registration procedures as well as to the procedure for obtaining temporary protection. Basically, the positive attitude of the MoI towards refugees from Ukraine implies that they do not require substantive legal support to access and obtain temporary protection.
Content of temporary protection
- Access to rights: Beneficiaries of temporary protection are entitled to identical rights as persons granted asylum or subsidiary protection and thus, they face the same obstacles. However, access to health care, access to the labour market, and consequences of the lack of biometric ID cards and other forms of assistance are mainly provided by CSOs who are funded by the UNHCR and other relevant donors such as the EU.