Overcrowding, lack of privacy and poor hygiene are just some of the reported issues. These deficiencies were also highlighted in the 2017 report of the Council of Europe Special Representative of the Secretary General on migration and refugees who highlighted that standards of accommodation in both Asylum and Reception Centres could potentially raise issues under Article 3 ECHR.
Conditions in asylum centres
The conditions in the Asylum Centres vary from one to the other, with those in the centres in Banja Koviljača and Bogovađa being arguably of the highest quality. However, at the moment all asylum centres are overcrowded, with a lack of privacy and poor hygienic conditions.
All the Asylum Centres are open, but for the “night quiet” when they are locked for security reasons and no activities outside the rooms are allowed in line with the House Rules. The centres in Banja Koviljača and Krnjača are the only centres to have a Ministry of Interior official present at all times for recording incoming asylum seekers.
Banja Koviljača was established in 2008 as the first Asylum Centre in Serbia and is located in an urban area in the vicinity of Loznica town. The closest public services, primary school and police are approximately 1 km away from the AC, which represents an example of good practice. With a capacity of 120 persons, the overall conditions in the centre are satisfactory. The centre operates an open regime and the living conditions in it are satisfactory: families with children and persons with special needs are prioritised in terms of accommodation, with single women residing in separate rooms from single men. Asylum seekers accommodated there usually do not have many negative remarks concerning the reception conditions, apart from those levelled at a chronic lack of footwear and clothing.
The centre in Banja Koviljača has three floors with eleven rooms each, and there are eight showers and eight toilets on each of the floors. The centre has a TV room and a children corner where various creative workshops and activities are organised every day. Care is taken of preservation of family unity and of ethnic affiliation on reception and placement of persons. This means that members of different ethnic communities are placed on different floors or that selection is made on the basis of the language the beneficiaries speak. Also, the AC has eight indoor cameras inside the facility, and eight outdoor cameras, and the AC gate is locked during the night. The AC has own heating system and it does not depend on the external heat supply. Asylum seekers are provided meals three times a day, and the meals are specially adjusted to their religious and health needs.
An auxiliary building within the Asylum Centre was adapted for provision medical services with a view to securing permanent presence of medical staff.
A room has been designated for legal counsel and associations providing legal counselling to asylum-seekers.
One doctor and one medical technician are present four hours on each work day. Ever since, only a medical technician is present in the centre. The practice remained unchanged in as far as specialist examinations are concerned, meaning that asylum seekers in need of such examinations are referred to the hospital in town of Loznica in the company of the Asylum Centre staff. The health-care assistance is supported by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Medical check-ups are available on all working days, and the GP can intervene in urgent cases 24/7 as she herself stays at the AC.
Bogovađa is a Red Cross facility that has been used for the accommodation of asylum seekers since 2011 with an overall capacity of 200. It is located 70 km from Belgrade, while the closest public services are 11 km away. The AC itself is not located in an urban area, i.e., it is located in a weekend village surrounded by forest. This makes it difficult for the asylum seekers to use all the services they need, with the exception of attending the primary school. The nearest shop is 2–3 kilometres away.
The capacity can be extended up to maximum 280 beds. During 2018, around 110 persons on the average were residing in the centre. Families from Afghanistan and Iran represented the majority of residents in 2019, as well as the women travelling alone were accommodated in dormitories with other single women.
The principle of family unity in the provision of accommodation is generally respected in the centre, and there is a “children’s corner” where trained staff engage with underage residents.
The conditions in this Asylum Centre have substantially improved bearing in mind that the main building was renovated in 2018. The centre has central heating and an adequate number of bathrooms, though they are unisex – for men and women. The meals at this AC are regular, three times a day, and are served in the common dining room. However, the BCHR clients have expressed concern about the lack of halal food standards.
The AC is not physically fenced off, it has video surveillance, and the security staff are present. Within the AC grounds, there are several separate buildings for different purposes, one of which is used by the AC management, doctors, the Asylum Office inspectors, and the Red Cross staff. The largest building is used for asylum seeker accommodation, and there is also a facility that is used by charity organisations, such as Caritas, to carry out their activities. There is a children’s playground in the courtyard.
There was no police officer continuously on duty in Bogovađa to register foreigners who express the intention to seek asylum, issue registration certificates and identity cards for asylum seekers. When persons without registration certificates are admitted to the centre, the CRM staff provide transportation to the police stations in Valjevo or Lajkovac for them to register and receive registration certificates. Since Bogovađa obtained technical equipment for registration of persons who express the intention to seek asylum in 2018, it may be possible that the registration process will be conducted there in the future.
A medical team is present in the centre every working day. In case of interventions surpassing the capacities of the centre’s medical team, the asylum seekers are transported to the outpatient clinic in Bogovađa, Health Centre in Lajkovac or the hospital in Valjevo, depending on the specific case. Mandatory medical check-ups are most often conducted several days within arrival and depend on the availability of places at the competent health care centre. Access to healthcare services outside the AC is impeded due to the lack of transportation means and drivers for that purpose. Another obstacle is a lack of interpreters, which causes difficulties for doctors when it comes to the communication with patients. Psychological counselling is provided by PIN.
Tutin was opened in January 2014 in a former furniture factory Dalas. It was located there until March 2018 when a new facility for accommodation of asylum seekers was opened in Velje Polje, four kilometres away from downtown Tutin, and 295 km away from Belgrade. The centre can accommodate 200 persons. The average number of persons in this centre was around 120 per day in 2019, with this number increasing to 150 during the last quarter. As a newly building, the accommodation conditions in this centre have significantly improved compared to earlier years. However, the location of the town of Tutin is problematic, especially during the winter months when access by CSOs and Asylum Office is severely hindered due to unfavourable weather conditions. Namely, the AC in Tutin is located at Pešter weald where winter is long and harsh and snow frequently blocks the road, thereby preventing access to the camp for several weeks or even months.
The centre has 60 rooms and an adequate number of toilets which are shared. There is central heating and a drinking water tank has been installed. On placement, care is taken about ethnic affiliation in as much as the accommodation capacities allow. The principle of family unity is respected and the families are always placed together into rooms with their own bathrooms. Security staff is present 24 hours a day and the centre is locked during the night in line with the House Rules. Interpreters for Arabic and Farsi are available. Tutin AC has a common TV room, a dining room, and a children’s playground. Three meals per day are provided and are adapted to religious needs. The Commissariat facilitates different workshops and activities within the children’s corner, but also for the adults (sewing, hairdressing). However, one of the major problems is the lack of interpreters, which are mainly provided by CSOs.
The new building has an outpatient clinic with a doctor present every day, which is a significant improvement in comparison to 2017. In addition, a nurse and a Farsi interpreter are present in the outpatient clinic thus raising the level the medical services provided. The residents in need of specialised examinations are transported to the Health Care Centre in Tutin or to the hospital in Novi Pazar.
Sjenica was set up as a temporary centre in the former Hotel Berlin to accommodate an increased number of asylum-seekers in Serbia in August 2013. Later on, in March 2017, the former textile factory Vesna was added to the Asylum Centre. The old Hotel Berlin, with inadequate conditions and collective dormitories in the hall, was closed in July 2018. The centre in Sjenica is now located only in the former factory Vesna, downtown Sjenica, that can take up to 250 persons in 27 rooms. It is approximately 250 km away from Belgrade and the underdeveloped road infrastructure pose particular difficulties for the NGOs and Asylum Office. According to the management of the centre, the ongoing reconstruction works are aimed to extend its capacity by an additional 160 places. An average of 150 persons per day stayed in this centre in the course of 2019. Children comprised 93% of the residents of the centre, the majority of them being unaccompanied. The principle of family unity is observed at placement, so the families are always accommodated together.
Within the AC, there is a children’s area, a TV room, and a playground in front of the building. Meals are provided to asylum seekers three times a day and are specially adjusted to their religious and health needs. There is also a designated room for the social workers from the local SWC.
The AC in Sjenica was mostly used for USAC accommodation during the 2019. The living conditions could be described as inadequate in the old part of the factory, while significant improvements were made during the year when entrance, kitchen and a certain number of bedrooms were refurbished. Thus, the new part of the building provides more privacy and plenty of accommodation space. The children accommodated at the AC are satisfied with the organised activities.
Mandatory examinations on admission into the AC for assessment of health status or identification of potential contagious diseases are conducted at the local Health Centre. A doctor is present in the AC from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on work days. The asylum-seekers in need of specialized examinations and stationary treatment are transported to the hospitals in Novi Pazar or Užice. All unaccompanied children interviewed by the BCHR were informed of the possibility of using medical services.
Krnjača was founded in the Belgrade municipality of Palilula in 2014 as a temporary centre for accommodation of asylum-seekers. The AC is located in the compound of workers’ barracks used – since early 1990s – for accommodation of refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as of IDPs from Kosovo. It can optimally take up to 750 persons, and up to 1,000 at times of urgency, making it – in addition to the reception/transit centre in Preševo – the biggest centre for accommodation of migrants and asylum- seekers on the territory of Serbia.
For its proximity to downtown Belgrade, this Asylum Centre housed the greatest number of persons in 2019 i.e., an average of 600 persons per day. CRM staff observed the principle of family unity at placement. There is a direct bus line connection to downtown (20 minutes). Also, the proximity to Belgrade provides greater employment and integration opportunities for the asylum seekers, which has positive effects on their attitude to apply for asylum in Serbia.
The conditions in the centre were partially improved after the 2017 renovation of the older barracks. However, there is no video surveillance in it as yet and the number of security staff is inadequate. Further to these, the BCHR clients most often complained of poor hygiene and lack of privacy. Three meals per day are provided and are specially adjusted to asylum seekers’ religious and health needs. AC has a hair salon and a tailor shop, and civil society organisations organise various courses in the common premises so that accommodated asylum seekers can improve specific crafts or languages.
The presence of organised criminal groups involved in smuggling and potentially human trafficking is evident and it is clear that security in Krnjača is highly problematic. The best example for this statement is the incident that took place in June 2019, when a boy from Afghanistan was brutally killed by the group of smugglers who apparently had unhindered access to the AC. For that reason, AC in Krnjača cannot be considered as adequate and safe for UASC.
As opposed to 2017, when the persons accommodated in the centre without certificates of expressed intention to seek asylum received dry food packages twice a day, all the residents regardless of their legal status were entitled to three warm meals a day in 2019. Furthermore, the humanitarian organisation Caritas continued distributing additional food packages.
Free health care is equally available to all the persons residing in Krnjača, irrespective of their legal status. A medical team is present until 8 p.m. every day except Sunday in a designated area adapted for adequate provision of this type of services. Asylum seekers and others in need of specialised examinations are referred to one of the hospitals in Belgrade and are assisted by the interpreters and CRM representatives. The lack of interpreters can create problems in communication with doctors.
Conditions in temporary reception facilities
The number of refugees and migrants arriving in Serbia was generally stable throughout 2019. The authorities started opening temporary reception facilities in 2015 in order to provide basic accommodation and humanitarian support to persons who were likely in need of international protection, but were not interested in seeking asylum in Serbia. These are not Asylum Centres and are not meant for long-term stay. Asylum seekers were placed in the majority of these centres throughout the year, while the centres in Preševo, Bela Palanka – Divljana and Dimitrovgrad were put on a temporary stand-by because of the drop in the number of refugees and migrants, and with a view to cost-optimisation before the impending heating season and the winter. According to the CRM, these centres will become operational within a matter of several hours should the number of refugees and migrants rise.
The reception (‘one-stop’) centre in Preševo (900 places), close to the border with North Macedonia, was opened during the summer of 2015. Emergency support was initially provided by Red Cross Serbia and the local municipality, but the Government soon decided to have a local tobacco factory adapted and turned into a registration and accommodation facility. The centre has a reception capacity for several hundred persons at any given moment.
Bujanovac (220 places) in Southern Serbia was opened in October 2016. The centre was opened in a former automotive battery factory lying along the Belgrade-Skopje highway. Bearing in mind that the facilities have only recently been renovated and that the centre is intended only for short-term stay, the reception conditions may be described as acceptable, although there is no staff recording asylum seekers in the centre, meaning that persons who arrive in Bujanovac cannot get a certificate of having expressed the intention to seek asylum unless they already have one. However, in the second part of 2019, the number of persons accommodated in Bujanovac increased and the occupancy rate was around 150%. This has led to a deterioration in hygiene, privacy and to certain extent safety.
In May 2017, an additional reception centre was opened in Vranje (220 places), in a motel at the entrance into the town. The conditions in Vranje may be described as satisfactory bearing in mind their provisional nature.
The reception centre in Sombor (120 places) was opened in 2015 in the warehouse of a military complex close to the border with Croatia. The centre’s capacity may be increased to 160 in the future. The centre mainly accommodates families and individuals who are about to be admitted in Hungary. Additional centres function in Principovac (150 places) and Adaševci (450 places), in the Šid municipality, close to the Croatian border.
Another reception centre for the accommodation of a larger number of migrants was opened in a military barracks in Obrenovac (900 places) in January 2017. The idea behind the opening of the centre was to provide accommodation for persons in need of international protection who used to stay in unhygienic and unsafe conditions in Belgrade. However, at the outset of its work, it started to suffer from overcrowding, which led to a number of violent incidents among its population. In spite of the regular police presence in the centre, many residents feel insecure staying there, and hygienic conditions are poor due to the large number of residents. The presence of organized criminal groups involved in smuggling is evident.
The reception centre in Subotica (130 places) was opened in 2015 at the height of the refugee and migrant movement into Hungary. The centre remained open as of 2019. Like the other reception centres, it is inadequate for long-term residence. In April 2017, an additional centre was opened in Kikinda (240), close to the Romanian border, in refurbished agricultural facilities. The vast majority of persons accommodated Kikinda and Subotica are on the waiting list for Hungary.
In mid-2016, the authorities of Serbia opened an additional three centres in Dimitrovgrad (90), Bosilegrad (60) and Pirot (250) to handle the increasing number of arrivals from Bulgaria. Another reception centre was opened in Bela Palanka (280) on 30 December 2016. All of these centres offer very basic, aging facilities and are inadequate for anything other than very short-term stay: for example, the centre in Dimitrovgrad only offers collective dormitories, and there are no separate male and female toilets.
In general, it can be safely argued that the vast majority of Reception Centres lack adequate living conditions due to their nature and purpose. Namely, the Reception Centres were established and designed during the 2015/2016 mass influx of refugees with an aim to provide a short-term stay (several days). However, when the border policies of neighbouring countries had changed, and the time of stay in Serbia increased from several days to at least 6 months, the living conditions in RCs deteriorated. For that reason, arguably the living conditions in majority of RCs are inadequate and the main features are the following: overcrowding, poor hygiene, lack of privacy and safety, poor sanitation and lack of basic psycho-social services.
For instance, Reception Centres in Adaševci and Šid are mainly made of huge tents in which several dozen persons are accommodated. They sleep on the bunk beds lined up next to each other, deprived of any personal space and privacy. The overcrowding rate in Adaševci RC is at least 200%, the hygiene is extremely problematic, as well as safety. A lot of USACs who are attempting to cross the border to Croatia are forced to stay in such conditions without adequate legal status. The cases of violence and theft were reported throughout the year and the presence of organised smuggling groups is evident. A similar conclusion can be drawn in relation to Obrenovac and Bujanovac Reception Centres.
Finally, it is also important to outline that not a single CSO in Serbia has payed a specific attention to the living conditions in Reception Centres and that all the data is collected through general observations made during the visits in which the legal counselling was provided. Thus, the thematic visits aimed at thorough documenting and reporting of the living conditions in the Reception Centres should be prioritized in the future. This is important for several reasons. First of all, the usual narrative is that Serbia can accommodate up to approximately 6,000 persons. However, this capacity is determined by the number of beds and not quality of the living conditions. This is also important for the future and potential cases of expulsions to Serbia, where sending states should bear in mind the quality of the reception conditions in respect to Article 3 of ECHR. And finally, a more detailed data on the current state of affairs in asylum and reception centres could be used as an advocacy tool for improvement of the living conditions.
 Council of Europe, Report of the fact-finding mission by Ambassador Tomáš Boček, Special Representative of the Secretary General on migration and refugees to Serbia and two transit zones in Hungary, 12-16 June 2017, available at: http://bit.ly/2DwCnI2.
 An average number of refugees and migrants residing in Serbia was between 5,000 to 6,500 on a daily basis.