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Feature 06 Jun 16

Few Refugees Seek Asylum in Serbia

Serbia has served as a temporary haven for refugees but most choose to press on to the EU.

Milivoje Pantovic
Arman volunteered while living in the unofficial refugee centre Miksalište in Belgrade. Photo: BIRN/Milivoje Pantovic.

“A year ago I had not even heard of Serbia, and I definitely did not think that I would live here,” says Fareed Arman, a former Afghan soldier who is seeking refugee status in Serbia.

“When I came here, I saw that there is peace and friendly people. I have decided to stay.”

Arman’s story is not unique but it is rare. Although more than one million migrants and refugees are estimated to have passed through Serbia during the past two years, only 34 expressed a desire to remain during 2015. Fewer than half that number have sought refugee status so far during 2016.

At the gates of the EU

Rados Djurovic. Photo: Media Centre Belgrade.

"It is hard for refugees to stop in Serbia, at the gate of the EU. They ask themselves why stay in Serbia when the economic situation here is so bad,” says Rados Djurovic, director of Belgrade-based NGO Asylum Protection Centre.

Djurovic says refugees get little or no help from the state regarding immigration. But he is convinced that even if there were more help, refugees would not stay in Serbia.

“The legal procedure for claiming asylum in Serbia is simple,” Djurovic says. “The problem is that there are not enough experts in the institutions that deal with refugees.”

And that leads to delays. Refugees who wish to remain in Serbia must first declare their intention to stay with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, after which they will be directed to one of Serbia’s five refugee camps. Once in camp, they can apply for asylum and participate in two interviews. Then they simply wait for a legal verdict, which is usually positive.

Seeking asylum 

Arman has begun volunteering as a translator and humanitarian. Photo: BIRN/Milivoje Pantovic.

"In Serbia I have entered illegally,” says Fareed Arman. “I have a medal at home, received as a good soldier. But I do not have a passport.” Arman has started the legal process to get refugee status, but he is not standing still. Instead of just waiting, he has begun volunteering as a translator and humanitarian.

"I've already been to an interview for asylum. The lawyer told me that I am not a citizen of Serbia, but I'm getting there,” Arman says, adding “Now I'm already 50 per cent Serb” in Serbian.

Uncertain status

Refugees in Miksaliste, Belgrade's refugee aid centre. Photo: Facebook.

Arman says he wants to work despite his uncertain legal status. He believes his knowledge of languages – he speaks seven languages, including Pashto, Farsi, Kurdish, English and Punjabi – would allow him to be helpful to authorities managing the refugee crisis. His proficiency with languages helped him while he was in the Afghan army, where he served as a communications officer with an international anti-terrorist coalition.

“It would be ideal to work. I'm not used to being idle, and therefore I volunteer,” Arman says. “One day, when conditions change, I want to continue learning. I like to help people, so I would like to go to school for something in the field of medicine. I hope I get the opportunity one day and I hope that it will happen in Serbia."

Arman is optimistic despite the fact that he lost his first home in Belgrade outside the camps. After leaving a refugee camp in Krnjaca, he was volunteering and living in the unofficial refugee centre “Miksaliste”, which was organized by NGOs in response to the refugee crisis. People there could get medical help, free food and clothing, but the shelter was demolished in April to make room for the Belgrade Waterfront Project, so Arman is again without a home, living temporarily at the Krnjaca refugee centre.

Refugees confirm that a lack of jobs is one of the reasons Serbia does not have a large number of refugees who want to immigrate. Many say that Serbia is a beautiful country, pleasant to their people, but they add, "People in Serbia do not have enough for themselves."

Football dreams 

Ishaq still leaves at the Krnjaca refugee camp. Photo: BIRN/Milivoje Pantovic.

Hoping that Serbia will become his new homeland is Ibrahim Ishaq (19) from Ghana, who was on his way to Germany when he decided to remain in Serbia. Unlike Arman, he never left the Krnjaca refugee camp.

"I'm good here. I came to Serbia last July, and I have decided to stay," says Ishaq in a mix of English and Serbian.

Ishaq admits he rarely goes to the classes that are organized for the refugees in the camp, but quickly adds that he is not idle. "Some time ago I started to train football with OFK Beograd,” he says.

“I cannot play for them because I do not have the documents. I am still in the process of obtaining them. But that's why I train almost every day, and from teammates I am learning the language.”

"I like everything in Serbia. The weather is temperate and the people are pleasant. Nobody ever said anything racist to me. In the OFK Beograd all behave normally because I'm part of the team, although I only train with them. And I really like it,”  Ishaq continues.

He hopes to settle in Serbia and support himself with a good job. Every day is a new day, he says, and he wants to make the best of it. So as soon as he gets up he heads to the field for football practice.

Other refugees are less willing to discuss their status and plans.

Some admit privately that they have expressed their intention to seek asylum in order to get temporary work as translators with humanitarian organizations, just to make a bit of money. Their employment status is legally questionable, and therefore they keep a low profile. They want to assist other refugees, so they work despite the slow process of obtaining documents that would allow them to do so openly and legally.

It is better, they say, than sitting in the refugee camp doing nothing.

 This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy. 

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