According to the government, Serbia was a transit country through which a very large, mixed flow of migrants and asylum seekers traveled to Western Europe. After the closure of the “Balkan route” on March 8, the number of migrants who passed through Serbia dropped in comparison with 2015, when 600,000 persons passed through the country. In the first eight months of the year, the Ministry of Interior registered approximately 96,000 migrants and asylum seekers who transited the country. Observers believed the real number was higher, since many migrants transited the country without being registered by the government. A total of 30 migrants per day were allowed to access the Hungarian asylum system, while the rest used illegal paths to enter other EU countries. Above this enforced quota, Hungarian authorities pushed potential asylum seekers back to Serbia without providing them an opportunity to seek protection in Hungary (see section 2.d., Country Reports on Human Rights for Hungary).
As of the end of November, approximately 6,400 migrants were present in Serbia; 5,200 migrants were accommodated in 13 official centers, approximately 1,000 slept in abandoned warehouses in Belgrade city center, and approximately 200 slept in makeshift accommodations directly on the border with Hungary. These migrants remain stranded in Serbia for an indefinite period.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has a system for giving protection to refugees. The asylum office within the Ministry of Interior is responsible for implementing the system but lacked the capacity, resources, and trained staff to do so effectively.
While the law is broadly in accordance with international standards, failures and delays in the implementation of its provisions denied asylum seekers access a prompt and effective individual assessment of their protection needs. In the majority of cases, asylum applications were discontinued or suspended because the applicants left the country. According to UNHCR, the primary reasons for asylum seekers to leave the country were their lack of interest in living in the country and the lengthy government procedure for adjudicating applications. Although 8,003 individuals had expressed an intention of seeking asylum in the country, most departed and only 535 formally applied for asylum. Of 133 asylum seekers interviewed, only 11 received positive refugee status determinations.
In response to migrants staying for longer periods of time in the country, the government expanded its network of five official asylum centers (Krnjaca, Sjenica, Tutin, Banja Koviljaca, and Bogovadja) with the opening of 12 additional centers (Subotica, Principovac, Sid, Adasevci, Bujanovac, Presevo, Dimitrovgrad, Pirot, Bela Palanka, Bosilegrad, Sombor, and Kikinda) with capacity to accommodate nearly 6,000 persons.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: International humanitarian organizations raised concerns about the government’s interpretation and use of the concept of safe third country, which was not in line with international standards. It was government policy to issue blanket denials of asylum to applicants from a “safe country of origin.” Organizations claimed this policy and the list of “safe third countries” was nonsensical because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs determined them based solely on Serbia’s relations and affiliations with those countries and not on their actual safety with regard to humanitarian and human rights conditions. As a result, all neighboring states recognized by Serbia were on its list of “safe third countries.” Humanitarian organizations petitioned the Constitutional Court to abolish the list, but the court declared that making such a decision did not fall within its competency. Most migrants, however, expressed the intention to seek asylum in the country in order to move freely, stay in government-provided accommodation with food provided, and pause before finding smugglers to take them to countries further north and west in the EU. At the same time, Hungary returned thousands of migrants to Serbia (see Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons, above, and section 2.d. of the Country Report on Human Rights for Hungary).
Refoulement: Humanitarian organizations noted the country lacked the resources and expertise to provide sufficient protection against refoulement but in principle agreed to refrain from refoulement. In July the government formed joint army/police teams to patrol the border with Bulgaria and Macedonia more closely and more effectively deny entry to Serbia. Various press reports and reporting from humanitarian sources also indicated the authorities started pushing back irregular migrants without screening them for persons seeking asylum.
Employment: Asylum seekers do not have the right to employment. Employment is available only once an applicant is recognized as a refugee at the end of the country’s refugee determination process. The Commissariat for Refugees and Migration remained in charge of local integration of refugees.
Access to Basic Services: Asylum seekers had the right to access health and education services, although barriers including language and cultural differences limited practical access.
Durable Solutions: The government provided support for the voluntary return and reintegration of refugees from the former Yugoslavia. Those who chose the option of integration in Serbia rather than return to their country of origin enjoyed the same rights as Serbian nationals, including access to basic services such as health and education, and had access to simplified naturalization in the country; they did not have the right to vote unless their naturalization process was completed. According to the commissariat’s official statistics, 20,334 refugees from Croatia and 9,080 from Bosnia and Herzegovina resided in the country, while the government estimated that approximately 200,000 to 400,000 former refugees were naturalized but not socially or economically integrated into the country. Approximately 83 refugees from the former Yugoslavia lived in nine collective centers throughout the country. The government provided housing for 95 persons.
Together with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro, the country participated in the Regional Housing Project (RHP) to provide housing for approximately 16,000 vulnerable refugee families who decided to integrate into the country. An international donors’ conference in 2012 received pledges totaling 260 million euros ($286 million) in commitments for the RHP, representing approximately half of the requested five-year budget. The RHP assembly of donors approved six project proposals to provide housing to more than 5,200 refugee families living in the country. As of year’s end, 1,100 housing solutions had been provided or were under construction. The total value of the six projects was 103 million euros ($109 million), of which the government contributed 16 million euros ($18 million).
Temporary Protection: The government also provided protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. The government granted 16 asylum seekers with subsidiary protection until the end of August.