The previous version of this report was last published in May 2020.
- Consequences of COVID-19 on the asylum procedure: The COVID-19 measures severely impacted access to territory in the period March-May 2020. During the state of emergency which was in force from 15 March 2020 to 7 May 2020, registration and the first instance asylum procedure were suspended.
- Access to the territory: In 2020, the practice of push-backs and other forms of collective expulsion continued, especially on the southern border with North Macedonia where the Government has built a barber-wire fence. A total of 361 persons were collectively expelled to North Macedonia according to UNHCR and its partners. A landmarking ruling of the Constitution Court of 29 December 2020 involving a collective expulsion of 17 Afghans in 2017 confirmed that illegal border practices have been carried out by the authorities. This decision is the first official recognition that relevant state authorities deny access to the territory and carry out collective expulsions in practice.
- Push-backs from other countries to Serbia: Wide-spread push-backs towards Serbia have been documented along the green border with Bosnia, Croatia, Hungary and Romania where refugees and asylum seekers are systematically denied access to the territory and the asylum procedure, and are often subjected to various forms of ill-treatment, some of which may amount to torture. In 2020, more than 25,000 refugees and migrants were collectively expelled to Serbia from these four countries. The persons pushed back to Serbia frequently face obstacles in accessing the asylum procedure, especially if they were previously registered according to the Asylum Act or Foreigners Act and then subjected to misdemeanour proceedings for irregular entry to the neighbouring countries (in particular Croatia) or issued with an expulsion decision.
- Access to the asylum procedure at the airport: Persons in need of international protection still face significant problems in accessing asylum procedure at the airport Nikola Tesla, where they are deprived of their liberty in an arbitrary manner and in conditions which could amount to inhumane and degrading treatment. They are frequently refused entry and returned to a third country or country of origin without any assessment on the risks of refoulement.
- Registration: The number of persons issued with registration certificate has significantly dropped from around 12,900 registration certificates in 2019 to only 2,800 certificates in 2020. In the Detention Centre for Foreigners, not a single person expressed an intention to lodge an asylum application in Serbia. Registration of asylum seekers was suspended for almost 3 months, during the state of emergency. Out of the 2,800 persons who obtained a registration certificate, only 145 persons officially lodged an asylum application. This figure implies that Serbia is still considered to be a transit country, but also that many persons in need of international protection face obstacles in registering and lodging their application for international protection.
- Procedure at first instance: The Head of the Asylum Office was changed twice in the fourth quarter of 2020, thereby leaving the determining authority without a person in charge for the beginning of 2021. The recognition rate of the Asylum Office at first instance has dropped to 27.2% in 2020 compared to 32.5% in 2020. The inconsistency in the decision-making process regarding similar cases (e.g. unaccompanied minors, Afghan applicants, converters from Islam to Christianity in Iran and LGBTQI and SGBV claims) has continued and the length of asylum procedure is still highly problematic as it reaches 8 to 12 months, or even more in certain cases. Nevertheless, some decisions of the Asylum Office demonstrated good practices, especially in relation to unaccompanied and separated children (‘UASC’). However, the vast majority of asylum seekers decide to abscond during the asylum procedure before the first instance procedure is finalised, inter alia because of its length.
- Procedure at second instance: The Asylum Commission and Administrative Court continued their work without any obstacles, despite COVID-19 measures. The Asylum Commission rendered a record of 62 decisions, but none of them granted international protection and only 10 appeals were upheld (i.e. the cases were referred back to the Asylum Office). The third appeal authority, the Administrative Court, rejected all of the complaints. Not a single hearing of applicants was carried out by the appeal authorities. Thus, the Asylum Commission and Administrative Court continue to lack corrective influence over the decisions of the Asylum Office, meaning that the latter is the most effective RSDP authority and that persons who receive negative decisions at first instance have hardly any chance to overturn it at appeal stage.
- Vulnerable applicants: The practice of the Asylum Office regarding vulnerable applicants varied. While some improvements were noted for UASC, the opposite trend was noted for LGBTQI claims. Serbian asylum authorities have never granted asylum to a victim of sexual and gender-based violence. Moreover, even if the evidentiary activities conducted during the asylum procedure imply best interest determination for UASC (BID), psychological reports drafted by PIN and sometimes even medical and forensic medical documentation, there were many instances in which this evidence was disregarded. In general, a detailed vulnerability assessment is conducted only in relation to persons in need of international protection who are willing to lodge an asylum application in Serbia.
- Reception capacity and conditions: In 9 out of 18 functional asylum and reception centres in 2020, a high rate of overcrowding was observed. While the official reception capacity reached 5,655 places according to the authorities at the end 2020, in practice the capacities are much more limited. Serbia can only host between 3,000 and 3,500 migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in order to comply with applicable housing and human rights standards, As of March 2021, several thousand refugees, asylum seekers and migrants were accommodated in tents or collective premises with dozens of bunk beds in unhygienic conditions, deprived of privacy and with access to insufficient number of sanitary facilities.
- Freedom of movement: The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the right to freedom of movement of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants who were prohibited from leaving asylum and reception centres from 10 March 2020 to 14 May 2020, i.e. these centres were practically transformed into detention centres. The Constitutional Court dismissed initiatives for the review of constitutionality of the legal framework that had led to a collective detention of all refugees, asylum seekers and migrants residing in asylum and reception centres, which has further led to several applications being submitted to the European Court of Human Rights.
- Inhumane and degrading treatment: According to the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM), conditions in the reception centres of Obrenovac and Adaševci could have possibly amounted to inhumane and degrading treatment during the COVID-19 lockdown, confirming the findings published in the previous versions of this AIDA report. From 15 March to 7 May 2020, an emergency legal framework has led to a detention of more than 9,000 refuges, asylum seekers and migrants in 18 Asylum and Reception Centres in conditions that correspond to those that were criticised by NPM and which were contrary to COVID-19 recommendations of the World Health organisation (WHO) and European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT). This detention was described by CSOs as unlawful and arbitrary, but also contrary to derogation standards developed in the practice of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Issues of violence, ill-treatment and related incidents from reception staff continued to be reported throughout the year.
Detention of asylum seekers
- Detention of asylum seekers: The practice of the Detention Centre for Foreigners remained unchanged, and it is still safe to claim that Serbian authorities rarely detain asylum seekers. Nevertheless, people who may be in need for international protection but are not officially recognised as asylum seekers can be detained under the Foreigners Act during the removal procedure. The Ministry of Interior does not publish statistics on detained foreigners nor is it willing to provide this data to CSOs. Detained individuals are also not provided any legal assistance in the forcible removal procedure.
Content of international protection
- Integration: The integration of refugees and 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. A11 reported the high rate of unemployment among persons granted asylum, but also flagged the lack of institutional support for asylum seekers. During the state of emergency refugee and migrant children were deprived of the possibility to attend school and to follow online lectures. Right to health was also severely impacted in 2020, both due to COVID-19 and the high rate of overcrowding in reception centres. According to the official data, less the 80 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants were infected during the course of 2020.
- Travel documents: In 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 precedent for future family reunification cases.