Albania

Executive Summary

The Republic of Albania is a parliamentary democracy. The constitution vests legislative authority in the unicameral parliament (the Assembly), which elects both the prime minister and the president. The prime minister heads the government, while the president has limited executive power. In 2017 the country held parliamentary elections. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported the elections respected fundamental freedoms but were marred by allegations of vote buying and pressure on voters. Local elections took place in June 2019, but the main opposition party and others boycotted, accusing the government of electoral fraud. The organization’s observation mission to the local elections reported that, as a consequence of the boycott, voters did not have a meaningful choice between political options, although voting “was conducted in a generally peaceful and orderly manner.” The organization identified credible allegations of vote buying as well as pressure on voters from both the ruling party and opposition parties.

The Ministry of Interior oversees the Guard of the Republic and the State Police, which includes the Border and Migration Police. The State Police are primarily responsible for internal security. The Guard of the Republic protects senior state officials, foreign dignitaries, and certain state properties. The Ministry of Defense oversees the armed forces. The State Intelligence Service is responsible to the prime minister, gathers information, and carries out foreign intelligence and counterintelligence activities. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were some reports of abuses by members of the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on free expression and the press; pervasive corruption in all branches of government and municipal institutions; and failure to enforce child labor laws.

Impunity remained a serious problem. Prosecution, and especially conviction, of officials who committed abuses was sporadic and inconsistent. Officials, politicians, judges, and persons with powerful business interests often were able to avoid prosecution.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government usually respected these rights, although defamation is a criminal offense. There were reports that the government, businesses, and criminal groups sought to influence the media in inappropriate ways.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. There were efforts to exert direct and indirect political and economic pressure on the media, including by threats and violence against journalists who tried to investigate crime and corruption.

Business owners freely used their media outlets to gain favor and promote their interests with political parties. Most owners of private television stations used the content of their broadcasts to influence government action toward their other businesses. There were credible reports of senior media representatives using media outlets to blackmail businesses by threatening unfavorable, sometimes factual and sometimes speculative, media coverage. Political pressure, corruption, and lack of funding constrained independent print media, and journalists reportedly practiced self-censorship. Economic insecurity due to a lack of enforceable labor contracts reduced reporters’ independence and contributed to bias in reporting. The Albanian Journalists Union (AJU) continued to report significant delays in salary payments to reporters at many media outlets, in some instances of up to 10 months. According to the journalist union, the pandemic worsened these delays. Financial problems led some journalists to rely more heavily on outside sources of income, leading to questions of integrity in reporting.

NGOs maintained that professional ethics were a low priority for some of the estimated 900-plus news portals in the country, raising concerns over the spread of false news stories that benefited specific financial, political, and criminal interests. The dramatic growth in online media outlets provided a diversity of views as well as opportunities for corruption.

Violence and Harassment: The AJU reported five cases of violence and intimidation through November against members of the media, and political and business interests subjected journalists to pressure. In March the police detained a reporter following the asylum petition of Turkish citizen Selami Simsek (see subsection on Access to Asylum below) for several hours. In June the police detained a reporter for several hours while he was filming a demolition operation in Lezha. The police gave no reason for the detention. In October an explosion occurred at the gate of the house of News 24 TV correspondent Elidon Ndreka; no injuries were reported. The AJU condemned the incidents and called on authorities to punish perpetrators.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists often practiced self-censorship to avoid violence and harassment. The AJU cited censorship and self-censorship as leading problems for journalists. A survey of 800 media professionals published in 2019 found that 62 percent of respondents thought there was interference from individuals or politics, 60 percent thought there was interference from media owners, 39 percent thought there was self-censorship, and 31 percent thought there was corruption in the media. About 78 percent of media professionals thought there were journalists who engaged in corrupt practices to misreport stories.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law permits private parties to file criminal charges and obtain financial compensation for insult or deliberate publication of defamatory information. NGOs reported that the fines were excessive and, combined with the entry of a criminal conviction into the defendant’s record, undermined freedom of expression. The AJU expressed concern that as of August, there were more than 20 lawsuits against journalists, mainly for defamation.

In 2019 the Assembly passed legislation, the so-called antidefamation package, which amended existing media laws to address defamation. NGOs and some international organizations criticized the amendments, sparking public debate, and the president returned the law to parliament on January 11.

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

In-country Movement: To receive government services, citizens changing place of residence within the country must transfer their civil registration to their new community and prove the legality of their new domicile through property ownership, a property rental agreement, or utility bills. Many individuals could not provide documentation and thus lacked access to public services. Other citizens, particularly Roma and Balkan-Egyptians, lacked formal registration in the communities where they resided. The law does not prohibit their registration, but it was often difficult to complete. Many Roma and Balkan-Egyptians lacked the financial means to register. In September media reported on cases in which the Interior Ministry, while preparing voter lists for national elections scheduled for April 2021, had transferred the residency of some citizens without their knowledge. The ministry corrected a number of these transfers.

Not applicable.

The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported some cases of border police returning migrants to Greece despite indicating an intention to seek asylum.

Authorities detained 7,404 irregular migrants who entered the country between January and August, mostly at the country’s southern border with Greece; most of those who did not request asylum were deported to Greece within 24 hours. Migrants detained further inland could spend several weeks at the Karrec closed migrant detention facility awaiting deportation. Migrants who claimed asylum were housed at the Babrru open migrant facility. Many of the irregular migrants placed in Babrru were later apprehended again attempting to cross into Montenegro rather than remaining in the country to pursue asylum requests. Karrec and Babrru centers faced funding constraints, and the government closed the Babrru center temporarily to assess wear and tear to the facility and estimate needed repairs.

Police allowed UNHCR, the Office of the Ombudsman, and the NGO Caritas to monitor the access of arrivals to national procedures and return of persons to countries from which they arrived. The ombudsman and Caritas were also allowed to monitor the detention of migrants.

Refoulement: The January 1 expulsion of Harun Celik, a citizen of Turkey and alleged follower of Fethullah Gulen, who the Turkish government claimed was behind the July 2016 attempted coup in Turkey, raised questions about Celik’s access to asylum. Celik had been arrested in 2019 in Tirana International Airport for attempting to travel on a forged Canadian visa. When Celik finished his prison sentence, border authorities expelled him from the country and placed him on a flight to Turkey, despite assertions that Celik had requested asylum. The UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, along with other UN bodies, opened an inquiry, including the question of whether or not this was a case of refoulement.

Celik’s compatriate and alleged follower of Gulen, Selami Simsek, was also arrested in 2019 for attempting to travel on a forged Canadian visa. Simsek was released from prison on March 9 but remained in the Karrec closed-migrant facility. Media reported that Simsek was taken to the Interior Ministry at 9 p.m.–outside working hours–on March 9 after his release from prison for an interview regarding his asylum application. The ministry denied the application the same day, and the National Commission on Asylum and Refugees rejected his appeal on September 10. It was disputed whether Simsek was provided adequate notice of either decision. The Turkish government continues to press for summary return of Simsek and others alleged to be connected to Fethullah Gulen.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.

There were credible reports from NGOs, migrants, and asylum seekers that authorities did not follow due process procedures for some asylum seekers and that in other cases those seeking asylum did not have access to the social care and other services due to limited issuance of identification cards. Caritas and the Office of the Ombudsman were critical of the government’s migrant screening and detention procedures. There were reports of border police pushing migrants back into Greece.

The law on asylum requires authorities to grant or deny asylum within 51 days of an applicant’s initial request. Under the law, asylum seekers cannot face criminal charges of illegal entry if they contact authorities within 10 days of their arrival in the country.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The law limits individuals from safe countries of origin or transit from applying for asylum or being granted refugee status. UNHCR reported that one asylum request had been refused based on the government’s list of safe countries, which included Greece.

Employment: While the law permits refugees to work, they must first obtain Albanian citizenship to receive identification cards and work permits.

Access to Basic Services: The law provides refugees access to public services, including education, health care, housing, law enforcement, courts and judicial procedures, and legal assistance.

g. Stateless Persons

According to UNHCR statistics, approximately 700 persons at risk of statelessness were identified under the agency’s statelessness mandate by November. The government does not have data regarding the total number of stateless persons or persons at risk of statelessness in the country. The law allows stateless persons to acquire citizenship under certain conditions, although there is no separate legislation that specifically addresses citizenship for stateless persons. UNHCR reported that new legislation on citizenship significantly reduced the risk of statelessness in the country.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape, including spousal rape, is a crime; the law also includes provisions on sexual assault. Penalties for rape and sexual assault depend on the age of the victim. For rape of an adult, the penalty is three to 10 years in prison. The government did not enforce the law effectively. Authorities did not disaggregate data on prosecutions for spousal rape. The concept of spousal rape was not well understood, and authorities often did not consider it a crime.

The law on domestic violence extends protection to victims in a relationship or civil union and provides for issuance of a protective order that automatically covers children as well. In November the Assembly amended the law to provide for ordering the abuser to leave the premises of the victim. Police operated an automated application issuance process within the police case management system, which allows for rapid issuance of protective orders and produces a record of orders issued. Through November the system was used to document the generation of 2,324 protective orders.

In April the Ministry of Health and Social Protection approved a protocol for operating shelters for victims of domestic violence and trafficking during the COVID-19 pandemic. The protocol provides services to victims of domestic violence and trafficking while following guidance on social distancing. The ministry posted a video message reminding citizens to report any case of suspected domestic violence and provided a hotline and police number on its web page.

As of November, investigators and prosecutors had registered 81 cases of alleged sexual assault. Also through November, investigators and prosecutors registered 4,313 cases of domestic violence, six of which were murders. UNICEF reported 370 cases of domestic violence through August, with fewer cases referred in 2020 than in 2019. NGOs reported high levels of domestic violence against women. According to a 2018 survey of women between the ages of 18 and 74 that the UN Development Program released in March 2019, 52.9 percent of women surveyed reported having been subjected to violence or sexual harassment during their lifetimes.

The government operated one shelter to protect survivors of domestic violence and three shelters for victims of human trafficking that also accommodated victims of domestic violence. In 2018 the government began operating a crisis management center for victims of sexual assault at the Tirana University Hospital Center. The Ministry of Health and Social Protection reported that as of December, the center had treated 20 victims, 14 of whom were minors.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, but officials rarely enforced it. The commissioner for protection from discrimination generally handled cases of sexual harassment and could impose fines.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. There are no legal barriers to access to contraceptives, which are provided free of charge to insured women. Nevertheless, women and girls often did not use this right for a variety of reasons, including fear of stigma from health-care service providers and members of their community. Some women and girls, particularly those living in remote, rural areas, faced significant challenges in accessing essential sexual and reproductive health services. Women from disadvantaged and marginalized groups, such as women with disabilities, LGBTI community members, Roma, and Balkan Egyptian women, were often unaware of their rights to reproductive health services.

In 2018 the Ministry of Health and Social Protection established the Lilium Center with the support of UNDP to provide integrated services to survivors of sexual violence. The center is in a hospital setting and provides health care services, social services, and forensic examinations at a single location by professionals trained in cases of sexual violence. The center functions are based on the model adopted by the Albanian National Council for Gender Equality.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The law provides the same legal status and rights for women as for men, but the government did not enforce the law effectively. Women were underrepresented in many fields at the highest levels. The law mandates equal pay for equal work, although many private employers did not fully implement this provision. In many communities, women experienced societal discrimination based on traditional social norms subordinating women to men.

There were reports of discrimination in employment. Through August the commissioner for protection from discrimination received 83 complaints of employment discrimination, 54 of which were against public entities and 29 against private entities. The complaints alleged discrimination based mainly on political affiliation, health conditions, or disability. The commissioner ruled in favor of the employee in nine cases, five of which were against public entities and four against private entities. Through August the commissioner had received 11 complaints of discrimination on the basis of gender and ruled in favor of the employee in one case. In that case, the commissioner for protection from discrimination ruled against the Trans Adriatica Spiecapag company for dismissing a female employee due to her pregnancy, status as a parent, and gender.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: According to official figures, in 2019 the ratio of boys to girls at birth was 108 to 100. There were no government-supported efforts to address the imbalance.

Birth Registration: An individual acquires citizenship by birth in the country or from a citizen parent. There were no reports of discrimination in birth registration, but onerous residency and documentation requirements for registration made it more difficult for the many Romani and Balkan-Egyptian parents who lacked legally documented places of residence to register their children. The law on civil status provides financial incentives for birth registration.

Children born to internal migrants, including some Romani families, or those returning from abroad, frequently had no birth certificates or other legal documents and consequently were unable to attend school or have access to services.

Education: School attendance is mandatory through the ninth grade or until the age of 16, whichever occurs first, but many children, particularly in rural areas, left school earlier to work with their families. Parents must purchase supplies, books, uniforms, and space heaters for some classrooms; these were prohibitively expensive for many families, particularly Roma and members of other minorities.

Children in first through fourth grade are legally entitled to free textbooks. Because of the need to use online class delivery during the pandemic, the government offered free schoolbooks to students from the first to the seventh grade; children with special needs were eligible for free schoolbooks from the first through the twelfth grade.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: Although the legal minimum age for marriage is 18, authorities did not always enforce the law. Underage marriages occurred mostly in rural areas and within Romani communities.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Penalties for the commercial sexual exploitation of a child range from eight to 15 years’ imprisonment. The country has a statutory rape law; the minimum age for consensual sex is 14. The penalty for statutory rape is a prison term of five to 15 years. In aggravated circumstances, the penalty may increase to life imprisonment. The law prohibits making or distributing child pornography, which is punishable by imprisonment for three to 10 years. Possession of child pornography is also illegal.

Authorities generally enforced laws against rape and sexual exploitation of minors effectively, but NGOs reported that they rarely enforced laws prohibiting child pornography. The government reported that as of November, 13 children had been sexually exploited none of them involving pornography. In early June, reports emerged of a 14-year-old girl who was raped and later sexually exploited; videos of the abuse were posted online. The case has gone to trial.

Displaced Children: There were many displaced and street children, particularly in the Romani community. Some street children begged and some of them became trafficking victims. Since the law prohibits the prosecution of children younger than 14 for burglary, criminal gangs at times used displaced children to burglarize homes.

Institutionalized Children: NGOs considered the migrant detention facility in Karrec to be unsuitable for children and families. The government made efforts to avoid sending children there, sending them instead to the open-migrant facility in Babrru.

Some NGOs raised concerns about the transparency of the treatment of children who were under state residential care. The law allows for moving children out of residential centers and into the care of foster families, but the government and municipalities have not used this option frequently.

Through August the General Directorate of Prisons reported that there were 17 juveniles in the justice system, none of whom had been convicted. The country lacked adequate facilities for pretrial detention of children, although the Juvenile Institute in Kavaja, the only institution in the country for juvenile offenders, was adequate for the population it served. The directorate reported that the number of minors in pretrial detention and detention facilities had decreased because of alternative sentencing.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.

Reports indicated that there were 40 to 50 Jews living in the country. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts. In September Valentina Leskaj, a former government minister, joined the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement Advisory Board, becoming its first Muslim member.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The constitution and laws prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities. Nevertheless, employers, schools, health-care providers, and providers of other state services at times engaged in discrimination. The law mandates that new public buildings be accessible to persons with disabilities, but the government only sporadically enforced the law.

As of August the commissioner for protection from discrimination had received two complaints of alleged discrimination against individuals with disabilities and ruled in favor of the complainants in five cases. In one case the commissioner ruled against the local education office in Elbasan for refusing to hire a teacher because of her disability.

The government sponsored social services agencies to protect the rights of persons with disabilities, but these agencies lacked funding to implement their programs adequately. Resource constraints and lack of infrastructure made it difficult for persons with disabilities to participate fully in civic affairs. Voting centers often were in facilities that lacked accessibility or other accommodations. A 2018 study by World Vision and Save the Children reported that none of the 10 municipalities surveyed had a plan to eliminate barriers to information, communication, and mobility for persons with disabilities, or a dedicated budget to address the problem.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

There were allegations of discrimination against members of the Romani and Balkan-Egyptian communities, including in housing, employment, health care, and education. Some schools resisted accepting Romani and Balkan-Egyptian students, particularly if the students appeared to be poor. Many schools that accepted Romani students marginalized them in the classroom, sometimes by physically setting them apart from other students.

As of August, the commissioner for protection from discrimination had received 12 complaints of discrimination on grounds of race and ethnicity, ruling in favor of the complainant in two cases. In one case the commissioner ruled against Fier municipality and its water and sewage utility for discriminating against Romani households. The commissioner ordered the municipality and utility to supply running water to the families. When the municipality and utility did not respond, the commissioner imposed fines.

The government adopted legislation on official minorities in 2017 but has not passed all the regulations needed for its implementation. The law provides official minority status for nine national minorities without distinguishing between national and ethnolinguistic groups. The government defined Greeks, Macedonians, Aromanians (Vlachs), Roma, Balkan-Egyptians, Montenegrins, Bosnians, Serbs, and Bulgarians as national minorities. The legislation provides for minority language education and dual official language use for the local administrative units in which minorities traditionally reside or in which a minority makes up 20 percent of the total population. The ethnic Greek minority complained about the government’s unwillingness to recognize ethnic Greek communities outside communist-era “minority zones.”

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, including in employment. Enforcement of the law was generally weak. As of August, the commissioner for protection from discrimination had received one case of discrimination based on sexual orientation, which the commission started ex officio and ruled that discrimination had occurred.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are among the classes protected by the country’s hate crime law. Despite the law and the government’s formal support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex rights, public officials sometimes made homophobic statements.

The law prohibits discrimination against individuals with HIV or AIDS. The Association of People Living with HIV or AIDS reported that stigma and discrimination caused individuals to avoid getting tested for HIV, leading to delayed diagnosis and consequently delayed access to care and support. Persons living with HIV or AIDS faced employment discrimination, and children living with HIV faced discrimination in school.

Bulgaria

Executive Summary Title

Bulgaria is a constitutional republic governed by a freely elected unicameral National Assembly. A coalition government headed by a prime minister leads the country. National Assembly elections were held in 2017, and the Central Election Commission did not report any major election irregularities. International and local observers considered the National Assembly elections and the 2016 presidential election generally free and fair but noted some deficiencies.

The Ministry of Interior is responsible for law enforcement, migration, and border control. The State Agency for National Security, which reports to the Prime Minister’s Office, is responsible for investigating corruption and organized crime, among other responsibilities. The army is responsible for external security but also can assist with border security. During the coronavirus-related state of emergency, the army had the authority to enforce COVID-19 measures and restrictions but did not exercise it. The National Protective Service is responsible for the security of dignitaries and answers to the president. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: violent treatment by police; arbitrary arrests; serious problems with judicial independence; serious restrictions on free expression, including media censorship, violence and threats of violence against journalists, and corporate and political pressure on media; refoulement of refugees or asylum seekers; serious acts of corruption; crimes involving violence or threats of violence against Roma; violence against children; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.

Authorities took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, but government actions were insufficient, and impunity was a problem.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Concerns persisted, however, that corporate and political pressure, combined with the growing and nontransparent concentration of media ownership and distribution networks, as well as government regulation of resources–including EU funds–and support for media, gravely damaged media pluralism. In July a media pluralism report conducted by the Center for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom for the European Commission, identified a “particularly high risk” for public media independence, corporate influence over editorial content, and concentration of media ownership.

In August the NGO Ethical Journalism Network reported that press freedom in the country was “under attack” by progovernment tabloid journalism, which silenced critical voices “through financial and security threats,” often forcing ethical journalists to practice self-censorship to avoid harassment and intimidation. In October the representative of Reporters without Borders covering the EU and the Balkans stated the government had no will to change and improve the media environment. The representative also accused the government of reneging on its commitment to protect media freedom.

According to the BHC, freedom of expression was in a “state of free fall,” marked by “severe political pressure on journalists and media” and “taming” of public media. According to Transparency International Bulgaria, media ownership “is often unclear” and many media outlets “are financially dependent on state advertising, which may color their reporting and affect any criticism they may otherwise provide of government authorities.” On September 30, the European Commission’s 2020 Rule of Law Report stated, “Distribution of state advertising expenditure is not based on clear and nondiscriminatory criteria.”

Freedom of Speech: The law provides for one to four years’ imprisonment for use of and incitement to “hate speech.” The law defines hate speech as instigation of hatred, discrimination, or violence based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, marital status, social status, or disability. NGOs alleged that politically motivated hate speech, facilitated by the presence of nationalist parties in the government, increased over past years.

According to human rights lawyer Mihail Ekimdjiev, prosecutors used the penal code provision punishing the dissemination of false information to suppress free speech and target government critics. He cited as an example the charges in April against the president of the Bulgarian Pharmaceutical Union, Asena Serbezova, over her public warning of possible medicine shortage due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which, according to the prosecution, “evoked unnecessary alarm.” In July a prosecutor in Sofia indicted Serbezova and requested that the court impose a fine. In September the court rejected the case, stating that the indictment contained numerous procedural violations. At the end of October, the prosecution charged Serbezova again, and a trial was pending as of December.

Individuals generally criticized the government without official reprisal. In July, however, an employee of state-owned Sofia airport alleged that management fired him two days after he had demanded the prime minister’s resignation in a comment to the latter’s social media livestream video. The company’s human resources department justified the employee’s release with “choice of team members” by a newly appointed manager.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Laws restricting “hate speech” also applied to print media. According to the 2020 annual report by the partner organizations to the Council of Europe Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists, “Media ownership is opaque and characterized by the capture of the media market by oligarchs who use their media power to exert political influence and attack and denigrate rivals and critics.” The EU Rule of Law Report noted that many media outlets do not comply with the law that requires public disclosure of ownership, and the public did not have easy access to the disclosed information. Domestic and international organizations criticized both print and electronic media for editorial bias, lack of transparency in their financing and ownership, and susceptibility to political influence and economic incentives.

The consolidation of media ownership by oligarchs made news outlets increasingly vulnerable to political influence over editorial policy. Independent media outlets were subject to open attacks from politicians at all levels and from administrative and judicial pressure. Publicly funded Bulgarian National Television and Bulgarian National Radio were subject to attempts to control their editorial policies through politicized influence on their leadership.

Businessman and National Assembly member Delyan Peevski, who officially owns five newspapers, repeatedly used his control over print media distribution channels and advertising revenues to ensure positive coverage of affiliated political actors and the prosecutor general. Media and telecommunications conglomerate United Group offered to purchase these five newspapers from Peevski, but at year’s end the antimonopoly commission had not yet approved the deal.

Violence and Harassment: A Council of Europe report stated that independent journalists and media outlets were regularly subjected to intimidation in person and online. It reported a worsening working environment for journalists due to “open hostility of elected politicians and sustained attacks on independent media through administrative and judicial harassment, as well as physical threats.”

In one example of an attack on journalists, on March 17, three masked men attacked the prominent investigative journalist and chief editor of the 168 Chassa weekly, Slavi Angelov, in front of his home, beating him and inflicting severe injuries. On April 23, the prosecutor general announced that police arrested the alleged attackers, brothers Georgi and Nikola Asenov and Biser Mitov. The prosecutor general further stated that “persons who seek to destabilize the government, are targets of a criminal investigation, and are hiding…outside the country” and had ordered the attack. As of December pretrial proceedings were ongoing; one defendant was released on bail.

On May 22, Reporters without Borders alleged the trial of Economedia publisher Ivo Prokopiev for privatization fraud was an instance of “increasing political pressure against the main independent media group” by “politically controlled bodies” in “response to journalistic investigations that revealed unpleasant truths of corruption cases.” They noted the judicial irregularities behind the case and that the prosecutor general was practicing selective prosecution, pressing charges against Prokopiev but not Delyan Peevski, for example, a controversial oligarch who controls a large segment of the media environment.

In September the Association of European Journalists condemned “the illegal arrest and police violence against journalist Dimitar Kenarov” while Kenarov covered an antigovernment protest. According to Kenarov’s post on social media and eyewitness statements, police grabbed him, threw him on the ground, and kicked his head before snatching his camera and leaving him handcuffed and on the ground for hours. Responding to a media query in December, the Ministry of Interior reported that despite Kenarov’s visible wounds and multiple witness statements, its internal investigation concluded there was no evidence police had used any force against Kenarov, and closed the investigation.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists reported editorial prohibitions on covering specific persons and topics, and the imposition of political points of view by corporate leaders, with the implied support of the government.

In early 2019 oligarch Kiril Domuschiev acquired the country’s largest private media operator, Nova Broadcasting Group. Several respected investigative journalists and employees were fired from its flagship Nova TV station in January and February, and others left due to pressure or disagreements with the new owners. They were replaced by executives and journalists from Kanal 3, a television station believed to be tied to oligarch and National Assembly member Delyan Peevski. Media analysts assessed that Nova Group-affiliated media outlets shifted editorial policy towards a more progovernment stance. Contacts at Nova TV stated the station continued to lose journalists and other professionals after the initial round of firings, discouraged by appointments of a co-CEO and news director from Kanal 3, who were close to Peevski. Nova TV journalists said their copy was being rewritten by the new executives, so they were not allowed any freedom in reporting the news. Other journalists were thought to have been sent on assignments with prepared copy for their reports. Journalists who left Nova TV stated they were looking for jobs in other sectors because they do not feel there is any hope for professional, good journalism in the country.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is illegal and punishable by a fine and public censure. According to the Association of European Journalists’ October survey, 49 percent of journalists viewed slander as a major harassment tool against their work, including lawsuits against their publications.

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content. There were reports, however, that the government exceeded its legal authority in monitoring private online communications, and that security services routinely questioned individuals about their social media behavior.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government mostly respected these rights.

There were numerous reports and video clips shared on social media of police violence during antigovernment protests in July, August, and September. The BHC and the ombudsman stated they had received numerous reports of “disproportionate use of force” against nonviolent protesters, including punching, kicking, dragging, and beating handcuffed persons. The ombudsman noted that some police officers used brass knuckles, which is illegal. A video shared online showed how on July 10, police grabbed and handcuffed protesting law student Evgeni Marchev and dragged him behind a column where four officers beat him. Marchev was hospitalized with head and chest injuries and bruises covering his body. On July 27, the Ministry of Interior announced that the four police officers involved would receive disciplinary sanctions for “violating basic rights of citizens by use of excessive physical force” but declined to share details of the sanctions.

Two business owners, Marian Kolev of the toy store Hippoland and Yordan Kostadinov of the winery Zagrey, complained that several government bodies conducted thorough inspections of their companies just two days after their employees participated in the September 2 protest in Sofia against the government and the prosecutor general. The Hippoland employees wore company-logo shirts and the Zagrey employees used a company vehicle for transportation to Sofia. The inspections failed to identify any wrongdoing, but the two businessmen expressed skepticism in the ability of so many government agencies to coordinate inspections, suspecting harassment. On November 12, the Commission for Protection of Competition fined Hippoland for unfair competition.

Authorities continued to deny registration of ethnic-Macedonian activist groups such as the United Macedonian Organization-Ilinden, the Society of Oppressed Macedonians, Victims of Communist Terror, and the Macedonian Ethnic Tolerance Club in Bulgaria, despite a May judgment and more than 10 prior decisions by the European Court of Human Rights that the denials violated the groups’ freedom of association. On October 1, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture expressed in an interim resolution “deep concern” with regard to authorities’ “formalistic application of legal requirements” applied persistently to refuse registration to the United Macedonian Organization-Ilinden and similar associations since 2006. In November 2019 the prosecutor general acted on Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO) leader and defense minister Krasimir Karakachanov’s complaint about attempts by two associations, the Civil Association for Protection of Fundamental Individual Human Rights and Ancient Macedonians, to create a Macedonian minority. The prosecutor general petitioned the court to dissolve the associations, accusing them of a political agenda threatening the unity and security of the nation.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. During the state of emergency from March to May due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government limited internal travel and established police checkpoints to enforce public health orders. Subsequent health emergency orders did not include travel restrictions or checkpoints.

Not applicable.

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Human rights organizations continued to report widespread “pushbacks,” violence, robbery, and humiliating practices against migrants and asylum seekers along the border with Turkey. As of December the Ministry of Interior reported 11,751 attempts to enter the country irregularly across the border during which border authorities detained 426 persons. According to the NGO Bordermonitoring, border authorities on February 28 pushed back 60 migrants on the border with Turkey, referring to a press release by the defense minister which stated, “border police stopped two groups of approximately 30 migrants each and prevented them from crossing the border.” The BHC alleged that the government had a strategy of “neglecting to detect and apprehend” a major portion of the asylum seekers entering the country in order to “evade the ensuing responsibilities under the Dublin regulation or a bilateral readmission treaty.”

Refoulement: The BHC alleged that the Migration Directorate deported asylum seekers before completion of their refugee status determination. In July, Radio Free Europe reported that the prime minister and the prosecutor general personally approved the 2016 deportation of businessman Abdullah Buyuk to Turkey on grounds that his identification papers had expired. Radio Free Europe alleged the deportation was in response to the Turkish Embassy’s unofficial request for Buyuk’s extradition for his alleged ties with Fethullah Gulen. In 2016 NGOs accused authorities of violating a court order prohibiting the extradition of Buyuk, who had filed for political asylum, thus breaching due process. On October 9, the minister of interior reported to the National Assembly that authorities had deported Buyuk under the EU-Turkey readmission agreement, in addition to 90 other Turkish citizens in 2016, 105 in 2017, 70 in 2018, 108 in 2019, and 58 in 2020.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for protecting refugees. The president may grant asylum to persons who are persecuted for their belief or activities advocating for internationally recognized rights and freedoms. Asylum seekers who cross the border irregularly are subject to detention. The BHC expressed concerns about the transparency and objectivity of the refugee status determination process, alleging that refugee center directors could alter the case officer’s determination to grant protection or not and even replace a case officer without proper justification.

Freedom of Movement: The law restricts asylum seekers’ movement to the administrative region in which the reception center accommodating them is located. The restriction is valid until the asylum process is completed.

Access to Basic Services: Asylum seekers had access to school education, health-care, and language instruction. The law authorizes mayors to sign integration agreements with persons who have refugee status, specifying the services they will receive–housing, education, language training, health services, professional qualification, and job search assistance–as well as the obligations of the responsible institutions. NGOs claimed the government made inconsistent efforts to integrate refugees. According to the Asylum Information Database report on the country published in February, “No integration activities are planned, funded, or made available to recognized refugees or subsidiary protection holders.”

A safety zone for unaccompanied children seeking asylum was available at two reception centers in Sofia to provide 24-hour care and specialized services in an environment adapted to their needs.

Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for resettlement, offered naturalization to refugees residing on its territory, and assisted in their voluntary return to their homes. In November authorities relocated 17 unaccompanied refugee children from Greece as part of the country’s commitment to accept 70 unaccompanied children, including 20 from Greece.

Temporary Protection: The Council of Ministers may provide temporary protection in case of mass influx of foreign nationals driven by an armed conflict, civil war, violence, or large-scale human rights violations in their country of origin, as determined by the Council of the European Union. The government also provided humanitarian protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees and provided it to 443 persons during the year, as of December.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, and authorities generally enforced its provisions when violations came to their attention. Sentences for rape convictions range up to 20 years in prison. There is no specific criminal law against spousal rape; authorities could prosecute spousal rape under the general rape statute, but rarely did so. According to the NGO Bulgarian Fund for Women, domestic violence helplines received up to 50 percent more reports between April and November during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The law provides penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for crimes committed in the context of domestic violence. The law defines domestic violence as systematic physical, sexual, or psychological violence; subjection to economic dependence; or coercive restriction of the personal life, personal liberty, and personal rights of a parent or child, a spouse or former spouse, a person with whom one shares a child, a cohabiting partner or former cohabiting partner, or a member or former member of the same household. The law restricts the persons who can report domestic violence to the victim or the victim’s direct relatives, and excludes friends and other unrelated persons. The law empowers courts to impose fines, issue restraining or eviction orders, and to order special counseling. Noncompliance with a restraining order may result in imprisonment for up to three years, or a fine. According to a nationwide study on violence commissioned by the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy and released in February, 56 percent of the population has experienced domestic violence.

In one example, on June 9, the Sofia regional court sentenced a man to one year in prison for inflicting bodily injuries on his wife of 15 years. The court heard testimony from witnesses including the victim, her daughter, a neighbor, and police who responded to an emergency call during a family altercation. The victim also had medical records showing injuries from two prior assaults. According to the victim, she only filed a complaint after long-term abuse because she noticed that her 10-year-old son had started copying his father’s behavior.

In January the NGO Center for Creative Justice reported concerns that the law does not provide sufficient protection to victims of domestic violence. In addition, a Supreme Cassation Court judgment granting a perpetrator of domestic violence the right to collect rent from the survivor could discourage victims from reporting domestic violence or petitioning for a restraining order. In June the ombudsman criticized the legal provisions exonerating the offending person from prosecution for inflicting a medium injury (e.g., a broken tooth) or a more serious injury, such as deliberately infecting a person with a sexually transmitted disease, and sent the Justice Ministry a proposal for abolishing these legal provisions.

NGOs continued to express concern over an increase in cases in which women or girls were killed as a result of domestic violence. NGOs criticized authorities for not tracking domestic violence cases and not keeping statistics, which NGOs claimed were needed for authorities to assess the risk of abuse turning deadly.

In June, Sofia police reported nine deaths from domestic violence since the beginning of the COVID-19-related state of emergency in mid-March, in addition to receiving 3,500 reports of domestic aggression and the Sofia City Court issuing 600 restraining orders. In September, for example, a man set his partner on fire in the village of Tri Kladentsi while she was sleeping. The woman died in the hospital. According to news reports, the man had previously attempted to drown her in a lake. As of October pretrial proceedings were underway and the perpetrator remained in custody.

The Animus Association Foundation and other NGOs provided short-term protection and counseling to domestic violence survivors in 22 crisis centers and shelters throughout the country. The government funded an NGO-operated 24-hour free helpline that survivors could call for counseling, information, and support, as well as to report abuse. Police and social workers referred domestic violence survivors to NGO-run shelters.

Sexual Harassment: The law identifies sexual harassment as a specific form of discrimination rather than a criminal offense, although prosecutors may identify cases in which harassment involves coercion combined with sexual exploitation. If prosecuted as coercion, sexual harassment is punishable by up to six years in prison.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals generally have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Women in poor rural areas and Romani communities had less access to contraception due to poverty and lack of information and education. The cost of contraception was not covered by health insurance. Individuals younger than 16 could not schedule an appointment with a gynecologist or have an HIV test performed without parental consent. Lack of health insurance sometimes limited skilled attendance at childbirth. According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, approximately half of all uninsured women, or between 8 and 9 percent of all women in the country, did not receive prenatal care, and approximately 80 percent of those uninsured (about 12 to 14 percent of all women) did not have access to relevant medical tests. Home births were illegal, and medical personnel could be prosecuted if they assisted them.

There were reports that maternity services were denied during the year due to COVID-19-related restrictions. In November and December, media reported that some hospitals refused to admit women in labor unless they produced a negative polymerase chain reaction test for the disease.

Victims of sexual violence, who NGOs stated were mainly uninsured, often did not have access to sexual and reproductive health services. Trafficking victims had access to health care through NGOs approved by authorities.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: While the law provides women the same legal status and rights as men, women faced some discrimination in economic participation and political empowerment. The law establishes equal opportunities in all spheres of public, economic, and political life, equal access to public resources, equal treatment, exclusion of gender-based discrimination and violence, balanced representation of men and women in decision-making authorities, and overcoming gender-based stereotypes.

In March the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women identified an increased number of cases in the country of “antigender discourse in the public domain, public backlash in the perception of gender equality, and misogynistic statements in the media, including by high-ranking politicians.” The committee also expressed concern that women facing discrimination had “limited access to justice owing to pervasive corruption, social stigma, the inaccessibility of the judicial system, and gender bias among law enforcement officers.” The committee further noted that women with disabilities and Romani women were “underrepresented in the parliament, ministerial positions, decision-making positions at the municipal level, and high-ranking posts in the foreign service.”

On December 22, the government adopted the new 10-year National Strategy for Encouraging the Equality between Women and Men, which focuses on five priority areas: equality in the labor market and an equal level of economic independence; decreasing the gender pay gap and income gaps; equal participation in decision-making; combating gender-based violence and providing victim protection and support; and overcoming gender stereotypes and sexism.

According to the National Statistical Institute, in 2019 women received on average pensions that were 32 percent lower than those for men. Women faced discrimination in employment, in the workplace, and in access to pension benefits and retirement (see section 7.d.).

Birth Registration: Citizenship derives from one’s parents or by birth within the country’s territory, unless one receives foreign citizenship by heritage. The law requires birth registration within seven days.

Education: Due to a lack of access to appropriate devices or the internet, the Ministry of Education estimated that 35,000 children could not fully participate in education after the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to switch to online learning in mid-March. The Romani NGO Amalipe conducted a survey in 200 schools with majority Romani enrollment and found that in a quarter of them, more than 50 percent of the students did not have devices able to access online content. In 20 percent of the schools, most students could not afford to pay for suitable internet service. The survey found that 13 percent of the schools served neighborhoods where there was no internet service available.

Child Abuse: The law protects children against any type of abuse, including physical, psychological, and sexual violence and exploitation. The law punishes violators with fines, unless the abuses constitute a criminal or more severe administrative offense. Violence against children continued to be a problem.

In February the State Agency for Child Protection announced that it was taking over the national helpline for children from NGOs, explaining that the agency was ready to operate the system and that the public preferred the government to operate the helpline. In an open letter to the prime minister, 76 NGOs expressed concern that the transition would jeopardize the helpline’s operation and put at risk children and parents who seek help. The NGOs voiced suspicion that the decision stemmed from the “propaganda, misinformation, and fake news regarding the work of the helpline” spread throughout 2019 by other NGOs such as March for the Family and Parents United for Children, nationalist political parties such as VMRO and Vazrazhdane, and the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in a campaign against the government’s draft Strategy for the Child 2019-2030.

In June the NGO National Network for Children released its ninth annual “report card,” which concluded that “the government departed from the development of policies supporting children and families.”

In July a video posted on social networks showed a 32-year-old woman from Pernik beating her three-year-old daughter severely “because your father does not love you, he does not love me either.” The mother recorded it herself to “punish” the father. Authorities placed the child in a family-type home and brought charges for domestic abuse against the mother.

According to UNICEF one-third of all schoolchildren had experienced violence or harassment in school at least once within the year.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age for marriage is 18. In exceptional cases, a person may enter into marriage at 16 with permission from the regional court. In its concluding observations in March, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women expressed concern about the “persistence of child and/or forced marriages, in particular among Roma girls.” NGOs criticized authorities for treating early marriages as an ethnic Romani rather than a gender problem but acknowledged that child marriage was pervasive in Romani communities. As of September 23, the country’s courts had sentenced 85 adults for cohabiting with girls younger than 16, 11 adults for cohabiting with girls younger than 14, and 11 parents for aiding and abetting such cohabitation.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law differentiates between forcing children into prostitution, which is punishable by up to eight years’ imprisonment and a fine, and child sex trafficking, which is punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine. The law prohibits child pornography and provides for up to six years in prison and a fine for violations. Authorities enforced the law. The legal minimum age for consensual sex is 14. The report on the April 2019 visit of the UN special rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children found that “child sexual exploitation, including sexual abuse within the inner circle of trust and at a residential institution, is real and extensive.” The report acknowledged there was a lack of systematic and reliable data on the scope of the problem and cited evidence gathered from child protection stakeholders. The report also identified insufficient cooperation among the various authorities engaged in child protection as a problem.

Displaced Children: As of November a total of 512 unaccompanied minors sought asylum in the country, almost the same number as during the same period in 2019. As of October the Supreme Administrative Court was reviewing a case based on the 2017 petition from the ombudsman to establish uniform legal treatment of unaccompanied children across the court system. According to the ombudsman, courts apply varying standards for determining whether migrant children are unaccompanied and routinely placed children designated as such in detention centers for irregular migrants.

Institutionalized Children: The government continued to close residential care institutions for children. As of January a total of 476 children remained to be relocated from the 19 legacy facilities and placed in community-based care. According to the government, the focus of the reform was on preventing child abandonment and encouraging reintegration in a family environment. NGOs, however, believed that the new family-type placement centers did not ensure improved quality of life for children and the quality of family support services remained unchanged.

In November 2019, the NGO Disabilities Rights International published a report which concluded that the country’s deinstitutionalization reform had “replaced a system of large, old orphanages with newer, smaller buildings that are still operating as institutions” and that, while physical conditions in group homes were clean, they remained “dehumanizing and dangerous.” Most of the institutions in question housed children with disabilities, and while they provided good physical conditions (having been recently renovated or built), NGOs alleged that the service providers–other NGOs–isolated residents and immobilized them to avoid any trouble. The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy described the report’s findings as “biased, nonrepresentative, and seeking to demean the deinstitutionalization process.”

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

The 2011 census indicated that 1,130 Jews lived in the country, but local Jewish organizations estimated the actual number was 5,000 to 6,000.

Anti-Semitic rhetoric continued to appear regularly on social networking sites and as comments under online media articles. The Organization of Bulgarian Jews, or “Shalom,” reported a trend of increasing online anti-Semitic speech and conspiracy theories in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as periodic vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and monuments. Souvenirs with Nazi insignia were available in tourist areas around the country. According to Shalom, the national coordinator on combating anti-Semitism and the Ministry of Interior “responded unfailingly” to anti-Semitic incidents, but weak laws prevented the authorities from punishing offenders more severely.

In January vandals broke tombstones and fences in the Jewish cemetery in Shumen. As of October authorities had not identified the perpetrators of the incident. In June vandals defaced a playground and the facades of the adjacent houses in Sofia with 56 swastikas. Authorities responded quickly, cleaning up the playground.

In February the Supreme Administrative Court upheld Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandakova’s ban on an annual march which gathers right-wing extremists from across Europe to honor Hristo Lukov, 1940s leader of an anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi organization, the Union of Bulgarian National Legions. The mayor’s ban cited serious concerns that a torchlight march in downtown Sofia would disrupt public order; the ban restricted the event to laying flowers at Lukov’s plaque in front of his house on February 22. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Democratic Bulgaria alliance, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, NGOs, international organizations, and diplomatic missions denounced the rally. On February 10, a prosecutor petitioned the Sofia city court with a claim for deregistration of the rally organizer, Bulgarian National Union-Edelweiss, claiming its activity violated individual rights, incited ethnic, racial, and religious hostility and homophobia, spread anti-Semitic propaganda, and undermined national integrity. As of December the case was ongoing in the Sofia city court.

In June, Shalom reported organizations such as the Revived Bulgaria-Bulgarian National Unity and Military Union-Bulgarian National Movement, or “Shipka,” spread online propaganda alleging Jews were involved in the COVID-19 pandemic in order to provide “a deadly pseudoantidote” that would lead to the “mass extermination of people.” Authorities issued a warning protocol to Shipka leader Lyudmila Kostadinova, informing her that she would be held criminally liable if she persisted in making anti-Semitic statements.

On December 16, Sofia University fired Mihail Mirchev, a part-time professor teaching a course on social work with ethnic groups, after the university’s ethics commission found his lectures included negative ethnic stereotypes and denigrating cliches. The university’s decision came after a student society, Shalom, and other NGOs protested that Mirchev’s lectures featured racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic content such as: “Is it possible that Bulgaria could turn into a Jewish country if they, being fewer than 1 percent, own the state, the capital, the media, and the art?” Mirchev explained to the ethics commission that his words had been taken out of context and he denied sharing such views.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The law protects the rights of persons with physical, mental, intellectual, and sensory disabilities, including their access to health services, education, employment, housing, public infrastructure, transportation, sports and cultural events, public and political events, the judicial system, and other services. The government did not effectively enforce these provisions, focusing most of its efforts on providing disability pensions, social services, and institutional care. According to NGOs, the ongoing deinstitutionalization, which was designed to be a carbon copy of a similar reform of childcare institutions, failed to reintegrate persons with disabilities in the community. Instead, the government allocated domestic and EU resources for institutional care.

In January 2019 the prosecution service opened investigations against members of medical expert evaluation boards for defrauding the country’s social assistance system by approving “fake disability pensions.” As of October the investigations were ongoing.

While the law requires improved access to public and transportation infrastructure for persons with disabilities, enforcement lagged in some new public works projects and existing buildings. The Commission for Protection against Discrimination continued its nationwide campaign of inspecting public buildings, utility providers, telecommunications operators, banks, and insurance companies. Those not in compliance with the law for persons with disabilities were fined. According to the commission, while there was a general consensus on the problems faced by persons with disabilities, solutions took time to implement, and persons with disabilities had difficulty accessing not only public infrastructure, but also employment, health-care services, and education. According to the informal group Accessibility Alliance, the public environment for persons with disabilities remained a problem, as the law does not require accessibility of public development projects.

The law promotes the employment of persons with disabilities and covers 30 to 50 percent of an employer’s related insurance costs in addition to the full cost of modifying and equipping workplaces to accommodate them. The government provided a 24-month program of subsidies for employers who hire unemployed persons with a permanent disability. The law requires that companies with 50 to 99 employees hire at least one person with a permanent disability; in larger companies, persons with permanent disabilities must make up at least 2 percent of the workforce. According to the National Statistical Institute, in 2019 the number of unemployed persons with disabilities dropped by 4.8 percent and the number of employed persons with disabilities increased twofold compared to 2018.

Individuals with mental and physical disabilities were widely stigmatized and often housed in institutions in remote areas under harsh conditions. According to NGOs, the government did not provide adequate medical care for all persons with mental disabilities. In February 2019 the NGOs European Network for Independent Living, the Center for Independent Living, and the Validity Foundation issued a petition that claimed replacing legacy institutions with smaller community-based centers would result in “transinstitutionalization” and fail to deal with the “deeply ingrained discrimination, social exclusion, and segregation of these groups.”

The Ministry of Education transformed most of the 55 “special schools” for students with specific education needs into education support centers, leaving only five segregated schools with approximately 500 students with sensory and hearing disabilities. Most of the remaining 18,000 students with disabilities attended mainstream schools. Those studying in segregated schools received diplomas that higher-level learning establishments did not recognize as qualifying the student for further education.

In July the NGO Life with Down Syndrome Foundation petitioned authorities with a claim that medical certification regulations discriminated against children with Down syndrome, neglected their needs, damaged their entitlement to financial support, and restricted their right to a quality and dignified life. The regulations instruct the assessment committee to assign children with genetic anomalies up to the age of three a 50 percent disability and those older than age three a 30 percent disability, which determines the level of support they are entitled to, including financial benefits, and depriving them of additional opportunities for physical and psychological development.

NGOs believed police and prosecutors lacked training and skills in dealing with persons with mental disabilities and often traumatized them further with their actions.

The law provides specific measures for persons with disabilities to have access to the polls, including mobile ballot boxes, voting in a polling station of their choice, and assisted voting. According to the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, those measures were “not sufficient to ensure equal participation, especially for persons with visual impairments who cannot vote independently.”

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Societal intolerance against minority groups persisted, and manifested in occasional violence against the Roma in particular, as well as societal discrimination against ethnic Turks. Political and government actors sometimes condoned or prompted it. Human rights organizations reported that the level of racial discrimination against Roma persisted and increased during the coronavirus state of emergency. Media outlets often described Roma and other minority groups using discriminatory, denigrating, and abusive language, highlighting instances in which Romani persons had committed a crime. Nationalist parties such as Ataka, VMRO, and the National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria routinely resorted to strong anti-Romani, anti-Turkish, and anti-Semitic slogans and rhetoric. In May the UN special rapporteurs on racism and minority issues stated that “racial discrimination and racism within state institutions is a reality,” and called on the government to condemn hate speech and racist and nationalist populism targeting Roma and other minorities.

On May 14, four persons between the ages of 16 and 20 assaulted a 15-year-old Rom, Stefan Stefanov, near a school in Lyaskovets while he was on his way to a local shop. Stefanov subsequently stated that he lost consciousness after the first punch and only remembered waking up later in a park. According to media reports, the attackers’ parents offered to pay Stefanov a settlement if his family withdrew the charges. As of October police were investigating.

According to NGOs, government authorities, pressured by governing coalition member VMRO, imposed ethnically biased measures on Romani neighborhoods during the coronavirus crisis by restricting movement to and from them with police checkpoints even before identifying cases of infection. Local governments quarantined at least nine Romani neighborhoods during the pandemic compared with only three non-Romani communities. NGOs pointed out that while Romani neighborhoods were locked down, which restricted their residents’ access to basic services such as pharmacies and supermarkets, and contributed to higher unemployment, other neighborhoods with the same, or sometimes worse, levels of COVID-19 remained open. After the government lifted the state of emergency in May, VMRO insisted that Romani “ghettos” should remain restricted.

According to the Standing Roma Conference, local authorities disproportionately targeted illegal Romani dwellings for demolition. NGOs frequently petitioned the European Court of Human Rights to order the government to freeze the razing of homes in Romani neighborhoods until authorities provided adequate alternative accommodation for pregnant women, children, the elderly, and sick persons. In August the local government in Stara Zagora demolished 97 illegally built dwellings in the Romani neighborhood of Loznitsa, planning to turn the open space into a pine forest. Residents affected by the demolition told journalists they had been paying taxes on their properties and had no housing alternative, but the municipality had refused to sell them the land and legalize the houses.

The law establishes Bulgarian as the official language of instruction in the country’s public education system but allows instruction in foreign languages, provided that instruction in Bulgarian language and literature is conducted in Bulgarian. The law also permits study of the mother tongue. Local government and school officials reported they were instructed to ensure that primary school classes were conducted only in Bulgarian, even in schools where more than 50 percent of the students had Turkish or Romani as their mother tongue. There were officially approved curricula for the teaching of Armenian, Hebrew, Romani, and Turkish.

According to the National Statistical Institute, the average number of students who learned their mother tongue in public schools declined by nearly 14 percent for a second consecutive year, although there was a 22 percent increase in the number of Romani students studying their mother tongue. However, Romani NGOs claimed there were no students learning Romani and there was no officially approved textbook. The government operates foreign language schools in English, Spanish, German, Hebrew, French, and Italian, but none in Turkish.

On October 14, Kemal Eshref, GERB party regional coordinator and spouse of the deputy regional governor of Shumen, wrote on Facebook that since more than 50 percent of the population in Shumen was Turkish, school instruction in the region should be in Turkish. GERB’s local leadership distanced itself from Eshref’s statement, opposition socialist member of the National Assembly Ivan Ivanov called for prosecutorial investigation, and VMRO National Assembly member Dean Stanchev characterized it as “scandalous provocation, bordering on national treason since it represents an open call to separatism.” After the backlash, Eshref posted an apology on October 17 “to all who felt offended by his previous post,” explaining that it referred to allowing Turkish-speaking students an opportunity to learn their language as part of the elective curriculum.

The law prohibits ethnic segregation in multiethnic schools and kindergartens but allows ethnic segregation of entire schools. Of Romani children, 30 percent (up from 16 percent five years earlier) were enrolled in segregated schools outside mainstream education, according to the European Roma Rights Center. According to the NGO Amalipe, approximately 10 percent of general education schools in the country were ethnically segregated. Romani children often attended de facto segregated schools where they received inferior education. There were instances of ethnic Bulgarian students withdrawing from desegregated schools, thereby effectively resegregating them. Romani NGOs reported that many schools throughout the country refused to enroll Romani students. In March the Blagoevgrad regional court confirmed the Commission for Protection against Discrimination’s sanction on a local school principal for racial segregation and ethnic discrimination. In 2018 the principal refused to enroll new Romani students, arguing that the school had become segregated and she wanted to reverse that trend.

The Education Ministry provided financial support to municipalities that pursued policies for educational desegregation and prevention of resegregation.

According to the NGO Trust for Social Achievement, life expectancy was 10 years lower and infant mortality was twice as high in the Romani community compared with the general population. In addition, one-third of Romani men and two-fifths of Romani women between the ages of 45 and 60 had a disability. Health mediators helped Roma and other marginalized communities improve their access to health care; the National Health Mediators Network employed 245 mediators in 130 municipalities.

According to the BHC, Romani women were routinely segregated within maternity hospital wards. Romani NGOs stated that some municipalities set discriminatory requirements for access to services in order to restrict Romani women’s access to them. For example, the assisted reproduction program in Veliko Turnovo and the one-time allowance for giving birth in Svilengrad both require the mother to have completed secondary school.

NGOs identified an overall rise in the occurrence of hate speech and hate crimes. In September the Commission for Protection against Discrimination opened an inquiry into social media publications alleging the Heaven Hotel in Slanchev Bryag displayed signs advising that the swimming pool was for “white people only” and proclaiming “White Lives Matter.” Hotel owner Georgi Slavov denied to local media the existence of the signs but also expressed regret he had not put them up, since he claimed hotels were allowed that cater to guests based on whether they have children and for gays, so “why not [allow hotels] only for white people?”

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but the government did not effectively enforce this prohibition. No laws protect against hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Societal intolerance to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons persisted.

There were reports of violence against LGBTI persons. On September 27, a group of approximately 30 teenagers, who had a goal of “cleansing” gays and lesbians, reportedly assaulted boys and girls whom they perceived as gay or lesbian with eggs, flour, and punches in the city garden in Plovdiv, shouting homophobic insults. Videos from the incident appeared on social media networks. As of October police had identified the attackers and had referred their names to the local education inspectorate for counseling with school psychologists. Police investigated by collecting evidence, examining videos, and interrogating witnesses. Police prevented similar occurrences in Burgas and Sofia after NGOs alerted them that incidents were being organized on Facebook. LGBTI NGOs expressed concern that authorities underestimated the homophobic threat when police initially provided little security at a scheduled demonstration in support of LGBTI rights on October 10 in Plovdiv. This allowed a group of counterdemonstrators to surround LGBTI activists and block their march for nearly an hour. Graffiti with threats appeared on the facades of the building where the organizer of the Plovdiv event worked and on the home of another local LGBTI activist.

According to LGBTI organizations, courts rejected the right of same-sex partners for protection against domestic violence because the law treats “spousal” only as applying to married persons who cannot legally be the same sex. The Commission for Protection against Discrimination reported receiving very few cases–two as of October–regarding sexual orientation. In May the Supreme Administrative Court revoked a decision of the Commission for Protection against Discrimination which had dismissed a 2019 complaint regarding homophobic threats and insults on Facebook against the Balkan Pride exhibition in Plovdiv. The court ruled that the commission had not fully utilized its powers to require law enforcement authorities to identify the authors of the offensive posts and had instead accepted the Interior Ministry’s “excuse” that it was unable to obtain data traffic information on user profiles due to Facebook being owned by a foreign company.

In May the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights reported that nearly 30 percent of LGBTI persons had experienced workplace discrimination. Further, nearly 40 percent of the LGBTI persons who had experienced workplace discrimination did not report it due to fear of police discrimination based on their sexual identity. A March study by the NGOs Single Step and Bilitis reported that 83 percent of LGBTI students had experienced homophobic insults, 70 percent had suffered harassment, 34 percent had been physically abused, and 19 percent had been assaulted, while 50 percent never reported incidents. According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association’s annual report released in February, cases where officials publicly used homophobic speech increased.

NGOs stated persons suspected of being gay were often fired from their jobs, and such individuals were reluctant to seek redress in court due to fear of being identified as LGBTI. Many health professionals considered LGBTI status a disease. The general stigma around sexual orientation and gender identity frequently resulted in refusal of health services, particularly to transgender persons. NGOs complained that most political parties in the National Assembly, government ministers, and municipal authorities were reluctant to engage in a dialogue on the challenges facing LGBTI individuals and related policy issues.

NGOs urged the government to discontinue normalization therapies on intersex children, which were funded by the National Health Insurance Fund with consent from their parents.

In June the Sofia city court overturned a Sofia regional court decision to fine a couple and to issue a public reprimand for libelously stating in a complaint to police that the husband’s police officer brother was gay. The Sofia city court found that the trial court had violated the plaintiff’s right to privacy by accepting evidence and requesting a technical examination of his sexual orientation. The court further found that the defendants’ “views on homosexuality or transgenderness are only meaningful to themselves” and that their “discriminatory prejudice cannot stigmatize a certain sexual orientation and its public manifestation.”

On August 5, vandals destroyed posters from an exhibition titled Together Is Super which had been installed hours earlier on Lovers Bridge in Sofia as part of the Summer Festival of Equal Rights. The posters featured photographs of LGBTI, deaf, and Romani persons, and provided information about their communities and the discrimination against them. Authorities did nothing in response.

As reported by the government’s national program for HIV and sexually transmitted disease prevention and control, “Despite the enormous medical progress in HIV treatment, little has been achieved in terms of overcoming the stigma and discrimination [associated with HIV]. Negative societal attitudes have a strong impact on persons with HIV/AIDS.” According to the Health Ministry’s National Center for Infectious and Parasitic Diseases, there was on average a four-year delay in the diagnosis of persons with HIV because they were reluctant to be tested due to the stigma in society in general and from the medical community. In a media interview in July, the executive director of the National Patient Organization, Alexander Milanov, stated that “HIV patients are invisible” and cannot stand for their rights for fear of stigma and discrimination if they “come out.” According to the Bulgarian Infectious Disease Association, surgeons and intensive care wards often refused treatment to HIV patients, even though their infection had been brought under control. The stigma within the rest of the medical community was even greater. NGOs reported that the general stigma around sexual orientation and gender identity frequently resulted in denial of health services to persons living with HIV or AIDS.

According to a 2019 public opinion poll, 90 percent of those surveyed would not live with persons with HIV or AIDS, 75 percent would not be friends, 60 percent would not work with them, and 50 percent were afraid to communicate with such persons.

NGOs accused the health minister of age discrimination, and a group of lawyers challenged in the court his May 13 order which provided for mandatory isolation and hospitalization of COVID-19 patients who were 60 and older. On May 19, the minister amended the order, removing that provision.

Greece

Executive Summary

Greece is a constitutional republic and multiparty parliamentary democracy. Legislative authority is vested in a unicameral parliament, which approves a government headed by a prime minister. In July 2019 the country held parliamentary elections that observers considered free and fair. A government formed by the New Democracy Party headed by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis leads the country.

Police are responsible for law enforcement, border security, and the maintenance of order. They are under the authority of the Ministry of Citizen Protection. The same ministry undertook responsibility for prison facilities in 2019. The Coast Guard, responsible for law and border enforcement in territorial waters, reports to the Ministry of Shipping Affairs and Island Policy. The armed forces are under the authority of the Ministry of National Defense. Police and the armed forces share law enforcement duties in certain border areas. Border protection is coordinated by a deputy minister for national defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the police, Coast Guard, and armed forces, and the government had effective mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse. Members of security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: the existence of criminal libel laws; unsafe and unhealthy conditions for migrant and asylum-seeking populations detained in preremoval facilities or residing at the country’s six reception and identification centers, including gender-based violence against refugee women and children in reception facilities; allegations of refoulement of refugees; acts of corruption; violence targeting members of national/racial/ethnic minority groups, including some by police; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex persons.

The government regularly took steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, whether in the security forces or elsewhere in the government. There were, however, complaints from nongovernmental organizations and international organizations regarding the lack of government investigation of and accountability for allegations of forced returns of asylum seekers.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.

Freedom of Speech: The constitution and law protect freedom of expression but specifically allow restrictions on speech inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against persons or groups based on their race, skin color, religion, descent, national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, or who express ideas insulting to persons or groups on those grounds.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. Minority media owners in Thrace, northern Greece, where members of the country’s recognized Muslim minority reside, complained that unlike numerous other media owners throughout the country, they did not receive government funding to promote the widespread Menoume spiti (We stay at home) campaign during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019 the government passed legislation requiring vendors who sell print media to stock and display all Greek newspapers and magazines.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subjected to physical attack, harassment, or intimidation due to their reporting in at least 12 instances. On January 19, unidentified perpetrators, allegedly far-right supporters, attacked and injured a Deutsche Welle journalist, Tomas Jacobs, who was covering a rally against migrants and refugees. According to the journalist, who is also one of the scriptwriters of a documentary about the Golden Dawn neo-Nazi movement in the country, the perpetrators confirmed his identity before the attack. The victim also claimed that police in the area did not come to his rescue. The government, mainstream political opposition, and the Foreign Press Association denounced the attack.

On March 1, angry residents in Lesvos verbally and physically attacked three foreign journalists covering their attempts to stop a dinghy carrying migrants and asylum seekers from landing at a small port. On July 27, unknown perpetrators shot Stefanos Chios, journalist and publisher of the ultra-sensationalist news site Makeleio, injuring him severely. Anarchists spray-painted the walls of media outlets on January 16, wrote insults targeting a journalist outside his residence on February 6 and on March 24 claimed responsibility for setting fire to the entryways to two journalists’ residences. On February 3, unknown perpetrators exploded the publisher’s parked car.

On November 11, NGOs Media Freedom Rapid Response and Reporters Without Borders sent a letter to the chief of police and to the minister of interior protesting the eight-hour-long October 19 “arbitrary detention” of a four-member German media crew on Samos for the production of a film on climate-induced migration. During their detention, they claimed they were subjected to questioning and harassment, and were denied food by officers who were not wearing protective masks. The police reportedly suspected them of espionage because they had used a drone to take camera shots from a beach next to a military site but the crew members firmly denied they were filming the site in question.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government did not censor media. The government maintains an online register with the legal status of local websites, their number of employees, detailed shareholder information, and their tax office. Once registered, these websites are accredited to accept funding through state advertising, to cover official events, and to benefit from research and training programs of the National Center of Audiovisual Works. All registered websites must display their certification on their homepage. Although registering was an open and nonobligatory process, outlets failing to do so could be excluded from the accreditation benefits. In 2019 the government launched a similar electronic registry for regional and local press.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law provides criminal penalties for defamation and libel. A law passed in 2019 clarified that individuals convicted of crimes cannot claim slander for discussion of those crimes. The same law also removes the provision requiring journalists to appear immediately before a court, or wait in jail until the court opened, in the case they were accused of libel, a provision that had been abused by politicians to intimidate journalists. On September 14, media reported that a court awarded 160,000 euros ($192,000) to a Greek correspondent in the United States, Thanos Dimadis, for being slandered by a former minister. The court cited “personal and professional damage” against Dimadis, ruling he had been wrongly accused by the minister and his associates of spying on them during their visit to New York in September 2016. Members of the ministerial delegation had stated in public that the correspondent had been arrested by police in New York for his behavior, an allegation the journalist denied and proved to the court to be slanderous.

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private citizens’ online communications without appropriate legal authority.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events. Government restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic forced some cultural and artistic events between March and November to be rescheduled or cancelled.

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights, albeit with restrictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Due to COVID-19, the government banned gatherings of more than nine or 10 individuals during the lockdowns.  On July 10, the parliament separately passed non-COVID-related legislation on public open-air gatherings.  The law requires prior and timely announcement–in writing or via email–of the gatherings to the competent police or coast guard authorities and makes protest organizers accountable in case of bodily harm or property damage if they have not followed requirements for notification and precautionary measures.  Some parliament members and analysts called the law anticonstitutional and antidemocratic, arguing it infringes the right of assembly.

Although the constitution and law provide for freedom of association, the government continued to place legal restrictions on the names of associations of nationals who self-identified as ethnic Macedonian or associations that included the term “Turkish” as indicative of a collective ethnic identity (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities). Such associations, despite the lack of legal recognition, continued to operate unobstructed.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Some of these freedoms were partially suspended as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, although the restrictions were put in place by region and did not target specific groups. The government enforced restriction measures at all six RICs, including a ban on movement outside nearby towns from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., with movement otherwise allowed only in small groups of up to 10 persons. Visitors were generally banned from RICs. Similar measures also applied to migrant and refugee accommodation centers. Human rights groups criticized the restrictions as being more severe than those on the general population.

In-country Movement: Prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, undocumented migrants and asylum seekers arriving at Greek islands were subject to special border reception and registration procedures and were not allowed to leave registration centers for up to 25 days. After this 25-day period, undocumented migrants remaining in those facilities were generally allowed to enter and exit but were prohibited from travelling to the mainland unless they successfully filed asylum applications.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, border reception and registration procedures were adapted to provide medical tests to all newly arriving migrants and asylum seekers and require 14 days of quarantine in a special facility. A law passed May 12 states that asylum seekers deemed “vulnerable” are not eligible to receive expedited examination of their asylum claims or to be transferred to the mainland on vulnerability grounds alone. Once asylum applicants were granted refugee status, they could move off the islands. Those with admissible cases and likely to receive refugee status could also be transferred to the mainland, space permitting. The government also allowed some asylum seekers in poor health to transfer from congested island registration and reception facilities to less-congested facilities in the mainland as a precautionary measure against COVID-19.

Despite government efforts to increase placements in the mainland and decongest the north Aegean islands, local residents and authorities strongly resisted receiving asylum seekers, even in privately owned facilities such as hotels. Restrictions on movements also applied to mainland accommodation centers as a result of the pandemic.

Local and international NGOs reiterated criticism of the government’s practice of confining asylum seekers to the islands and employing “protective custody” for unaccompanied minors (see section 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions, Physical Conditions). Local and international organizations expressed criticism and concern over a law passed on May 12 establishing closed and semi-closed facilities for the temporary reception of asylum applicants, arguing that deprivation of liberty would become the norm for most asylum seekers. NGOs such as MSF criticized the government’s decision to apply increased movement restrictions on residents of all six RICs and other reception facilities around the mainland due to COVID-19. MSF called the measure “discriminatory.”

Not applicable.

The government cooperated with UNHCR, IOM, and other organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.

On February 28, Turkish president Erdogan announced that the borders Turkey shares with the EU were “open,” prompting over 50,000 refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants to move to the border areas. Some local Turkish officials provided free buses to aid refugees’ mass movement to the border, according to humanitarian organizations and rights groups.

Citing national security concerns, Greece suspended receiving any asylum claims until April 3 but permitted those who had entered the country since February 28 to apply for asylum starting April 1. International and local human rights agencies and organizations, including Oxfam, the Greek Council for Refugees, and the UN special rapporteur for the rights of migrants, raised concern about the deprivation of liberties. On March 9, the European Court for Human Rights rejected an application filed by three Syrian nationals to lift the government’s suspension of reception of new asylum claims.

On March 11, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government again suspended asylum services that could not be conducted electronically or with social distancing, but required a physical presence. During this period the government extended the deadline for asylum seekers to apply for and renew residence permits. The government also extended the deadline from March 31 to May 31 for recognized refugees to remain in the cash assistance program and in government-funded housing.

On July 6, the NGO Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) reported that the public prosecutor on Lesvos pressed criminal charges for illegal entry against asylum seekers who arrived on the island during March, when the government had suspended asylum applications. HIAS reported that the lives of approximately 850 persons were impacted by the prosecutor’s decision. According to HIAS, “the criminal prosecution of asylum seekers for unauthorized entry, while the government itself had suspended submission of new asylum applications is illegal.”

During the year, the flow of migrants and asylum seekers to the country from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East continued, though in reduced numbers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and enhanced border protection surveillance. As of September 30, UNHCR figures indicated 121,100 migrants and asylum seekers resided in the country.

On January 1, a law amending asylum regulations took effect. The law was designed to speed up decision-making on asylum applications. It established extended periods of detention for asylum seekers and ties the treatment of asylum applications to the applicants’ cooperation (or lack thereof) with authorities. It altered the composition of the appeals committees to consist exclusively of judges, dropping a position held by a UNHCR designate. The law required appeals to be filed and justified through court briefs instead of standardized documents, eliminated post-traumatic stress disorder as a factor for designating whether a refugee was considered “vulnerable” and therefore ineligible to be returned to Turkey or their country of origin if their asylum application is denied, and. It codified that rejected asylum applicants should immediately return to Turkey or their country of origin. UNHCR, local and international NGOs, including the Greek National Commission for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, the Greek Council for Refugees, MSF, and other organizations argued the law emphasizes returns over protection and integration, puts an excessive burden on asylum seekers, focuses on punitive measures, and introduces requirements an asylum seeker could not reasonably be expected to fulfill.

On March 10, the government passed legislation reducing free shelter and cash assistance benefits to asylum seekers to one month (down from six months) after receiving refugee status, with the exception of unaccompanied minors. On May 12, the government amended the asylum law so asylum seekers deemed vulnerable are not prioritized. The new law establishes a secretariat in charge of unaccompanied minors under the Ministry for Migration and Asylum instead of under the National Center for Social Solidarity. The law sets tighter deadlines for issuing decisions on claims filed by asylum seekers in detention from 20 to 10 days. The law precipitates the process for the issuance of decisions after appeals were filed; unifies the registration process at the RICs and the Asylum Service into one step; and introduces sign language, as appropriate, as well as the official language of a country as an acceptable alternative to the language requested by applicants for interpretation.

If authorities decide to halt an asylum case, the applicant can, within nine months, either request that the process be restarted or file a new claim. In such cases, until there is a final decision, the asylum applicant cannot be deported or returned. Under the same law, if an appeal is rejected, applicants (except unaccompanied minors), must be detained at a predeparture center until they are returned. The filing of a subsequent application or a request for annulment of a decision does not automatically end the detention.

On January 3, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Citizen Protection issued a joint decree naming 12 countries of origin of asylum seekers that the government considers safe: Ghana, Senegal, Togo, Gambia, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Albania, Georgia, Ukraine, India, and Armenia. Applicants from “safe” countries of origin undergo a fast-track process for reviewing their asylum claim and are required to demonstrate why their country is not safe for their return.

Human rights activists and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community argued that the vast majority of asylum applicants from these countries were either persecuted due to their sexual orientation and gender identity or faced serious threats to their lives, many due to their LGBTI status. On July 7, the Greek NGO Diotima reported on a Moroccan female transgender asylum seeker whose application and appeal had been rejected and who faced deportation. Diotima asked that she be granted international protection, arguing that her life would be at risk due to her sexual orientation if she returned to Morocco. On October 14, the court accepted her claim, annulling the deportation order on the grounds that she would face arrest, imprisonment, and abuse if sent back to her country (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Authorities did not always provide adequate security or physical protection to asylum seekers, particularly those residing in the overcrowded RICs.

Local and international media, human rights NGOs, and international organizations reported that asylum seekers personally testified that at the Greece-Turkey land border they were physically abused and deprived of their personal belongings, including their money and cell phones, prior to being returned to Turkey.

On March 4, a man was shot and killed while trying to cross the border from Turkey to Greece amid violent clashes at the Evros border (see section 2.f., Refoulement). Some NGOs reported he was shot by Greek security forces, likely by accident. On May 12, more than 100 members of the European Parliament addressed a letter to the head of the European Commission, calling for a formal investigation into the death. A government spokesman on March 10 “explicitly denied” that Greek security forces were involved in the incident.

The CPT reported receiving “credible allegations of migrants being pushed back across the Evros land border to Turkey.” The CPT also raised concerns over the Coast Guard preventing migrants’ boats from reaching the country’s islands or pushing back migrants who had arrived within the country’s territory.

In many instances, newly arrived migrants and asylum seekers on the islands, including pregnant women and children, stayed for days in the open air, without shelter, food, and other care, waiting to be temporarily transferred to a quarantine facility and processed for registration to the RICs. The separation and protection of vulnerable groups was not implemented at some sites due to overcrowding, lack of alternative housing, and restrictions in movement due to the pandemic.

NGOs, including Diotima, stated the COVID-19 lockdown and restriction measures employed at the RICs for most of the year resulted in more gender-based violence but with fewer of these incidents being reported. Refugee and migrant women who are victims of gender-based violence are legally eligible for temporary shelter in government-run homes and for legal and psychosocial assistance, but few reported abuse, according to aid organizations. Some NGO representatives reiterated findings from previous years that even after reporting rapes to the authorities, some victims continued residing in the same camp as the perpetrators.

Authorities recorded numerous other violent incidents, including clashes among residents of various nationalities occurring mostly in the RICs, often resulting in injuries and deaths. The RVRN recorded 51 incidents involving racially motivated verbal and physical violence against refugees and migrants in 2019 (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).

Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of asylum seekers to countries in which their lives or freedom would be threatened due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Several international media reported on allegations of pushbacks. A New York Times article on August 14 claimed the country illegally pushed back at least 1,072 asylum seekers and migrants who arrived in Greek territory, citing at least 31 incidents in which groups were sent back to Turkey. In a public statement on June 11, the IOM in Geneva expressed concern about “persistent reports of pushbacks and collective expulsions of migrants, in some cases violent, at the EU border between Greece and Turkey.” The IOM called on authorities to investigate the alleged incidents, for all states to avoid militarizing border patrols, and to continue “ensuring protection-sensitive border management, aligned with international law.” The following day, June 12, UNHCR issued a statement stating “the present allegations go against Greece’s international obligations and can expose people to grave danger.” Several respected media outlets published investigative reports between May and July saying security forces pushed refugees back into Turkey. The methods reportedly include disabling (sometimes by assailants covered head-to-toe in black) the engines of boats full of asylum seekers so the boats drift back to Turkey, putting the migrants on tent-like life rafts which have a motor but cannot be steered and were pointed toward Turkey, or simply towing the boats into Turkish waters and cutting the line.

The government stated border protection operations were carried out in cooperation with the European Union Agency Frontex. Prime Minister Mitsotakis publicly affirmed the country operated according to international law. On November 12, Frontex stated that a preliminary internal investigation found no evidence of direct or indirect involvement by Frontex or EU member-state officials in refugee pushbacks at the Greece-Turkey border. Media and NGO reports continued to allege that pushbacks were a standard practice. The Frontex Management Board agreed to organize a subgroup under its authority to carry out an investigation on the matter.

Prime Minister Mitsotakis and other government officials, including the ministers for migration and asylum, for citizen protection and for shipping affairs and island policy, denied any wrongdoing, affirmed the country’s commitment to international law, and blamed the reports on Turkish disinformation campaigns. In public remarks on March 3, after border guards repelled attempts over several days by thousands of apparent refugees to cross the land border with Turkey at Evros, Mitsotakis said the issue was “no longer a refugee problem” and called Turkey a “safe country.” He charged that Turkey was instead using “desperate people to promote its geopolitical agenda and to divert attention from the horrible situation in Syria. The tens of thousands of people who tried to enter Greece over the past few days did not come from Idlib. They have been living safely in Turkey for a long period of time; most of them speak Turkish fluently.” Other officials similarly have argued that the country is protecting its borders in response to Turkish efforts designed to pressure the country and the EU. They described Turkey as a “safe country,” meaning that returning asylum seekers to Turkey is not refoulement.

On March 31, the president of the Council of State agreed to temporarily halt the extradition of two Afghan women on vulnerability grounds. The applicants had filed a petition for the suspension of the order that temporarily barred asylum applications. The order would have forced their deportation without allowing them to seek protection through asylum. The president denied a similar request by a third Afghan female plaintiff.

Access to Asylum: The law establishes procedures for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing legal protection to refugees through an autonomous asylum service under the authority of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum. The law requires that applicants have access to certified interpreters and allows applicants to appeal negative decisions and remain in the country while their appeals are examined.

Authorities worked with NGOs, international organizations, and the European Asylum Support Office to inform undocumented migrants awaiting registration in the asylum system, as well as non-EU foreign national detainees, about their rights, asylum procedures, and IOM-assisted voluntary return programs. UNHCR assisted the government with briefings and the distribution of multilingual leaflets and information packages on asylum and asylum procedures.

The Asylum Service, including regional asylum offices and autonomous asylum units, suspended in-person services between March 13 and May 15 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During that period, applications for international protection and appeals at second instance were not registered by the authorities and interviews were not conducted. With the exception of asylum applicants at the centers on Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Leros, and Kos, the government renewed for an additional six months asylum seekers’ residence permits that would have expired between March 13 and May 31. The Asylum Service resumed operations on May 18, with many administrative procedures (such as changes to addresses, telephone numbers, personal data, the separation of files, the procurement of copies from the personal file, the rescheduling and the prioritization of hearings, the provision of legal aid etc.) able to be completed online.

Starting March 22, authorities restricted movement and generally did not allow visitors at the RICs and several reception facilities. In a July 4 ministerial decree, these measures were expanded to all reception facilities around the country. Residents were required to stay within the perimeter of the reception center, and movement outside the camps was permitted only from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., with no more than 150 residents allowed to exit every hour, and only in groups no larger than 10 persons. All visits or activities inside the RICs were banned unless they related to accommodation, food provision, or medical care, or were authorized by the management of the center or camp. Access to legal services was also subject to management authorization. Human rights groups criticized those restrictions as being more severe than those applied to the general population.

On May 19, human rights activists and NGOs working with asylum applicants, including Oxfam and the Greek Council for Refugees, expressed concerns about what they called “a practice by the authorities of issuing mass rejections,” arguing that the mass rejections undermined individuals’ right to a fair asylum procedure. In their statement both organizations estimated that only a fraction of those whose initial applications were rejected were able to access legal support granted by the state, due to restrictions in movement, the tight 10-day deadline for submitting an appeal, and the overall structural difficulties for navigating the highly complex asylum procedure. On April 27, the Greek Council for Refugees reported that in 2019 only 33 percent of the asylum seekers who had lodged an appeal at second instance had benefitted from free legal assistance. The Greek Council for Refugees called this “an administrative practice incompatible with the EU law,” albeit quasi-standardized and generalized.

Access to the asylum process for persons detained in predeparture centers remained a concern. According to the Asylum Information Database annual report, updated by the Greek Council for Refugees on June 23, the average processing time in 2019 for asylum applications exceeded 10 months. Out of 87,461 applications pending at the end of 2019, the personal interview had not yet taken place in 71,396 (approximately 82 percent) of them. For nearly 48,000 of the applications pending at the end of 2019, the interview was scheduled for the second half of 2020 or even after. Fast-track Syria Unit applicants received interview appointments for 2021, while applicants from Iraq and from African countries were scheduled to be interviewed in late 2023. Interview dates for applicants from Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan were set as far ahead as 2024.

In his annual report for 2019, the ombudsman confirmed, while sourcing the Asylum Service regional offices in Athens and in Thessaloniki, that the average waiting time for the examination of asylum applications by nationals with high recognition rates (from Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iran) exceeded three years. On November 12, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum presented data indicating that the number of asylum decisions increased by 73 percent compared with 2019, and the number of pending asylum decisions decreased by 37 percent. According to the ministry, as of October 30, 82,646 initial decisions were pending and 4,976 more decisions were pending at the Appeals Authority.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The country adheres to the Dublin III Regulation, according to which authorities may return asylum seekers to the EU member state of first entry for adjudication of asylum claims.

According to the 2016 EU-Turkey statement, every undocumented migrant crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands would be confined to a RIC for up to 25 days, during which time the individual would have the opportunity to apply for asylum in Greece. Individuals opting not to apply for asylum or whose applications were deemed unfounded or inadmissible would be returned to Turkey (see section 2.d., Freedom of Movement). Citing the COVID-19 pandemic, on March 16 Turkey suspended all returns of rejected asylum applicants from the five island centers until further notice. From the beginning of the year until then, a total of 139 rejected asylum seekers were returned to Turkey.

Employment: Recognized refugees and holders of asylum-seeker papers were entitled to work, although this right was not widely publicized or consistently enforced. There were limited options for employment, made scarcer by the pandemic.

Access to Basic Services: Legally, services such as shelter, health care, education, and judicial procedures are granted to asylum seekers with a valid residency permit. However, asylum seekers had limited access to these services due to overcrowding in reception sites, overburdened hospitals and health units, restrictions in movement, and staffing gaps due to the pandemic.

Everyone in the country is entitled to emergency medical care, regardless of legal status. Medical volunteers, NGO-contracted doctors, the National Organization for Public Health, and army medical doctors provided basic health care in reception centers and referred emergencies and complex cases to local hospitals, which were often overburdened and understaffed. MSF was forced to close a medical clinic on Lesvos after protesters threw rocks at volunteers. Their press release noted a rise in “aggressive behavior towards asylum seekers and refugees, as well as humanitarian organizations and volunteers.”

Some individuals suffering from chronic diseases encountered problems obtaining proper medication. Asylum seekers lacking a permanent or provisional social security number faced particular difficulty in accessing medical, mental health, and pharmaceutical care, with those suffering from chronic diseases being left without treatment for a considerable amount of time.

On October 11, Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarachis announced that asylum seekers would receive a bank account, taxpayer identification number, and social security number upon completing their initial registration, allowing asylum seekers to rent an apartment, get a job, and receive medical care.

Once granted asylum, new refugees were provided one month in subsidized housing. It remained difficult in that time span to receive documents required to apply for a job, rent a house, or receive the health booklet needed for some medical services. Passports to leave the country temporarily were easily obtainable.

The government operated facilities staffed with basic medical personnel outside the RICs and reception facilities in the mainland for the examination and isolation of possible COVID-19 cases. Media and NGOs, including MSF, reported funding gaps which delayed or disrupted the operation of these facilities. They also underscored the difficulty in practicing social distancing in congested environments that lacked washing facilities, antiseptics, and sufficient masks.

The government enforced a different protocol for the management of COVID-19 outbreaks in reception camps than for other enclosed population groups. The government protocol, known as the Agnodiki Plan, requires facilities to be quarantined and all cases (confirmed and suspected) to be isolated. If outbreaks occur at other enclosed population groups (such as nursing homes), vulnerable individuals are to be immediately moved from the site to safe accommodations, while all confirmed and suspected cases are isolated off-site in a separate facility.

RICs on islands and in the Evros region continued to be overcrowded despite intense government efforts to decongest them. Shelter, health care, wash facilities, and sewer connections were inadequate, often raising security and health concerns. Housing conditions at reception facilities elsewhere on the mainland were generally better, although at times overcrowding and remoteness from urban centers hindered access to services.

Many vulnerable asylum seekers were eligible to be sheltered in apartments via the ESTIA housing program implemented by UNHCR in cooperation with some NGOs and local municipalities. Conditions in the apartments were significantly better than in reception facilities. IOM implemented a program for sheltering asylum seekers in short-term facilities such as hotels. Throughout July media reported on several cases of recognized refugees staying in the streets after they had to leave EU- and government-sponsored accommodation. An unknown number of homeless refugees were temporarily accommodated in big tents at reception camps around Attica (Elaionas, Skaramangas, Schisto, Malakasa.)

Unaccompanied minors living in “protective custody” in police stations had limited or no access to health care or medical services. As of October 15, according to the country’s National Center for Social Solidarity, 176 unaccompanied children were in protective custody (see section 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions, Physical Conditions). On November 18, the Ministry for Migration and Asylum reported that all 170 unaccompanied minors who had been in protective custody were transferred to suitable facilities.

Durable Solutions: Refugees may apply for naturalization after seven years of residence in the country as a recognized refugee per a change in the law that took effect March 11. The previous requirement was three years. The government processed family reunification applications for asylum seekers with relatives in other countries. The IOM offered voluntary returns to rejected asylum seekers and those who renounced their asylum claims, offering in some cases 2,000 euros ($2,400) as an inducement.

Temporary Protection: As of February 29, the government provided temporary protection to approximately 599 individuals who may not qualify as refugees.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: Under a law that took effect in 2019, rape, including spousal rape, is a crime punishable by 10 years’ up to life imprisonment in cases with multiple perpetrators or if the rape results in the victim’s death. The previous limit was five to 20 years. Attempted sexual intercourse without consent is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Charges may be pressed ex officio, without the need of a complaint. If the victim does not wish to seek prosecution, the prosecutor may decide to drop charges. The law applies equally to all survivors, regardless of gender.

In 2019 media reported research showing that only 200 of an estimated average of 4,500 rape incidents per year were officially reported (approximately one out of 22). On May 5, media reported statistics from the Secretariat General for Family Planning and Gender Equality indicating an increase in violent incidents, including domestic violence, during the general lockdown in March and in April for COVID-19. The secretariat’s hotline received 1,070 calls reporting violent incidents in April, of which 648 referred to domestic violence, compared with 325 and 166, respectively, in March. Seven out of 10 incidents were reported by the victims themselves, mostly spouses and life partners (61 percent), children (10 percent), ex-spouses and former life partners (8 percent), and parents and siblings (9 percent). The data prompted the secretariat to conduct a wide campaign, involving television, internet and radio spots, to inform victims of domestic violence about their available options to escape from abusive behavior. Experts from the secretariat’s counselling services noted in parliament during September sessions of the special interparliamentary committee on gender equality that victims were reluctant to file complaints during the lockdown but after restrictions were lifted, complaints tripled and sometimes quadrupled.

On November 25, a survey ordered by the Ministry of Citizen Protection and its official think tank, the Center for Security Research, showed that more than three out of 10 women were abused during the spring lockdown. The survey, conducted from July to October, collected responses from 750 women. Of respondents, 36 percent reported suffering an abuse, with most of the victims being women ages 38 to 39, married, and with an average of two children. Eight in 10 of the perpetrators were men with a median age of 45, and four in 10 were college graduates, worked at full-time jobs, and had no history of violence.

Penalties for domestic violence range from one to three years’ imprisonment, depending on the severity of the violence. The previous range was two to 10 years. The court may impose longer prison sentences for crimes against pregnant or minor victims. Authorities generally enforced the law effectively when the violence was reported; however, some NGOs and international organizations criticized law enforcement in migrant sites for not responding appropriately to victims reporting domestic violence. Experts estimated only 10 percent of rape and domestic violence cases reached the courtroom, noting that despite an adequate legislative framework, judges’ personal biases and social norms that blame the victim were major obstacles. In 2019 police recorded 229 reported rape incidents, 62 of which were attempted rapes. Police reported identifying the perpetrators in 161 cases of rape and attempted rape. The number of identified perpetrators was 227.

The government and NGOs made medical, psychological, social, and legal support available to rape survivors.

Two popular television hosts were suspended for five days and fined 150,000 euros ($180,000) in January for comments they made in November 2019 making light of an incident in which a woman said a man sexually assaulted her in a public space at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law requires mandatory prison sentences for persons who coerce or force female individuals to undergo genital mutilation.

Despite anecdotal reports that migrant and refugee women residing in the country underwent FGM/C prior to their arrival in Greece, there was no evidence FGM/C was practiced in the country. In 2019 the European Institute for Gender Equality issued a study estimating that 25 to 42 percent of migrant and refugee girls living in the country but originating from states in which FGM/C is practiced were at risk of FGM/C.

Sexual Harassment: Under the new penal code, enforced since 2019, penalties may be as high as three years in prison for sexual harassment, with longer terms applied to perpetrators who take advantage of their position of authority or the victim’s need for employment. The previous penalty ranged from two months to five years. On November 24, NGO ActionAid reported that 85 percent of women in Greece were subjected to sexual harassment. The research took place from July to September based on a sample of 1,001 women from across the country and an additional 376 women working in tourism and catering. Based on the same research, only 6 percent officially denounced these incidents. In his 2019 annual report, the ombudsman reported his office received 335 complaints pertinent to gender equality, without specifying how many were related to sexual harassment, noting, however, that complaints on gender equality grounds were among the highest in numbers for calendar year 2019 (335 of 16,976). This trend was also reflected in the ombudsman’s special report on nondiscrimination and equal treatment for 2019. Of the 1,176 complaints received in 2019, 44 percent cited discrimination on gender equality grounds. In these reports, as well as in previous years, the ombudsman noted the absence of a policy against sexual harassment in most private and public workplaces, oftentimes combined with inadequate investigation of reported incidents.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children, and to manage their reproductive health with access to the information and the means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Some pregnant women and new mothers, particularly those residing in the five reception and identification centers for asylum seekers on the North Aegean islands during the COVID-19 pandemic, reportedly faced obstacles in accessing proper health care. There were no legal, social, and cultural barriers to access to contraceptives. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The constitution provides for the same legal status between women and men. The government effectively enforced the laws promoting gender equality, although discrimination occurred, especially in the private sector. Muslim minority persons in Thrace can request the use of sharia with notarized consent of both parties (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups).

Legislation passed in 2019 established a National Council on Gender Equality and created a certification for companies that comply with maternity leave laws, provide equal pay for male and female employees, and demonstrate gender equality in managerial posts.

A widespread perception still exists among private businesses that a pregnant employee is a burden, according to the 2019 annual antidiscrimination report from the ombudsman.

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived from one’s parents at birth; a single parent may confer citizenship on a child. Parents are obliged to register their children within 10 days of birth. The law allows delayed birth registration but imposes a fine in such cases. On February 3, the government passed legislation allowing the birth registration process to be completed electronically to increase transparency and facilitate the cross-checking of documents and data.

Child Abuse: Violence against children, particularly migrant, refugee, street, and Romani children, remained a problem. From January through October, the NGO Smile of the Child reported 1,019 serious cases of abuse related to 1,813 children through its helpline SOS 1056. The law prohibits corporal punishment and the mistreatment of children, but government enforcement was generally ineffective. Welfare laws provide for treatment and prevention programs for abused and neglected children in addition to foster care or accommodation in shelters. Government-run institutions were understaffed, however, and NGOs reported insufficient space, including for unaccompanied minors who by law are entitled to special protection and should be housed in special shelters.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 18, although minors ages 16 and 17 may marry with authorization from a prosecutor. While official statistics were unavailable, NGOs reported illegal child marriage was common in Romani communities, with Romani girls often marrying between the ages of 15 and 17, or even younger, and male Roma often marrying between the ages of 15 and 20.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The legal age of consent is 15. The law criminalizes sex with children younger than 15. The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children and child pornography and imposes penalties if the crime was committed using technology in the country. Authorities generally enforced the law. In 2019 police arrested 27 individuals on child pornography charges.

Displaced Children: According to National Center for Social Solidarity data, approximately 4,190 refugee and migrant unaccompanied and separated children resided in the country as of October 15. Only 2,659 of these children resided in age-appropriate facilities. Local and international NGOs attested that unaccompanied minors were not always properly registered, at times lacked safe accommodations or legal guardians, and were vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation, including survival sex. In 2019 the ombudsman issued a report about children on the move in the country, noting discrepancies in the administrative treatment of unaccompanied minors depending on where they entered the country, the agency that identified them, and their nationality.

On May 12, the government passed legislation establishing the Special Secretariat for the Protection of Unaccompanied Minors, later assigned to work under the Ministry for Migration and Asylum. The new law assigns the overall management and supervision of unaccompanied minors to this body, removing responsibility from the National Center for Social Solidarity, although the center continued to issue biweekly statistics on the status of unaccompanied minors.

The Special Secretariat for the Protection of Unaccompanied Minors is responsible for sheltering unaccompanied minors, including prioritizing cases with vulnerable or disabled minors. It is also responsible for coordinating the short-term and long-term placement of unaccompanied minors in shelters (government and nongovernmental) and safe zones in the RICs and other facilities. The secretariat is entrusted with: maintaining the national electronic registry for unaccompanied minors; monitoring the enforcement of standard operating procedures at reception facilities; periodically assessing the services provided; training and supporting the staff at these facilities, and coordinating efforts to relocate minors to other countries.

The government, through the Special Secretariat for the Protection of Unaccompanied Minors, increased placements for housing unaccompanied minors and sped up the process for relocating approximately 1,000 of them to other European countries as part of a voluntary relocation scheme.

Institutionalized Children: Activists condemned the use of protective custody for unaccompanied minors for prolonged periods, often in unsanitary, overcrowded conditions resulting from a lack of space in specialized shelters (see section 1, Prison and Detention Center Conditions, Physical Conditions). On September 29, Secretary General for Unaccompanied Minors Irini Agapidaki stated on social media that there were no unaccompanied minors residing at the RICs on the five Aegean islands or in Evros. The unaccompanied minors had all been relocated to other shelters or to other EU member states. On November 18, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum reported that all unaccompanied minors who were in protective custody as of November 14 had been transferred to proper accommodation facilities.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.

Local Jewish leaders estimated the Jewish population in the country consisted of approximately 5,000 individuals. Anti-Semitic rhetoric remained a problem, particularly in the extremist press, social networking sites, and certain blogs. There were several incidents of graffiti and vandalism.

On January 3, the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KIS) condemned anti-Semitic graffiti on a recently restored historic synagogue in Trikala, central Greece. The vandalism took place in late December 2019, with unknown perpetrators painting swastikas on the walls surrounding the synagogue and writing anti-Semitic slogans such as “Jewish snakes out.” The KIS called on the authorities to arrest those responsible. The city of Trikala also issued a statement condemning the incident. On August 13, a memorial to fallen Greek Air Force personnel in central Athens was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti reading ‘Satanic Jews Out’ interspersed with Christian symbols.

On October 5, media reported that unknown perpetrators sprayed anti-Semitic slogans in German on the exterior walls of the Athens Jewish Cemetery. The municipality of Athens promptly acted to clean the walls, according to a statement by the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece, denouncing the incident. The government spokesperson said authorities would do everything possible to arrest the perpetrators. Several prominent government officials, including Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and Minister of Education and Religious Affairs Niki Kerameus, tweeted that the incident was shameful.

On October 16, unknown perpetrators defaced the Holocaust Museum of Thessaloniki by spray-painting on the facade “With Jews, you lose.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Hellenic Solution party denounced the attack at the Holocaust Monument. The KIS on October 19 issued a statement condemning other attacks, including the vandalism of four tombstones at the Jewish cemetery of Rhodes and graffiti at the Jewish cemetery of Thessaloniki reading “Death to Israel.” The KIS statement said the “vandalism of cemeteries and monuments equals tolerating the vandalism of memory and civilization” while urging the Ministry of Citizen Protection to arrest the perpetrators and to reinforce security measures on all Jewish institutions and monuments in Greece.

A perpetrator or perpetrators spray-painted a Christogram cross with the words “Jesus Christ Conquers” on the facade of a synagogue and Holocaust monument on December 3 in Larissa, central Greece, and on December 29 on a Holocaust monument in Drama, northern Greece, also damaging the marble base of the monument. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the diocese of Larisa and Tyrnavos, the Secretary General for Religious Affairs, and the respective municipalities all issued statements denouncing the acts. The KIS praised the municipality of Drama for immediately restoring the damage and erasing the graffiti. On December 4, Larissa police arrested a male suspect in the nearby area of Tempi, charging him with damaging property and violating an antiracism law during the December 3 incident.

The KIS continued to express concern about anti-Semitic comments by some in the media. On January 29, the KIS expressed concern about political cartoons and images in which political controversies were mocked with the use of Jewish sacred symbols and Holocaust comparisons. The KIS issued a statement protesting a sketch of the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp in a political cartoon arguing against lifting protection of primary residencies from foreclosures. The KIS called the cartoon unacceptable because it trivialized a symbol of horror. The newspaper called the reaction “justifiable,” arguing it had no intent to trivialize or deny the Holocaust.

On November 11, the KIS denounced a front-page headline of the newspaper Makeleio related to the announcement by the Jewish CEO of a pharmaceutical company about the COVID-19 vaccine. The headline presented the company’s CEO as the infamous Nazi official Dr. Joseph Mengele, also known as the butcher of the Auschwitz concentration camp, with the title: “Jewish veterinarian will stick the needle in us! Nightmarish admissions by force in ‘chamber-camps’ as flocks.” The KIS noted that the parallel between Nazi experiments in the concentration camps and the vaccine’s production perpetuates hatred and stereotypes against Jews, while also discouraging individuals from using the vaccine. On November 20, Secretary General for Religious Affairs George Kalantzis issued a statement condemning the newspaper’s characterization, saying that such reporting is reminiscent of the Middle Ages “when Jews were accused of every disaster, illness, or defeat.”

On October 22, a court of appeals in Athens decided to imprison seven leading members of the ultra-nationalist and pro-Nazi Golden Dawn party after the court had proclaimed Golden Dawn a criminal gang on October 7. All were sentenced to 13 years in prison but one of them, Christos Pappas, evaded arrest and at the end of the year remained at large. Local and international Jewish communities expressed concern over the anti-Semitic rhetoric of many Golden Dawn members.

On January 27, Prime Minister Mitsotakis attended memorial events marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and became the first prime minister to pay an official visit to the former concentration camp.

On January 9, during a visit by Prime Minister Mitsotakis to Washington, the Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) signed an agreement allowing researchers to examine records of Nazi atrocities in Greece between 1940 and 1945. The Ministry of Culture was cooperating with USHMM on a joint effort to retrieve personal items belonging to Jewish refugees from the 1946 shipwreck of the Athina off Astypalea Island; the items were for inclusion in the USHMM’s permanent exhibition.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment, education, access to health care, information, communications, buildings, transportation, the judicial system, and other state services such as special education. NGOs and organizations for disability rights reported government enforcement of these provisions was inconsistent. For example, an employee with multiple sclerosis lost her job after returning from six months of sick leave required for therapy, even though she submitted a doctor’s note stating the therapy was needed, according to the ombudsman in the 2019 annual report. The employer cited “unconventional behavior” as reason for the dismissal three months after the employee’s return. Authorities fined the employer for not making the necessary adaptations to accommodate the employee’s disability.

On May 9, police in Gastouni, Peloponnese, physically attacked a young student with a mental disability, reportedly assuming he was a thief. The incident, which took place just outside the victim’s residence, prompted reactions by human rights activists including the Racist Crimes Watch Network and the National Confederation of Disabled People (see section 1.c., Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment).

Most children with disabilities had the option to attend mainstream or specialized schools. The dropout rate for students with disabilities was high, partly due to shortages in transportation, a lack of infrastructure such as ramps and audiovisual aids, and staff and funding shortages. Despite progress in establishing new school units and classes to help students with disabilities integrate in primary and secondary education, the ombudsman and other agencies noted that integrating children with disabilities into mainstream classrooms remained a problem.

Persons with disabilities continued to have poor access to public buildings, transportation, and public areas, even though such access is required by law. Access to buildings, ramps for sidewalks, and accessible public transportation vehicles were among the biggest access concerns. Even ramps in the street were often too steep or rough to use, and ramps for public transportation were often out of order. In July a long-awaited ministerial decree established technical guidelines, requiring existing buildings and facilities to have made “reasonable adaptions” to ensure accessibility by the year’s end, or else lose their license.

In his 2019 annual report, the ombudsman reported that 37 percent of the complaints his office received related to disability and chronic disease, a notable increase from 2018.

On March 11, the government abolished legislation passed in May 2019 lifting significant obstacles to the granting of Greek citizenship for persons with intellectual disabilities or psychiatric illnesses. The previous legislation enabled such persons to claim Greek nationality if they were born or raised in the country by lawfully residing foreign nationals, allowing them to bypass the mandatory requirement of several years of Greek schooling or the passage of a Greek language and civilization test. The National Confederation of Disabled People denounced the government’s decision in a joint statement with the NGOs Hellenic League for Human Rights and Generation 2.0. for Rights, Equality and Diversity. On October 12, the government amended the citizenship law, providing for a unified system of written exams in Greek language and culture for all applicants, except those older than 62, those with a certified disability, and those with learning difficulties. The exempted group could take an oral test.

Prime Minister Mitsotakis presented the country’s first National Plan of Action for Persons with Disabilities on December 16, which sets clear and measurable targets based on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The action plan establishes a coordinating government mechanism of central and local authorities to follow up on implementation, and a National Authority for Accessibility to monitor the implementation of legislation.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

While the constitution and law prohibit discrimination against members of minority groups, Roma and members of other minority groups continued to face discrimination.

On May 18, a citizen residing in Heraklion, Crete, reported local police physically abused him as he headed home from work, assuming he was a migrant. According to the victim’s complaint, police told him to stop for an inspection, saying, “Hey Pakistani, pull aside.” He reported that police then punched, kicked, and threatened him with retaliation if he filed a complaint. On May 20, police announced the launch of an investigation into the incident. No outcome of this investigation had been made public by the year’s end.

On June 6, the NGO Movement United against Racism and the Fascist Threat denounced police attacks on individuals before or during their detention. According to the NGO, during the June 4 Eid al-Fitr celebration, police officers at the Menidi police station, in the Athens region, physically abused 11 Pakistani, Palestinian, Indian, and Albanian migrant detainees after the detainees asked to contact their relatives.

On December 26, according to media sources, a group of about 10 men armed with sticks, knives, and iron bars shouted racist slogans and attempted to enter a shelter for unaccompanied minors in Oreokastro, northern Greece, operated by the Church of Greece for refugee children between the ages of eight and 15. Four minors who were attacked in the yard of the facility were transferred to a hospital for treatment. One of them experienced severe respiratory problems after being beaten on the chest. Numerous political parties condemned the attack, and a lawyer representing the facility filed a formal complaint. On December 27, police arrested two persons, a 38-year-old father and his 13-year-old son, for participating in the attack. At the end of the year, the investigation was ongoing.

On October 14, media reported that a court in Athens ruled in favor of 47 female migrant cleaning workers whose contracts with the municipality of Athens were terminated because they could not certify knowledge of the Greek language, as per a new Ministry of Interior regulation. The court said all 47 women should be given their jobs back.

Although the government recognizes an individual’s right to self-identification, many individuals who defined themselves as members of a minority group found it difficult to express their identity freely and to maintain their culture. Some citizens identified themselves as Turks, Pomaks, Vlachs, Roma, Arvanites, or Macedonians. Some unsuccessfully sought official government identification as ethnic or linguistic minorities. Courts routinely rejected registration claims filed by associations in Thrace with titles including the terms Turk and Turkish when based on ethnic grounds. Individuals may legally call themselves Turks, and associations using those terms were able to function regularly without legal status (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association). Government officials and courts have denied requests by Slavic groups to use the term Macedonian to identify themselves on the grounds that more than two million ethnically (and linguistically) Greek citizens also used the term Macedonian for self-identification.

The law recognizes a Muslim religious minority, as defined by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which consists of persons descended from Muslims residing in Thrace at the time of the treaty’s signature. These persons can be in ethnic Turkish, Pomak, and Romani communities. Some Pomaks and Roma claimed that ethnically Turkish members of the Muslim minority provided monetary incentives to encourage them to say they were ethnically Turkish.

During the 2019-20 school year, the government operated 115 primary schools and two secondary schools in the Thrace region that provided secondary bilingual education in Greek and Turkish for minority children. The government also operated two Islamic religious schools in Thrace. Some representatives of the Muslim minority said the facilities were inadequate to cover their needs, and claimed the government ignored their request to privately establish an additional minority secondary school. The same representatives noted a decreasing number of primary-level minority schools, which the government attributed to a decreasing number of students. Per the law, any facility with fewer than nine students must temporarily suspend operations, with students referred to neighboring schools. For the 2019-20 school year, authorities announced that 20 schools had suspended operations in the region of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace, five of which were minority schools. On April 28, an additional two minority schools suspended operation for the school period 2020-21 as per a ministerial decision, due to low attendance.

Roma continued to face widespread governmental and societal discrimination, social exclusion, and harassment, including ethnic profiling by police, alleged abuse while in police custody, discrimination in employment, limited access to education, and segregated schooling. The ombudsman wrote in his 2019 annual report that local authorities did not help to improve the living and social conditions of the Roma, which would gradually assist them to integrate. The lack of integration led to more complaints of tension between Roma and non-Roma. The ombudsman praised local governments that implemented integration practices.

On July 7, the NGO Racist Crimes Watch filed a complaint with police, claiming that police on motorcycles had beaten two Roma in the Athens suburb of Vrilissia because police falsely believed the Roma had conducted a robbery in the area on June 28. The NGO argued that police engaged in ethnic profiling.

Poor school attendance, illiteracy, and high dropout rates among Romani children were problems. Authorities did not enforce the mandatory education law for Romani children, and local officials often excluded Romani pupils from schools or sent them to Roma-only segregated schools.

On March 11, the government abolished legislation allowing Roma born in Greece to parents without official registration to gain Greek citizenship.

On July 10, the European Court of Human Rights accepted the request for interim measures in the case of Romani tent-dwellers residing in Aspropyrgos, in greater Athens, who were to be evicted by the local municipality. The court suspended the eviction until July 27 and asked Greek authorities to provide timely information about the legal grounds of their case, including eviction protocols and alternative housing solutions. On July 6, the UN Human Rights Committee, following a petition by the NGO Greek Helsinki Monitor, suspended the eviction of seven other Romani individuals, also residents of Aspropyrgos, until their appeal of the eviction could be heard.

On March 11, a Thessaloniki court blocked the enforcement of a board decision by the municipality of Thermaikos, in northern Greece, to evict approximately 200 Roma families residing in makeshift homes in an area called Tsairia. The court deemed that the municipality did not offer an alternative site for relocation. The local mayor, George Tsamaslis, vowed to appeal the decision, arguing that finding “a new home” for the Roma was not among the city’s responsibilities.

Local media and NGOs reported race- and hate-motivated attacks on migrants, allegedly by far-right individuals acting alone or in groups. In its annual report for 2019, the RVRN reported that, despite a decrease in incidents of organized violence since 2013, “a significant number of the attacks showed signs of a structured organization or organized group.” More than 50 percent of the incidents recorded by the RVRN in 2019 (51 of 100) targeted migrants, refugees, or asylum seekers on grounds of ethnic origin, religion, or skin color. The RVRN also noted “aggression against refugees in other aspects of daily life” as well as “a wider targeting of people of African origin, compared to previous years.”

On October 7, Greek courts determined the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party had operated as a criminal organization that systematically targeted members of ethnic and religious minorities, including Muslim and Jewish persons, with hate speech and violence. The court found 18 former members of parliament guilty of participating in a criminal enterprise, and found 16 members guilty of the 2013 murder of anti-Fascist activist Pavlos Fysass. The historic decision ended a trial which lasted more than five years, the longest in Greek history, and resulted in prison sentences of 13 years for seven leading figures of the group.

On July 2, an Athens court found Panayotis Papagiannis, a leading member of the Krypteia Fascist and nationalist group, guilty of a number of racist attacks, including arson at the headquarters of the Afghan community in Athens, and sentenced him to a five-year prison term.

In July the coordinator for refugee education at the Malakasa camp, Konstantinos Kalemis, made racist comments on social media regarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, a Greek player in the National Basketball Association. Kalemis commented on an interview in which Antetokounmpo said growing up in Greece was difficult because of the racial divide and because he constantly feared his parents would be deported. Minister of Education and Religious Affairs Niki Kerameus removed Kalemis from his post on July 24, noting that “such insulting and racist behavior has no place in the Greek educational system.”

The law prohibits discrimination against LGBTI persons in housing, employment, and government services such as education and health care. The government enforced antidiscrimination laws, which include sexual orientation and gender identity as aggravating circumstances in hate crimes. Offices combatting race crimes and hate crimes include in their mandates crimes targeting LGBTI individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Violence against LGBTI individuals, including LGBTI refugees and migrants, remained a problem. Societal discrimination and harassment of LGBTI persons were widespread despite advances in the legal framework protecting such individuals. LGBTI activists alleged that authorities were not always motivated to investigate incidents of violence against LGBTI individuals and that victims were hesitant to report such incidents to the authorities due to a lack of trust. A male police officer harassed and verbally abused a transgender woman during a routine inspection at an entertainment venue, the NGO Greek Transgender Support Association (SYD) reported on January 7. The woman said the police officer used insulting, derogatory, and sexist language, touched her inappropriately, and insisted on bodily searching her himself. The victim filed a complaint against the police officer. No trial date has been set.

In 2019 the RVRN recorded 16 attacks based on sexual orientation and 25 based on gender identity. The sexual orientation attacks included verbal and physical assaults. In three cases, the victims were minors. The gender identity attacks included two cases of rape, one of which involved a minor, two incidents of sexual abuse and sexual assault, two incidents of physical violence, and 17 cases of verbal insults or threats. The RVRN noted the recorded incidents showed that “transgender people suffer verbal abuse, almost daily, which escalates as their transition progresses and becomes more visible.” According to information communicated to the RVRN for 2019, police recorded 282 incidents potentially involving racist motives, 32 of which were related to sexual orientation (20) and gender identity (12).

On May 14, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights 2019 survey on LGBTI persons in the EU reported that in the country: 74 percent of respondents stated that they often or always avoided holding hands with their same-sex partner, 32 percent felt discriminated against at work, and 33 percent alleged they were harassed in the year before the survey. In addition, 51 percent of respondents felt discriminated against in at least one area of life in the year before the survey and 43 percent of LGBTI students aged 15 to 17 admitted hiding being LGBTI at school. Finally, 57 percent reported that LGBTI prejudice and intolerance has dropped during the past five years.

Activists in the LGBTI community said they faced particular hardships during the COVID-19 pandemic because they were forced to spend long periods at home with families who were not always accepting of their lifestyle, with an increase in domestic violence. Transgender individuals working in the sex industry also reported a loss of income during the pandemic.

On January 3, a joint ministerial decree outlined 12 countries of origin of asylum seekers the government considered “safe.” The decree raised concerns among human rights activists and the LGBTI community that the vast majority of these countries either persecuted individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity or presented serious threats to the lives of LGBTI individuals and human rights and LGBTI activists in the country (see section 2.f., Protection of Refugees).

On July 7, the NGO Diotima reported on a Moroccan transgender person whose application for asylum was rejected. Diotima argued that if she returned to Morocco, the woman’s life would be at risk due to her gender identity, a claim accepted by the court on October 14. The court annulled the deportation decision on the grounds the woman would face arrest, imprisonment, and abuse if sent back to her country (see section 2.f., Protection of Refugees).

Unmarried transgender individuals older than 15 may update documents to reflect their gender identity without undergoing sex reassignment surgery, according to Greek law. A judge must validate the change based on the individual’s external appearance. According to the Greek Transgender Support Association, the hearing process does not always have the necessary privacy and dignity for the applicant.

In his annual 2019 report, the ombudsman highlighted administrative obstacles faced by LGBTI individuals when they officially register a civil partnership. The ombudsman noted that corrections and changes to gender identity registrations, as part of administrative processes or notarial acts, did not always have the necessary safeguards of secrecy and respect for those impacted.

On January 20, a misdemeanors council ruled that six persons, including two store owners and four police officers, should be charged with fatal bodily harm in connection with the death of LGBTI activist Zak Kostopoulos in September 2018 in central Athens. The date of the trial was initially set for October 21 but due to restrictive COVID-19 measures, it was postponed indefinitely.

While the law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment of individuals with HIV, societal discrimination against persons with HIV or AIDS remained a problem. Persons with HIV or AIDS were exempt on medical grounds from serving in the armed forces. A presidential decree authorizes the dismissal of professional military staff members if a member diagnosed with AIDS does not respond to treatment, but there were no reports of military staff dismissals under this provision.

On January 28, the NGO Positive Voice reported on a patient who was hospitalized in isolation from other inmates solely because he had HIV. Hospital personnel moved him from his original room–which he shared with other patients–and announced he would have to use a separate bathroom from others, as well as disposable plates, cups, and cutlery. Hospital personnel did not respect the patient’s privacy and dignity, the NGO said. In a public statement, the NGO noted instances in which HIV is used as a pretext by medical staff to delay or deny the provision of medical services.

Kosovo

Executive Summary

Kosovo is a parliamentary democracy. The constitution and laws provide for an elected unicameral parliament (the Assembly), which in turn elects a president, whose choice of prime minister must be approved by the Assembly. Parliamentary elections were last held in October 2019 in a process generally considered free and fair, although European Union election observers noted that misuse of public resources and a lack of transparency of campaign finances resulted in an uneven playing field throughout the country. The Assembly was constituted in December 2019 with Albin Kurti confirmed as prime minister in February. After a no-confidence vote unseated Kurti’s government in March, Avdullah Hoti became prime minister on June 3 in a reconstituted government.

Security forces include the Kosovo Police and the Kosovo Security Force, which respectively report to the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense. The government continued the process of gradually transitioning the Kosovo Security Force into a territorial defense force in accordance with a 10-year plan which began in 2019. The Border Police, a subgroup of the Kosovo Police, are responsible for security at the border. Police maintain internal security, with the European Union rule-of-law mission in the country as a second responder for incidents of unrest. The NATO-led Kosovo Force, an international peacekeeping force, is a third responder. NATO’s Kosovo Force is responsible for providing a safe and secure environment and ensuring freedom of movement for all citizens. As of August, NATO’s Kosovo Force mission had approximately 3,400 troops from 27 countries. Civilian authorities maintained effective control of security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses, including alleged use of excessive force and mistreatment of prisoners by police.

Significant human rights issues included: undue restrictions on the press, including violence or threats of violence against journalists; government corruption and impunity; and attacks against members of ethnic minorities or other marginalized communities.

The government took steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, but at times lacked consistency. Many in the government, the opposition, civil society, and the media reported instances of senior officials engaging in corruption or acting with impunity. The government sometimes suspended or removed offenders from office, and the justice sector sometimes took steps to prosecute and punish those officials who committed abuses, offenses, and crimes. Many corrupt officials, however, continued to occupy public sector positions.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press. While the government generally respected this right, credible reports persisted that some public officials, politicians, businesses, and religious groups sought to intimidate media representatives. Funding problems also threatened media independence. Journalists encountered difficulties in obtaining information from the government and public institutions, notwithstanding laws providing access to public documents, due to delays in adopting implementing regulations. The Independent Media Commission regulates broadcast frequencies, issues licenses to public and private broadcasters, and establishes broadcasting policies.

Freedom of Speech: In December 2019 former minister of local government administration Ivan Teodosijevic was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for denying a wartime massacre of ethnic Albanians in 1999. The court ruled Todosijevic’s remarks incited hatred and intolerance, while his defense argued there was no legal basis for such decision. As of October his appeal was pending.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, generally without restriction. Nevertheless, reports persisted that government officials, some political parties, businesses connected to the government, religious groups, and disgruntled individuals pressured media owners, individual editors, and reporters not to publish certain stories or materials. Some journalists refrained from critical investigative reporting due to fear for their physical safety or job security.

While some self-sufficient media outlets adopted editorial and broadcast policies independent of political and business interests, those with fewer resources sometimes accepted financial support in exchange for positive coverage or for refraining from publishing negative stories harmful to funders’ interests. According to some editors, funding was limited in part because the government was reluctant to purchase advertising in media outlets that published material critical of government policies.

Violence and Harassment: As of September the Association of Journalists of Kosovo and media outlets reported 18 instances of government officials, business interests, community groups, or religious groups violating press freedom by physically assaulting or verbally threatening journalists.

In March a Kosovo-Albanian journalist was injured after unknown perpetrators attacked him and his crew while they were reporting on the COVID-19 situation in northern Kosovo. Media outlets reported police arrested one person in connection with the incident.

On April 11, Serbian-language online portal KoSSev editor in chief Tatjana Lazarevic was arrested by police while traveling to a health center to investigate complaints she received about its readiness for COVID-19. Despite presenting her press credentials, Lazarevic was detained for at least an hour and a half and held without charge. Law enforcement authorities maintained she was picked up for breaking curfew, although the government had exempted journalists from movement restrictions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. Lazarevic said the true reason for her arrest was to intimidate her from continuing her reporting.

On October 18, the car of investigative journalist Shkumbin Kajtazi was hit with bullets shortly after he parked and left the car. This was the second attack on Kajtazi, whose car was the target of an apparent arson attack in June that was prevented when the journalist’s neighbors notified police. Police have not publicly identified suspects or filed charges in either case.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were no reports of direct censorship of print or broadcast media, although journalists claimed pressure from politicians and organized criminal groups frequently resulted in self-censorship. Some journalists refrained from critical investigative reporting due to fear for their physical safety or job security. Journalists occasionally received offers of financial benefits in exchange for positive reporting or for abandoning an investigation.

According to the Association of Journalists, government officials as well as suspected criminals verbally threatened journalists for perceived negative reporting. According to some editors, government agencies and corporations withdrew advertising from newspapers that published material critical of them.

Journalists complained that media owners and managers prevented them from publishing or broadcasting stories critical of the government, political parties, or particular officials. In some cases, media owners reportedly threatened to dismiss journalists if they produced critical reports. Journalists also complained that media owners prevented them from reporting on high-level government corruption.

As of September the Ombudsperson Institution investigated 20 complaints of violations of the right of access to public documents, seven of which were filed by civil society organizations and 13 by individual citizens. The Ombudsperson Institution concluded that public institutions lacked capacity to answer requests for access to public documents and often failed to provide legal justification for denying or restricting access.

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

The law provides for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

The government did not consider Serbia-issued personal documents bearing Kosovo town names to be valid travel documents, making it difficult for many members of the Kosovo-Serb community to travel freely to and from the country, unless using the two border crossings with Serbia located in Kosovo-Serb majority municipalities in the north. Improvements at the civil registry in 2018 and 2019 greatly expanded Kosovo Serb access to identity documents, and the number of Kosovo Serbs with these documents increased significantly during the year. Kosovo-Serb representatives claimed some challenges remained, such as access to civil documents for Serbian nationals married to Kosovo-Serb citizens.

In-country Movement: The primary bridge connecting Mitrovica/e North and South remained closed for vehicular traffic, allegedly to prevent civil disturbances, but was fully open to pedestrians. KFOR and police maintained permanent security at the location. Other bridges connecting the two cities were fully open.

Exile: The return to the country by ethnic-minority refugees from the war remained a challenge. Parliamentary representatives of the Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptian, and Romani communities reported social prejudice prevented the return of nearly 400 Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptians, and Roma. These persons were formerly resident in the country and informed the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that they were ready to return from Serbia, North Macedonia, and Montenegro.

UNHCR estimated more than 90,000 individuals had displacement-related needs due to the 1999 Kosovo conflict, including 65,000 in Serbia, 16,406 in Kosovo, 7,500 in “third countries,” 729 in Montenegro, and 394 in North Macedonia. The Ministry for Communities and Return does not collect, process, or manage data on the displaced population and voluntary returnees. UNHCR continued to maintain its internal database of returnees and assistance applications. According to the Communities and Return Ministry, obstacles to return included security incidents, insufficient protection of property rights, failure of courts to resolve property disputes, disobedience to court decisions, lack of access to public services, issues with language rights implementation, limited economic prospects, and societal discrimination. According to UNHCR the lack of a detailed census and adequate profiling data left displaced persons excluded from human rights protections and development plans.

The government promoted the safe and voluntary return of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Through the Communities and Returns Ministry, it promoted policies and protections for IDPs in line with EU policies and cooperated with domestic and international organizations to ensure IDPs had access to their property and tools for their sustainable return. These include assistance repossessing property, land allocations for housing, and improved socioeconomic prospects.

As of December the Ministry of Communities and Return reported that 273 individuals–including 133 Serbs, 42 Gorani, 36 Roma, 33 Balkan Egyptians, 23 Ashkali, and five Albanians–had returned to their place of origin in the country. As of June, 408 IDPs, mostly Kosovo Serbs, were living in collective shelters across the country. The construction of social housing apartments for 255 IDPs and refugees residing in five collective shelters was ongoing, and the project was expected to finish by the end of the year. The municipalities of Leposavic and Zvecan allocated land for construction of social housing for the remaining residents of 10 collective shelters, with funding expected from the EU and the Ministry for Communities and Return.

By September, under an EU-funded return and reintegration program and in partnership with the International Organization for Migration, the Communities and Return Ministry successfully constructed and conducted technical acceptance of 53 houses for displaced persons and returnees, with 38 additional houses under construction. In addition, 65 selected beneficiaries of newly constructed houses received furniture and household appliances. The Communities and Return Ministry expected to finalize construction of 101 houses for displaced and returnees by the end of the year. As part of the same EU program, 100 beneficiaries received financial assistance to start their own businesses to generate income. The ministry also provided care packages to 872 vulnerable families.

The return process in some areas of the country continued to be marked by security incidents and local communities’ reluctance to accept the return of, or visits by, Kosovo Serbs. In January Kosovo Albanians in Gjakove/Djakovica, including persons whose family members remain missing, protested the planned pilgrimage of displaced Serbs to the town’s Serbian Orthodox church. The pilgrims’ association said it cancelled the visit due to security reasons. As of July UNHCR noted 45 incidents primarily affecting returnees and their property, mainly in the Peje/Pec region. For example, in April a vehicle and livestock were stolen from a returnee in the Istog/Istok area. UNHCR said the targets of the incidents were believed to be Kosovo Serbs, except for one case involving a Kosovo-Ashkali returnee.

Police maintained a presence in areas with ethnic minorities and returnees to prevent crime, build the confidence of returnees, and to protect returnees’ property.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status with subsidiary protection, a system for providing protection to refugees, and temporary admission of asylum seekers while their cases are adjudicated. The country has no central-level migration management system.

Reception facilities at the asylum center could host children but the facility lacked standard operating procedures for unaccompanied children seeking asylum or for determining their eligibility for asylum. Although asylum cases continued to increase, the country was largely a point of transit. Those seeking asylum typically left the country and did not attend their hearings. The increased number of asylum seekers did not challenge the country’s capacity. Those seeking asylum were housed at the asylum center.

Despite a straightforward registration process, new arrivals were not granted immediate access to services and asylum procedures, which resulted in a considerable applications backlog. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, from March to June UNHCR advocated for reasonable access for asylum seekers and IDPs during temporary entry bans or border closures applied by the government. UNHCR suspended the refugee status determination process from March until June due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Refoulement: In August 2019 the police inspectorate filed a criminal report including criminal violations against 22 police officers who participated in an operation involving the rescission of residence permits and subsequent refoulement to Turkey of six Turkish citizens in March 2018. The Turkish government had accused the Turkish citizens of ties to the Gulen network. In September 2019 the appellate court affirmed a prior ruling that the rationale for rescinding the residence permits was baseless. As of year’s end, the Ministry of Internal Affairs had not received a final judgment from the court.

Access to Basic Services: UNHCR reported asylum seekers received accommodations, regular meals, and clothing, while UNHCR partner organizations provided psychological assessments, counseling services, and legal aid. The lack of interpretation services for several official languages at both the central and local levels remained a problem. UNHCR stated health care and psychological treatment were still inadequate.

The government partnered with UNHCR to designate a detention center for foreigners as a quarantine site for new arrivals and to secure personal protective equipment and hygienic items for asylum seekers. UNHCR provided access to internet services at asylum centers to provide asylum seekers with online legal and psychosocial assistance as well as education for children.

The government introduced regulations mandating support and integration for asylum seekers, refugees, persons granted temporary protection or subsidiary protection, and stateless persons, but is still finalizing its standard operating procedures.

Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection, called subsidiary protection, to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. Through June the government provided subsidiary protection to one person.

g. Stateless Persons

Official figures on stateless persons were not available. The law contains no discriminatory provisions that might cause groups or individuals to be deprived of or denied citizenship. Citizens convey citizenship to their children. Children born to noncitizen parents acquire citizenship by virtue of birth within the country; this situation most often occurs within minority communities with large numbers of undocumented residents. Government procedures provide for access to naturalization for those granted stateless or refugee status five years after the determination.

Laws relating to civil status permit stateless persons to register life events such as birth, marriage, and death; however, implementation varied among municipalities. The government’s capacity to identify stateless persons and those with undetermined nationality remained inadequate.

In August the Ombudsperson Institution published an ex officio legal opinion for the court of appeals, the basic court in Pristina, the basic court in Peje/Pec, and the basic court in Mitrovica, encouraging them to promptly process lawsuits on the legal identity of unregistered persons, particularly children.

During the year UNHCR provided assistance, including medical and educational aid, to 900 “legally invisible” persons (due to their inability to prove their birth location) from different ethnic groups, most of whom belonged to the Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian communities.

Unregistered residents did not receive social assistance benefits and pension rights and could not register property titles or retain rights to inherited or transferred property. Children born of parents displaced outside the country and who entered with their readmitted parents often lacked documentation, including birth certificates, from their place of birth. Authorities had not developed a systematic solution to this problem. UNHCR provided legal aid for civil registration of 133 unregistered Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptians.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape and domestic violence against all persons, including rape of a relative or spouse. By law, rape is punishable by two to 15 years in prison. EULEX noted courts often applied penalties lighter than the legal minimum in rape cases and that law enforcement rarely took steps to protect victims and witnesses. Furthermore, sentences were often further decreased by the appellate court. The Prosecution Victim Assistance Office reported an increased number of domestic violence cases during the year, from 946 cases in 2019 to 1,145 as of October. Sexual violence and rape occurring either within or outside the family or domestic unit, were rarely reported by victims, frequently due to social stigma or lack of trust in authorities.

The law recognizes gender-based violence as a form of discrimination but lacks a definition of gender-based violence for use in criminal and civil proceedings. Women’s rights organizations held a protest in June to draw attention to disparities between domestic violence suspects, who are generally incarcerated, and sexual assault suspects, who are often released. The groups demanded both types of crimes be treated equally by judicial officials.

The Prosecution Victim Assistance Office helped to provide access to justice for victims of all crimes, with a special focus on victims of domestic violence, trafficking in persons, child abuse, and rape. In addition, each prosecutor’s office had a prosecutor who specialized in handling domestic violence cases. These prosecutors could apply risk-assessment tools to mitigate risk of future abuse and were empowered to recommend harsher sentences for repeat offenders and violators of protective orders.

Police investigated cases of domestic violence before transferring them to prosecutors who make the determination on filing charges. In the first half of the year, the prosecution expeditiously processed domestic violence cases and indictments. The rate of prosecution was low, however, and sentences were often lowered on appeal. Advocates and court observers asserted prosecutors and judges favored family unification over victim protection, with protective orders sometimes allowing the perpetrator to remain in the family home while a case was pending. Sentences ranged from judicial reprimands to up to five years’ imprisonment. The criminalization of domestic violence in April 2019 was accompanied by an increase in arrests, prosecutions, and convictions for the crime. The Pristina basic court held online hearings on domestic violence cases consistent with government anti-COVID-19 pandemic measures.

In September a basic court reduced the life sentence of Pjeter Ndrecaj for murder to 24 years’ imprisonment after the Supreme Court returned the case for retrial. Ndrecaj was found guilty of killing his former wife and nine-year-old daughter in 2018. The court’s original sentence of 24 years had been extended in 2019 by the court of appeal, which found aggravating circumstances not considered by the basic court. Ndrecaj’s former wife had sought help from the police station in Gjakove/Djakovica several hours prior to the killing, but police failed to locate Ndrecaj before the murders took place. As a result, three police officers received five-month suspensions for “abuse of official duty.”

The government licensed and supported 10 NGOs to assist child and female survivors of domestic violence. The government established a budget line for financial support of shelters, resolving a long-standing funding problem. Both NGOs and shelters reported timely receipt of funding.

The Office of the Prime Minister maintained a commission to recognize and compensate survivors of wartime sexual violence. The commission has granted pensions to more than 800 women since 2018. The SPRK designated one prosecutor for cases of wartime sexual violence. Police maintained a unit for war crimes cases, including cases of wartime sexual violence.

Sexual Harassment: The law defines sexual harassment in civil and criminal proceedings. The criminal code stipulates prison sentences as an enhanced penalty for sexual harassment against vulnerable victims and in cases where the criminal procedure is initiated upon the victim’s request. In cases where a crime is committed with the use of a weapon, the sentence may vary from one to five years in prison. The NGO Kosovo Women’s Network reported that implementation of sexual harassment laws was hampered by poorly defined procedures for filing complaints of harassment, and lack of clarity regarding which government bodies should receive these complaints.

According to women’s rights organizations, harassment was common at workplaces in both the public and private sectors and in public institutions of higher education.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals, regardless of gender, ideology, or religious or cultural background; have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have access to the information and the means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. The government generally respected reproductive rights, but poor, marginalized, and illiterate individuals often had insufficient access to information. To address the problem, the government and the UN Population Fund created family-planning curricula for all educational levels and were training educators to implement it. According to 2018 World Bank data, the country had 16 births per 1,000 inhabitants. A 2019 report from the international coalition Countdown to 2030 found that 88 percent of women had access to modern contraception, 98 percent had at least four prenatal medical visits, and 99 percent had a skilled health-care provider attend the delivery. Accurate maternal mortality data were unavailable, because the government neither gathered nor maintained records of such deaths. The law obligates the government to provide access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence, including survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. Survivors are assigned a “victim’s protection official” who assists with both criminal justice and medical treatment processes. The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare registered survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and provided them with medical and psychosocial support as well as a monthly pension. More than 800 individuals received such benefits during the year.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The law provides the same legal status and rights for women and men. The law requires equal pay for equivalent work. The law stipulates that partners in marriage and civil unions have equal rights to own and inherit property, but men usually inherited family property and other assets. In rare instances Kosovo-Albanian widows, particularly in rural areas, risked losing custody of their children due to a family custom requiring children and property to pass to the deceased father’s family while the widow returned to her birth family.

Relatively few women occupied upper-level management positions in business, police, or government. The Kosovo Women’s Network reported women were often subject to discriminatory hiring practices.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: The boy-to-girl ratio at birth was 108 boys to 100 girls. The government did not introduce policies to encourage a more equal gender balance.

Birth Registration: Children acquire citizenship from citizen parents or by birth in the country, including those with parents whose citizenship was not documented. Those not registered at birth were primarily from the Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian communities. UNICEF indicated lack of registration could adversely affect a child’s access to social assistance, particularly for repatriated children. Children who were not registered were considered stateless.

Child Abuse: The criminal code does not specifically criminalize child abuse but addresses various elements of child abuse, including in sections on sexual assault, rape, trafficking in persons, and child pornography, among others. Penalties range from five to 20 years’ imprisonment. The incidence of child abuse was unknown due to social stigma and lack of reliable data.

The Law on Child Protection entered into force in July. The international NGO Terre des Homme Kosovo assisted the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare in drafting additional legislation as part of comprehensive implementation measures. The law stipulates establishment of houses offering temporary shelter, protection, and emergency assistance to child victims of physical or sexual abuse, and sets standards for licensing and operation.

In July 2019 a nine-year-old boy from Fushe Kosove was raped and killed. The boy’s mother had reported his rape by the suspect to police prior to the killing, but the suspect was released after questioning and never rearrested. Six months later, the child was found dead in Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje. The suspect was then arrested for rape and aggravated murder. Following the trial, police and prosecutors began jointly reviewing all procedures and actions in child abuse cases. Disciplinary investigations were initiated against two prosecutors involved in the case over suspicion they failed to address claims of abuse in a timely and efficient manner. One of the prosecutors was disciplined by the Prosecutorial Council. A human rights lawyer took up the case and sought to hold officials accountable for inaction.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law allows persons to marry at age 16 with parental consent. Although there are no official data on early and forced child marriages, it was a common practice, including in Roma, Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptian, Bosniak, and Gorani communities. According to a government report that focused on these communities, approximately 12 percent of children, mostly girls, married before age 15. High poverty levels in these communities contributed to these rates.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits possession, production, and distribution of child pornography. Persons who produce, use, or involve a child in making or producing pornography may receive a prison sentence of one to five years. The distribution, promotion, transmission, offer, or display of child pornography is punishable by six months’ to five years’ imprisonment. Possession or procurement of child pornography is punishable by a fine or imprisonment of up to three years.

The minimum legal age for consensual sex is 16. Statutory rape is a criminal offense punishable by five to 20 years in prison. Terre des Homme Kosovo reported that national mechanisms for identification and referral of children who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation are ineffective. The organization noted children transported from Albania for street work are inadequately identified as potential victims of trafficking or children at risk of trafficking. The municipality of Pristina established a special task force intended to address these issues and provide protection and necessary services for children engaged in street work.

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.

Approximately 50 Jewish persons resided in the country, according to the Jewish community. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The constitution and law prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, and provide for equal access to education, employment, and other state services. The government did not effectively enforce these provisions, and persons with disabilities faced discrimination in access to education and hiring.

In December the NGO Association of Paraplegic and Paralyzed Children of Kosovo (Handi-Kos) presented an assessment of the country’s disability legislation, based on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The report noted that elementary schools in Kosovo generally did not ensure adequate disability access, and internal facility design did not ensure the equal status of children with disabilities with their peers. The report stated this lack of access resulted in a higher dropout rate for children with disabilities.

The law on the employment of persons with disabilities states that the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare and the Ministry of Health will introduce special legislation that determines the level of working capacity for persons with disabilities. The absence of this legislation directly affects the employment of persons with disabilities and reinforces existing social stigma around disability.

According to Handi-Kos, health and rehabilitative services, social assistance, and assistive devices for persons with disabilities was insufficient. Physical access to public institutions remained difficult, even after the implementation of bylaws on building access and administrative support. Handi-Kos reported municipal compliance with a 2007 mandate on access to government buildings is in the single digits.

The parliament building itself was not accessible, and one member of parliament in a wheelchair had to be carried into the assembly hall by colleagues. Likewise, in the municipality of Sukhareka, persons in wheelchairs had access only to the ground floor of the municipal building, but not floors containing the mayoral and directorate offices. Educational options for children with disabilities were limited. According to Handi-Kos, approximately 38,000 children with disabilities did not attend school.

In August the Ombudsperson Institution published a report criticizing unequal access to interurban transportation for blind persons, despite legal requirements for such access. It recommended decreasing transport fees for disabled persons, reserving two seats on public transport for travelers with disabilities, and mandating a minimum number of law-enforcement inspections per month for urban and interurban public transport vehicles. To date, no entity or organization responded to this report.

The law regulates the commitment of persons to psychiatric or social care facilities and protects their rights within such institutions but it has not been implemented. The country lacks an adequate system for classification of procedures, placement, and treatment of detainees with mental disabilities. The KRCT described mental health facilities as substandard and generally at full capacity. The KCRT also noted the need for additional capacity specifically for women and juveniles with mental disabilities. The Institute of Forensic Psychiatry had a capacity of 36 beds, of which 12 were for psychiatric examinations and 24 were for mandatory psychiatric treatment. The institute did not have a specific area for treatment of women and juveniles. There were instances when domestic violence offenders with mental disabilities did not complete mandatory psychiatric care but left institute facilities due to inadequate infrastructure and capacity.

The KRCT noted that the lack of capacity at the Institute of Forensic Psychiatry led to detainees with mental disabilities being sent to standard correctional centers rather than to mental health facilities, in contradiction of both domestic law and international standards.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Societal violence persisted against Kosovo-Serb and other ethnic minority communities, all of which were also affected by social and employment discrimination.

The Kosovo-Serb community, its representatives, civil society, and the international community expressed concern over incidents involving thefts, break-ins, verbal harassment, and damage to the property of Kosovo-Serbs, particularly returnees in rural areas. The NGO AKTIV reported more than 20 incidents between March and June targeting Kosovo-Serbs, including arson, physical attacks, and robberies. Between January and October, the Communities and Return Ministry received complaints of 49 security incidents affecting Kosovo Serbs and returnees. For example the ministry issued a press release on April 28 condemning the burning of a house in Cernice/a and on May 27 issued a press release condemning the stoning of a returnee house in Lubozhde/Ljubozda and a physical attack in Drenovc/Drenovac. The ministry publicly appealed to police to enhance patrols in critical locations and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Kosovo-Serb representatives claimed ethnic hatred was the key motive for some incidents, such as the stoning of returnee houses, cases of arson, and graffiti. The representatives claimed the government did not adequately respond to these incidents. In some cases police investigations resulted in the perpetrators’ arrest.

In October unknown perpetrators reportedly shot at a group of Kosovo-Serb youth in the Bernice e Poshtme/Donja Brnjica village school in Pristina municipality. No one was injured in the incident. According to media reports and the youths, the perpetrators spoke Albanian. Police agreed to increase police presence in the area following an October 4 meeting between local Kosovo-Serbs, their representatives, police, and KFOR. Police arrested one person in connection with the incident.

Harassment of Kosovo-Serb members of the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) by other ethnic Serbs was commonplace, although usually the incidents were difficult to trace. Victims in most cases did not report the incidents to police for fear of escalation and retaliation. In June a local court ordered the 30-day detention of a Kosovo Serb for harassing a Kosovo-Serb KSF member on social media. According to the prosecution, the victim received threatening messages after the suspect posted a photo of the victim in uniform alongside Ramush Haradinaj, a former prime minister and KLA commander. The suspect removed the post, but the victim continued to receive threatening messages. Kosovo-Serb KSF members were also routinely detained by Serbian authorities at Kosovo-Serbia border crossings.

The Ministry of Defense and KSF leadership took some steps to protect Kosovo-Serb members. These steps included better documentation of incidents, routine welfare checks by commanders, and attempts at improving the response of police and the Kosovo Intelligence Agency. The government launched a KSF recruitment campaign where leaders amplified minority recruitment efforts.

Access to justice for Kosovo Serbs improved due to the 2017 integration of the judiciary system in the four northern Serb-majority municipalities and integration of Kosovo-Serb judges and staff in other basic courts in the country. The judiciary suffered from a lack of funding and support for minorities. Poor or delayed translation in court proceedings, a backlog of cases in the north, nonexecution of court decisions, limited numbers of minority staff, and inconsistency between Albanian and Serbian translations of legislation continued to hinder the delivery of justice for Kosovo Serbs and other minority communities.

The Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian communities often lacked access to basic hygiene, medical care, and education and were heavily dependent on humanitarian aid for subsistence. The government provided food and hygiene assistance to these communities beginning in March due to the COVID-19-related limitations on movement. Community representatives and civil society stated the assistance was insufficient to protect members of these communities from exposure to the virus and spreading the virus through traditionally practiced street work.

The prime minister’s Office of Community Affairs and the Ombudsperson Institution noted discrimination in public sector employment in almost all local and national institutions. Although the law mandates 10 percent of employees at the national level of government be ethnic minorities, their representation remained limited and generally confined to lower-level positions. Smaller communities, such as Gorani, Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptians, were particularly underrepresented.

The law requires equal conditions for all schoolchildren and recognizes minority students’ right to public education in their native language through secondary school. This law was not enforced. Bosniak, Croat, Gorani, Montenegrin, Romani, and Turkish community leaders cited the unavailability of textbooks and other materials in the Serbian, Bosnian, and Turkish languages, occasionally turning to Albanian-language curriculum or curriculum sponsored by Serbia or Turkey to educate students.

The Office of the Language Commissioner monitored and reported on the implementation of legislation that conferred equal status to the country’s two official languages, Albanian and Serbian, as well as other official languages at the local level, including Bosnian and Turkish. The commissioner reported municipal administrations and central government institutions were inconsistent in implementing provisions of national language laws, for example, in providing Serbian translations of government statements, including emergency notices, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a complaint echoed by Kosovo-Serb civil society groups. The Office of the Language Commissioner also reported that failure to consistently implement language laws meant that many citizens were denied equal access to public services, information, employment, justice, and other rights.

Lack of translation or poor translation was also reported as a problem with regards to numerous laws, signs within public institutions, and communication during court proceedings. To address the problem of inconsistently translated legislation, the government passed a concept note sponsored by the country’s language commissioner in May 2019 requiring establishment of a governmental translation unit. As of November, the unit had not been established.

Courts regularly failed to provide adequate translation and interpretation services to minority defendants and witnesses and did not provide adequate translation of statute and court documents as required by law. The Kosovo-Serb NGO AKTIV reported that courts sent their decisions, including decisions on detention and verdicts, in the Albanian language to members of the Kosovo-Serb and other minority communities. AKTIV noted such practices inhibited access to legal remedies for members of minority communities.

Amendments to administrative rulings permit Bosniaks and ethnic Turks to have identity documents issued in their own languages, but minority representatives often complained of poor treatment by public servants and delayed implementation.

The constitution and law prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, health care, and education. When the motivation for a crime is based on gender, sexual orientation, or perceived affinity of the victim with persons who are targets of such hostility, the law considers motivation to be an aggravating circumstance.

According to human rights NGOs, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community faced overt discrimination in employment, housing, determination of statelessness, and access to education and health care.

The NGO Center for Equality and Liberty reported that societal pressure persuaded most LGBTI persons to conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity. A representative noted police were insensitive to the needs of the LGBTI community. The center also noted increased homophobic public reactions in social media since the introduction of country-wide government measures against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Police were inclusive and accepting of LGBTI and other minority communities in their public messaging, and senior police officials participated in the annual pride parade. Pristina municipality established a drop-in center for at-risk LGBTI persons.

In August 2019 the appeals court upheld a basic court ruling permitting the change of the sex marker on identity documents from female to male for a citizen living abroad. In total, two citizens changed their identity documents following lengthy court procedures, while four citizens’ requests for change of identity documents have not been resolved.

On September 4, Prime Minister Hoti and Serbian President Vucic signed agreements in which the two countries agreed to work with foreign governments to decriminalize homosexuality in the 69 countries where it is considered a crime.

There were no confirmed reports of official discrimination against persons with HIV or AIDS during the year.

North Macedonia

Executive Summary

The Republic of North Macedonia is a parliamentary democracy. A popularly elected president is head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. The unicameral parliament exercises legislative authority. Presidential elections were last held in May 2019 and won by current president Stevo Pendarovski. Parliamentary elections took place in July after a three-month delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On January 3, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev resigned, and a caretaker government, led by interim Prime Minister Oliver Spasovski and composed of ministers from across the political spectrum, took office for the 100 days preceding scheduled elections. On February 16, the speaker of parliament dissolved the legislature and called elections for April 12. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting state of emergency, the caretaker government postponed elections from April 12 to July 15 and remained in office until August 30, when the new government, again led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, was sworn in. In its July 16 Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions on the parliamentary elections and October 2 Final Report, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights observed the elections were “generally administered effectively amid adjustments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but legal stability was undermined by substantial revisions to the Electoral Code and subsequent ad hoc regulations enacted during the state of emergency.” The report characterized the elections as “genuinely competitive” despite politicians’ limited ability to conduct outreach during the pandemic. Election day went smoothly.

The national police maintain internal security, including migration and border enforcement, and report to the Ministry of the Interior. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses, including excessive use of force by police and prison guards.

Significant human rights issues included: violence and threats of violence against journalists, high-level corruption, and instances of violence and threats of violence against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex community.

The government took steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed abuses. The ombudsman believed police impunity continued to be a problem.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press, and the government generally respected this right. The media environment continued to improve during the year. According to the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, the authorities’ response to instances of violence toward and intimidation of journalists was slow and inefficient.

In the Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions on the July 15 parliamentary elections, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) stated, “media coverage of the elections lacked critical assessment of platforms and provisions regarding paid political advertisement favored the three largest parties.” The statement noted, “Significant improvements in media freedoms in recent years were not reinforced by systematic reforms in the media sectors, such as ensuring the political neutrality of the public Macedonian Radio and Television and the media regulator” (Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services). Observers expressed concerns the COVID-19 pandemic caused deterioration in already challenging conditions for journalists. The OSCE report further noted, “Ongoing stagnation in the advertising market caused by the pandemic has further increased the dependence of media on owners and state subsidies.”

Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2020 report released March 4 noted an improvement in the score from two to three (out of maximum four points), “because pressure on journalists has eased in recent years. The April 21 Reporters without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index noted “slight improvement” of the country’s media freedom. The report added that, “regrettably, senior government officials have an engrained tendency to threaten and insult journalists. The culture of impunity is well entrenched and still an obstacle for journalists’ safety. The number of the physical attacks on journalists declined; however, there is a growing practice of cyberbullying and verbal abuse.”

As of October 1, the government had not taken measures to address calls from media stakeholders and the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption and Conflict of Interest (SCPC) to abolish 2018 amendments to the Electoral Code permitting taxpayer money to be used for political campaigning in commercial media.

The government prosecuted journalists during the year for disclosing confidential or classified documents. On March 4, the Skopje Criminal Court convicted journalist Aleksandar Mitovski and sentenced him to a six-month suspended prison sentence for leaking confidential documents related to the “Racketeering” criminal investigation. He published the first page of a witness deposition on his portal, Infomax, in August 2019. On July 30, the PPO filed a summary indictment against Ljupco Zlatev, the editor of Lider, a financial news portal, for disclosing classified documents from the National Security Agency in two texts the portal published in July.

Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits speech that incites national, religious, or ethnic hatred and provides penalties for violations. Individuals may criticize the government publicly or privately. The Helsinki Human Rights Committee and other human rights and media freedom activists reported an increase in hate speech, particularly along interethnic lines and in relation to the COVID-19 crisis. On June 8, the committee issued a press release urging public figures to refrain from speech blaming interethnic coexistence for the public health crisis and to focus instead on increased compliance with COVID-mitigation measures.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: While outlets and reporting continued to be largely divided along political lines, the number of independent media actively expressing a variety of views without overt restriction continued to increase. Laws that restrict speech inciting national, religious, or ethnic hatred also cover print and broadcast media, publication of books, and online newspapers and journals.

Central government advertising on commercial channels is banned, but local government advertising is permissible. The state continued to subsidize print media. Budget funds were allocated to media to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. The state subsidized paid political ads in commercial media for the campaign leading to the July 15 early parliamentary elections.

Several organizations raised concerns over the media environment prior to the July 15 parliamentary elections. The ODIHR Special Election Assessment Mission’s (SEAM) Preliminary Findings noted: “The legal framework for the allocation of funds for paid time, and the distribution of maximum limits for such advertisements, was modified by a government decree enacted on 22 June, the last day of the state of emergency. The provisions favor the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM)-led coalition, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), and the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI).” The ODIHR also noted: “The newscasts of all national broadcasters monitored by the ODIHR SEAM provided superficial coverage of the campaign activities…in-depth analytical reporting or policy-based discussions were largely absent from the coverage of the campaign, limiting the opportunity for voters to make an informed choice between distinct policy alternatives.”

According to an analysis of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, published August 14, parties spent nearly two million euros ($2.4 million) on commercials, 550,000 euros ($660,000) on online media, 150,000 euros ($180,000) on radio ads, and 40,000 euros ($48,000) on print media. For the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, it was problematic that the political parties could decide without any criteria in which media outlets to place ads. The State Anticorruption Commission, in its draft National Anticorruption Strategy endorsed by the executive in January, urged the government to terminate paid political advertising in media, seeing it as a “potential risk for corruption and creation of clientelist relationships.”

The Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media filed misdemeanor charges against Macedonian Radio 1, Alsat-M TV, Shenja TV, and Telma TV for violating the media blackout preceding the election. On July 30, the Skopje Appellate Court upheld a conviction against both Macedonian Radio 1 and its director. On November 3, the Skopje Misdemeanor Court issued a judgment against TV Shenja and Alsat-M TV. Both outlets were appealing the decision before the Skopje Criminal Court. Telma TV was acquitted.

On February 4, following an open call, the government allocated 43.9 million Macedonian denars (MKD, approximately $852,000) to cover half of the 2019 printing and distribution expenses to 12 print media outlets. The State Anticorruption Commission’s draft National Anticorruption Strategy, finalized on January 17, urged the government to introduce more specific subsidizing criteria to avoid “not purposeful spending of awarded funds.”

On October 8, the ECHR issued a judgement against North Macedonia under Article 10 (Violation of Freedom of Expression) in a case involving journalist Nikola Gelevski. The ECHR found that a 2011 criminal conviction for defamation against Gelevski for criticizing another journalist in an opinion piece limited critical and investigative journalism as a matter of legitimate public interest. The court noted the criminal conviction could have a chilling effect on political debate between members of media on matters of importance and characterized the authorities’ interference as disproportionate.

The Media Ethics Council continued to work on promoting self-regulation. As of August 10, the council received 106 complaints for unethical reporting and fake news, which the council noted was triple the number received in the same period in 2019. Of the complaints, 33 percent were related to misinformation on COVID-19.

Violence and Harassment: There were several cases of alleged threats and harassment against journalists during the year.

As of October 24, the Association of Journalists of Macedonia registered 16 cases of attacks on journalists, of which 14 cases were verbal attacks, most of them involving life threats on social media, and two were physical attacks. The association noted the fact that of all verbal attacks, eight were directed against female journalists. In all cases the association called on police and the prosecution to investigate and bring perpetrators to justice, and reiterated concern that impunity remained a serious issue with respect to attacks on journalists. On July 28, the association reiterated its call to the authorities to amend the criminal code to ensure attacks on journalists were treated as criminal offenses prosecuted ex officio.

On March 16, the Skopje Basic Court issued a 20-month prison sentence, preceded by psychiatric treatment in Bardovci Mental Hospital, for Emil Jakimovski, then assistant head of department in the Central Registry, for death and sexist threats made separately against journalists Meri Jordanovska and Iskra Korovesovska during January and during November and December 2019, respectively. The case triggered numerous reactions domestically and internationally, including by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Over several days in July, Brussels-based correspondent for state news agency MIA Tanja Milevska received numerous death and rape threats from anonymous Twitter and Facebook users. The case triggered reactions by media organizations in North Macedonia, the region, and internationally, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and the European Federation of Journalists, as well as North Macedonia’s Ministry of Information Society and Administration. Milevska reported the threats to police in Belgium and in North Macedonia but had not received any response as of August 12.

In April journalists and media staff Dushica Mrgja, Natasha Stojanovska, Goran Trpenoski, Vlatko Stojanovski, Biljana Nikolovska, Tome Angelovski, and Igor Jankovski filed civil compensation lawsuits against the state for violating their right to freedom of speech before the Skopje Civil Court. The plaintiffs, who testified in court in the parliament violence case, sought financial and moral compensation for the PPO’s lack of action to prosecute the “United for Macedonia” civil movement members who insulted and physically attacked press crews reporting on the April 27, 2017, storming of parliament. As of August 31, the case was pending before the court.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were some reports the government pressured journalists into self-censorship.

On February 4, the Independent Media Trade Union signed the first collective agreement with a media outlet, state news agency MIA, which regulates terms and conditions of MIA’s employees, including but not limited to guarantees for a 36-hour working week, paid overtime work, protection from arbitrary dismissal, and guaranteed freedom of expression.

Libel/Slander Laws: Persons found guilty of defamation, libel, and slander were subject to fines according to a schedule based on nonmaterial damage.

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content. There were no reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

A “state of crisis” has been in force for border areas adjacent to Greece and Serbia since 2015. It has been extended by the government every six months, most recently on October 5. The state of crisis allows the government additional authorities to regulate the entry and transit of migrants and deploy additional resources as needed. Since the closure of the “Western Balkans Route” in 2016, migrants apprehended in these areas were regularly placed in contained temporary transit centers, near the border, and pushed back to the prior transit country within days. No freedom of movement was ensured for migrants while in the transit centers or the reception center for smuggled foreigners, nor was a formal removal or readmission procedure established.

A total of 1,799 persons were housed in transit centers in the first eight months of the year, 1,448 in Tabanovce, near the border with Serbia; and 351 in the Vinojug transit center, near the border with Greece.

The 2018 Law on International and Temporary Protection prescribes freedom of movement shall be restricted in extraordinary circumstances to determine the identity and citizenship, and establish the facts and circumstances of the asylum requests, particularly if the subject has been determined to be a flight risk, as well as to protect order and national security, or when a foreigner is retained for the purposes of initiating a procedure for his or her return or expulsion.

The government authorities did not exert pressure on migrants to return to their country of origin.

The ombudsman determined that the Ministry of Interior often made arbitrary decisions to restrict freedom of movement, including in cases involving unaccompanied minors.

In-country Movement: The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Skopje estimated more than 28,000 persons transited the country from January 1 to August 31, but neither UNHCR nor the International Organization for Migration (IOM) registered any hate crimes against them. UNHCR did not note any in-country movement restrictions for internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, or stateless persons.

According to the EU’s border and coastguard agency, Frontex, in the first seven months of the year, 11,300 migrants were encountered along the so-called Balkans Route that includes North Macedonia.

On March 21, the government introduced a countrywide curfew as part of the measures introduced to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The curfew limited the movement of citizens outside of their homes to specific periods during the day. It was in effect until May 26.

On May 14, the Constitutional Court suspended as discriminatory select provisions of the government’s COVID-19 state of emergency decrees that ordered more restrictive regimes governing the movement of seniors age 67 and older and minors younger than age 18. The Court ordered the government’s decrees restricting citizens’ movement outside of their homes to prevent the spread of COVID-19 should apply equally to all citizens.

Citizenship: The Agency of National Security reported September 1 that as many as 1,800 individuals were awaiting its decision regarding the granting or revocation of their citizenship.

According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, 112 persons from 26 families remained displaced from the 2001 internal armed conflict. Of them seven individuals from three families lived in collective housing centers, and 105 from 25 families lived in private accommodations or with host families. The government provided protection and assistance, and supported safe, voluntary, and dignified returns, as well as resettlement or local integration of IDPs. There were no reports of IDPs suffering abuses.

Despite having no national policy document, the government generally observed the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

The government cooperated with UNHCR, the IOM, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, stateless persons, and other persons of concern, except on the adoption of a new strategy on integration of refugees, which has been pending since 2017. In addition UNHCR and its partners lacked access to individuals detained in the Reception Center for Foreigners (Skopje-Gazi Baba) and in the transit zones at international airports, which impeded UNHCR’s ability fully to exercise its mandate under its 1951 convention.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Authorities took significant measures to combat and detect cases of migrant smuggling by utilizing the support of mobile teams and a task force consisting of representatives from the Ministry of Interior and prosecutors from the PPO for Organized Crime and Corruption. The May 2019 EC report noted the problem of smuggling needed to be addressed continuously, as the country was under severe pressure due to its geographic location.

The IOM stressed the movement of migrants through the Western Balkans route was facilitated by smuggling networks, which exposed the migrants to significant risks of abuse and exploitative practices, including trafficking in human beings.

There were occasional reports of incidents of sexual and gender-based violence against migrants, allegedly by smugglers and traffickers. These reports were infrequent. The majority of migrants in transit were working-age single men.

Authorities provided adequate mechanisms to protect migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless persons from abuse. A multisector system and standard operating procedures (SOPs) were in place to provide protection from gender-based violence. UNHCR noted the system needed strengthening to ensure universal and systemic application of the SOPs, especially regarding case identification.

Refoulement: During the year no instances of forceful returns of asylum seekers or refugees to unsafe countries were recorded.

Access to Asylum: UNHCR assessed access to asylum practices continued to improve consistently, and previous concerns regarding the practice of arbitrarily denying access to asylum had been addressed. The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system to provide protection to refugees. UNHCR reported, however, that the mechanism for adjudicating refugee status failed to provide basic procedural guarantees and proper determinations as prescribed in the law. It reported 181 migrants applied for asylum in the first seven months of the year. Two persons were granted refugee status or a subsidiary form of protection.

The legal framework provides for procedural safeguards and review. There were a number of disputes concerning the application of some safeguards, including at the judicial level. For instance, although legally permissible, in practice the court refused all requests to hear from dissatisfied asylum applicants during the appeals procedure.

The government issued identity documents to recognized refugees and persons under subsidiary protection, but authorities frequently delayed or failed to issue identification documents to new asylum seekers.

There were some impediments to accessing asylum. Migrant populations detained in the Transit Center for Foreigners were impeded from accessing asylum. An application for asylum by anyone held in the Reception Center for Foreigners was possible only after the person gave a statement before the court, in criminal proceedings against their smugglers. During the year, 76 persons, or approximately 50 percent of all asylum requests registered in the country, were processed through the Reception Center for Foreigners.

Throughout the year the administrative and the higher administrative courts continued to avoid ruling on the merit of asylum applications, despite having the requisite authority, according to the Macedonian Young Lawyers’ Association. They routinely returned the cases to the Ministry of Interior for further review.

Freedom of Movement: According to UNHCR, authorities detained some individuals intercepted while being smuggled. The grounds for detention decisions were arbitrary. As a rule, individuals are supposed to be detained only until their identity could be established. They were routinely detained after identification, however, to prevent them from departing the country prior to providing legal testimony against their smugglers. In addition a majority of asylum seekers who were previously detained reported they were either not issued detention decisions or issued decisions in a language they could not understand. This impeded their ability to exercise their right to judicial review. According to UNHCR, this situation qualifies as arbitrary deprivation of liberty.

The average detention period of asylum seekers during the year was 15 days, with the longest period being 45 days and the shortest period one day.

Some improvement was noted compared with previous years, as women, children, or families were generally not detained; alternatives to detention were employed instead. A safe house, run by a nongovernmental organization (NGO) utilizing donor funds, was rented for these individuals, so they were not placed in prison or in detention facilities. They were monitored, however, and needed to report to authorities on a weekly basis. Three unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were housed with foster families during the year.

Employment: There are no restrictions on refugees’ ability to work, and the law allows asylum seekers whose asylum procedure is not completed within nine months to apply for a work permit.

Recognized refugees and persons under subsidiary protection with work permits were able to access the active labor market. Nevertheless, asylum seekers faced restrictions because of conflicting laws. By law a foreigner needs to have a unique identification number assigned in order to be issued a work permit. Although an asylum seeker has the legal right to apply for a work permit nine months after applying for asylum, she or he has no right to be assigned a unique identification number until asylum is granted. Consequently, an asylum seeker has the right to work but is unable to exercise it. This represents a serious gap in protection since cases sometimes remain pending for two to three years.

Access to Basic Services: In accordance with health insurance regulations, asylum seekers had the right to basic health services while their claims were pending. The same applied to the right to education. Five children from outside the Balkan region (Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) were enrolled in state-run educational facilities in Skopje. Refugees have the right to full health care provided under the same conditions as it is to citizens.

Durable Solutions: According to UNHCR, none of the 275 individuals from the 1999 conflict in Kosovo who remained in the country returned to Kosovo during the year. No cases of resettlement were registered.

The law provides for naturalization of refugees residing in the country under preferred conditions. Individuals under subsidiary protection may naturalize after eight years of legally residing in the country. During the year one refugee and one person under subsidiary protection were naturalized.

Under the law the Ministry of Labor, in cooperation with the Interior Ministry and UNHCR, should facilitate the voluntary return of asylum seekers to their homes. There were no cases of assisted voluntary repatriation during the year.

UNHCR continued to assist rejected asylum seekers from Kosovo, whom the government allowed to stay in the country. The government issued them provisional identification documents to secure access to services. The Ministry of Labor provided integrated, durable solutions with the support of UNHCR for approximately 158 refugees who applied for integration into the country. The ministry provided social assistance, housing assistance, and access to education, health care, and the labor market.

Temporary Protection: The government could provide subsidiary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. Two persons were granted subsidiary protection during the year.

g. Stateless Persons

Some habitual residents were legally stateless, despite fulfilling one or more criteria for citizenship. According to consolidated statistics from the government, UNHCR, and NGOs, there were 563 stateless persons registered in the country at the end of August. They were primarily Roma who lacked civil registration and documentation. Children born in the country to stateless persons are considered nationals and have access to birth registration and certification. A government program to register persons without documents was initiated in late 2018.

Some 273 persons have been recorded as habitual residents with undetermined nationality and at risk of statelessness since the dissolution of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991. The Ministry of Labor estimated some 700 children lacked birth certificates or personal name registration in the country.

Despite basic protections against arbitrary detention and some safeguards to prevent and reduce statelessness, there is no mechanism to identify and determine statelessness in the country, no stateless protection status, nor any route to acquiring citizenship for the stateless in the country. Significant gaps remain, which hindered the country’s progress towards compliance with international standards for the protection of stateless persons and prevention of statelessness.

Barriers to universal birth and civil registration continued disproportionately to affect minority groups, including Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptians. Government-initiated registration campaigns identified 750 individuals lacking personal documents and at risk of statelessness.

Ethnic Albanian opposition parties claimed more than 7,000 ethnic Albanians resident in the country were unjustly denied the right to possess citizenship of North Macedonia.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of men and women, including spousal rape, is illegal. Penalties for rape range from one to 15 years’ imprisonment, but those laws were poorly enforced. Domestic violence is illegal but was a persistent and common problem. Penalties range from six months to five years imprisonment for lower-level offenses and one to 10 years’ imprisonment for crimes resulting in grave or permanent bodily injury. Offenders can receive up to life imprisonment if their actions resulted in the death of their victim. Additionally, courts can impose fines of 500 to 5,000 euros ($600 to $6,000). The law is enforced in cases where victims press charges, but many do not.

From January to June, the Ministry of Labor registered ‎824 victims of domestic violence: 611 women, 140 men, and 73 children. Three were victims of sexual abuse.

The government ran four regional centers for victims of domestic violence that accommodated 67 victims in the first six months of the year. In cooperation with the civil society sector, the government funds one venter for victims of domestic violence and one crisis center, which cares for victims for 24 to 48 hours after an assault. A national NGO operated a hotline in both the Macedonian and Albanian languages and ran two crisis centers to provide temporary shelter for victims of domestic violence.

The ombudsman conducted several inquiries concerning child abuse on his own initiative and received four complaints requesting protection from domestic abusers. In each case the ombudsman pursued all legal measures to protect the victim, to secure appropriate treatment for them, and to sanction the perpetrators.

According to the CSO National Network to End Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, the government measures introduced in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic deepened existing gender differences and pushed the burden of the crisis primarily onto women. Violence against women increased during the COVID-19 state of emergency, and access to support services decreased as a result of government-issued quarantine measures. According to the National Network, women and children who were stuck at home with abusers during the state of emergency had little recourse. A set of guidelines supporting female victims of assault during the pandemic, produced in part by the National Network, called on the government to designate support services provided by women’s NGOs as essential services during any further periods of lockdown, to materially support the work of these organizations, to provide them with personal protective equipment, and to prioritize women seeking refuge in shelters for COVID-19 testing. CSOs opened hotlines in March to field calls from victims who were otherwise unable to access resources and reported receiving calls every day. As of August 20, authorities received 920 domestic violence complaints, involving 934 victims, of whom 592 were female. A plurality of the complaints, 307, were submitted by women alleging spousal abuse.

In contrast to the experience of other CSOs, the First Family Center in the City of Skopje, a specialized counseling and assistance center for victims directly or indirectly affected by violence, reported a rapid decrease in calls during the COVID-19 quarantine periods. Between March 22 when a police curfew was introduced and mid-April, the center only received two calls for assistance.

The Ministry of Labor, in cooperation with the OSCE Mission to Skopje, opened the National Free Mobile SOS Line for Victims of Domestic Violence and launched a campaign for the prevention of and protection from domestic violence during the COVID-19 state of emergency. The SOS Line and the campaign provided round-the-clock, accurate, timely, and confidential assistance, including information on victim protection, available services, and telephone counseling to victims of gender-based and domestic violence.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace of both men and women and provides a sentencing guideline of three months to three years in prison for violations. When victims pursued legal remedies, the government effectively enforced the law. Nonetheless, sexual harassment of women in the workplace remained a problem, and victims generally did not bring cases forward due to fear of publicity and possible loss of employment.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to manage their reproductive health free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Most individuals had access to information and the means to do so, but accessibility to reproductive health services varied across geographic areas and populations.

Women from rural areas had limited access to family planning counseling and gynecological services. Romani women faced barriers to accessing family planning counseling and gynecological services due to discrimination, high poverty levels, and the lack of sufficient numbers of family doctors and gynecologists in their communities.

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence. Three centers for survivors of sexual violence in Skopje, Kumanovo, and Tetovo were funded by the government and the NGO Open Gate/La Strada. In addition a shelter in Skopje for trafficking victims provided reproductive health care.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: Women have the same legal status as men under family, religious, personal status and nationality laws, as well as laws related to labor, property, nationality, inheritance, employment, access to credit, and owning or managing businesses or property. The laws were effectively enforced. In some communities the practice of men directing the voting or voting on behalf of female family members disenfranchised women.

President Pendarovski signed the comprehensive Law on Prevention of and Protection from Discrimination on May 22, 2019, codifying protections for vulnerable groups under one piece of legislation. On May 14, the Constitutional Court repealed the law, due to an inadvertent procedural error in parliament during the law’s 2019 adoption. Parliament readopted the Law on Prevention of and Protection from Discrimination on October 27. Appointments to the new Antidiscrimination Commission it creates were pending as of November 3. According to the law, members of the commission will be appointed by a parliamentary select committee made up of two members of the majority, two members of the opposition, and three representatives from civil society.

Nondiscrimination provisions were previously included in a number of separate laws and regulations applicable to various sectors. Those laws remained operable while the Antidiscrimination Law was pending.

No complaints were pending before the ombudsman or Ministry of Labor and Social Policy (MLSP) for unequal treatment of women in political life as of August 31.

Birth Registration: The law determines citizenship primarily by the citizenship of the parents. It also allows orphans found in the country to obtain citizenship, unless authorities discover before the orphan reaches the age of 18 that his or her parents were foreigners. The government automatically registers the births of all children in hospitals and medical institutions, and the law requires that parents register the births of all children born in other places, including those born at home, with magistrate offices within 15 days of birth. Some Romani families delayed the registration of newborns, making it difficult for them to access educational, medical, and other benefits later in life due to lack of proper identity documents.

Child Abuse: There are laws against child abuse, and penalties for conviction include fines, imprisonment, and closure of businesses. Child abuse was a problem in some areas. The government operated a hotline for domestic violence, including child abuse. At its own initiative, the Ombudsman’s Department for the Protection of Children’s Rights opened a case for the protection of the rights of two persons, of whom one was an 11-year-old child with disabilities, based on media stories of an alleged rape. The review of both complaints continued as of August 20. The ombudsman found evidence indicating domestic violence against children had occurred in five additional cases he reviewed.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18. A court may issue a marriage license to persons between the ages of 16 and 18 if it finds them mentally and physically fit for marriage. Early and forced marriage occurred occasionally in the Romani community and, to a much lesser extent, in some Albanian communities. There are no official statistics on minor mothers.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits all forms of commercial sexual exploitation of children, including the offer, sale, or procurement of children for prostitution. The penalty for the commercial sexual exploitation of children is 10 to 15 years in prison. The law prohibits child pornography and provides penalties of five to 15 years in prison for violations. Authorities enforced the law. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. The country follows the Convention on the Rights of the Child, under which any person younger than age 18 is considered a child.

Authorities considered child commercial sexual exploitation a problem but did not know its extent. As of August 17, the Center for Social Work and the Ministry of Interior identified four victims of human trafficking, all of them minors and domestic citizens. Three of them were sexually exploited and one was forced to beg. The country had an online registry, searchable by name and address, of convicted child traffickers and sex offenders that listed photographs, conviction records, and residential addresses. Offenders could ask authorities to remove them from the register 10 years after they completed their sentence, provided they did not commit a new offense. According to the registry, during the year there were six pedophiles serving prison sentences of two to 20 years.

According to the Ministry of Labor, as of the end of August, there were 37 newly registered displaced children of different ethnicities. The ministry funded two day centers for street children, one operated by the Center for Social Work and the other by the NGO Association for Protection of the Rights of the Child in Suto Orizari.

Institutionalized Children: As of August 25, children were housed in small group homes with five to six children per home and 24-hour oversight by social workers and childcare providers. All orphans younger than age three were in foster homes. The Ministry of Labor also took steps to shorten the time required to adopt orphaned or abandoned children. There were no reports of child abuse in these household accommodations.

The ombudsman took the initiative to inspect small group homes and registered cases of rejection and discriminatory treatment of the children living in them by classmates, classmates’ parents, and teaching staff. Schools were receptive to the ombudsman’s recommendations and took corrective action. The ombudsman opened a case related to hospital conditions for treatment of children with severe disabilities, followed by an intervention with the Ministry of Labor, which was fully endorsed and implemented. In another case arising from the inspection, the ombudsman successfully intervened with the ministry to protect the rights of children who were victims or suspected victims of human trafficking.

The ombudsman noted the educational-correctional facility for juveniles in Volkovija-Tetovo, completed in 2016, was still not operational. Juveniles continued to be housed in the penitentiary in Ohrid, which did not fully meet the established criteria for accommodating juveniles and did not provide adequate rehabilitation and medical services.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

According to the Jewish community, approximately 200 Jewish persons resided in the country. The community reported no violent acts against them but submitted a complaint to the authorities over extreme anti-Semitic content and comments in a Facebook group. This case remained pending in September.

Anti-Semitic speech and incidents in the country occurred rarely and sporadically, usually on social media.

On January 6, political party leaders and academics condemned anti-Semitic comments on social media by supporters of the governing SDSM Party against interim Minister of Labor and Social Policy Rashela Mizrahi. Mizrahi was ultimately dismissed by a majority vote in parliament on February 15 for failure to observe the country’s new constitutional name in her public appearances. Mizrahi stated she had been the target of a “witch hunt that started with anti-Semitic attacks.”

In March the government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) 2013 working definition of Holocaust denial and distortion, following IHRA’s December 2019 unanimous decision to accept the country’s request to elevate its observer status to a liaison country.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The Law on Prevention of and Protection from Discrimination readopted on October 27 protects the rights of persons with disabilities (physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities), including their access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, buildings, transportation, the judicial system, or other state services.

A separate law regulates a special government fund to stimulate employment of persons with disabilities. The Employment Agency managed the fund with oversight by the Ministry of Labor. The fund provided grants for office reconstruction or procurement of equipment for workstations to provide reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities. The law requires persons with physical or mental disabilities to obtain approval from a government medical commission to serve in supervisory positions in the private and public sectors. The law establishes accessibility standards for new buildings; existing public structures were to be made accessible for persons with disabilities by the end of 2015. NGOs reported many public buildings did not comply with the law. Although all buses purchased since 2013 by the government for Skopje were accessible to persons with physical disabilities, public transportation remained largely inaccessible in other regions.

The Ministry of Education and Science made efforts to provide suitable support to enable children with disabilities to attend mainstream schools. It employed specially trained educators, assigned either to individual selected schools or as “mobile” municipal special educators covering all schools in their municipality, to support teachers who had children with disabilities in their regular classes. Despite these efforts, a large number of students with disabilities continued to attend separate schools. Many of the polling stations in the parliamentary elections, particularly in the rural areas, were inaccessible for persons with disabilities.

As of August 17, the ombudsman received and successfully helped address complaints concerning discrimination against persons with disabilities. For example, he assisted complainants in obtaining due compensation to enroll an autistic child in kindergarten and receive educational support while changing schools.

On January 23, the ECHR delivered a judgment against the country for substantive and procedural violations of Article 3 (prohibition of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment) involving inappropriate placement, lack of requisite care, and inadequate diagnosis of an institutionalized minor, as well as an inadequate response in investigating the case. The child had been moved to a small group home with 24-hour care prior to the court’s ruling.

The constitution and laws refer to ethnic minorities as communities. According to the country’s most recent census, in 2002, the ethnic composition of the population was 64.2 percent Macedonian, 25.2 percent Albanian, 3.9 percent Turkish, 2.7 percent Romani, 1.8 percent Serbian, 0.8 percent Bosniak, and 0.5 percent Vlach. According to the ombudsman’s August data, the smaller ethnic minorities, with the exception of Serbs and Vlachs, remained underrepresented in the civil service and other state and public institutions.

The law provides for primary and secondary education in the Macedonian, Albanian, Romani, Turkish, and Serbian languages. Press reported parents of students in Idrizovo submitted an official complaint to the Ministry of Education and Science claiming their children were not able to attend school in the Albanian language, despite their constitutionally protected right to do so. Opposition parties Alliance for Albanians and Alternativa publicly alleged on several occasions that ethnic Albanian students were denied their right to study in Albanian language in the municipalities of Chashka and Bitola/Manastir as well. The number of minority students who received secondary education in their native language continued to increase, although the government was unable to provide full instruction in Romani due to a shortage of qualified teachers.

On January 15, the Law on the Use of Languages was promulgated and became final. The law is seen by many ethnic Albanians as resolving the last remaining issue from the Ohrid Framework Agreement. Ethnic Albanians continued to criticize unequal representation in government ministries and public enterprises, as well as inequitable budget allocations.

In August the ombudsman’s office noted slow implementation of the measures for equitable representation of the smaller ethnic communities in the state administration. According to the ombudsman’s 2019 annual report, 1.74 percent of all complaints received in 2019 alleged discrimination on various grounds, including a lack of fair and just ethnic representation. Ethnic Albanian and other minority representation within the civilian administration of the Ministry of Defense remained low, with 16 percent overall, and less than 9 percent of leadership positions. Two of the top 12 positions in the Army were held by ethnic Albanians. The president improved the representation of nonmajority community officers in elite units of the military, but some police units had almost no representation of ethnic minorities.

Roma reported widespread societal discrimination. NGOs and international experts reported employers often denied Roma job opportunities, and some Roma complained of lack of access to public services and benefits. The Ministry of Health and NGO Hera, in partnership with UNICEF, sponsored the Roma Health Mediators Program to provide health, social, and early childhood development services in seven municipalities with high Romani populations. Ethnic Turks also complained of underrepresentation in state institutions.

The constitution and law prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services such as health care, and the government enforced such laws. Sexual acts between members of the same sex are legal.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community remained marginalized, and activists supporting LGBTI rights reported incidents of societal prejudice, including hate speech. In January 2019 the ECHR found the country violated the privacy rights, as well as the right to appeal, of a transgender person related to their gender change procedure. The court required the government to pay 9,000 euros ($10,800) in damages to the unnamed applicant. Despite the court ruling, the Civil Status Registry rejected the request, underscoring NGOs’ complaints the government failed to recognize gender identity changes in identification documents. On February 10, the second-instance State Commission quashed the Civil Status Registry decision by expressly invoking the binding nature of ECHR judgments. In October the Civil Status Registry enforced the judgement and entered the gender identity change in the official books as requested by the plaintiff.

The Ministry of Labor and the CSO Sexual and Gender Minorities Association Subversive Front trained 325 civil servants from 82 public institutions on addressing discrimination and hate speech. The training survey results report showed better knowledge and skills among the civil servants in tackling discrimination and hate speech based on ethnic origin, religious affiliation, and political beliefs than on sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and health status.

On June 27 and 28, the Ministry of Labor, in partnership with the Council of Europe and CSO Subversive Front, organized the first-ever state-organized national conference on advancing the human rights of LGBTI persons in the country. The conference gathered national, regional, and European institutional actors and civil society organizations and aimed to increase the state’s commitment to improving LGBTI rights. This resulted in the development and adoption of a national action plan on advancing the human rights of LGBTI persons.

The ombudsman received one complaint from an NGO referring to discrimination based on gender identity in the education process regarding a textbook used in high schools. The Ministry of Education acted upon the recommendation of the ombudsman.

Violence against members of the LGBTI community remained an issue. Prominent LGBTI activist Beqim Asani was attacked August 5 in downtown Tetovo, while in his car with four other members of his organization. When his and another car got into each other’s way, Asani took off his mask to speak and upon recognizing him, the passenger in the other car referred to him with an epithet, got out of the car, and punched Asani through the open car window. This was the second physical attack against Asani that he reported to the authorities. A criminal investigation into a June 2019 attack on Asani was still pending as of August.

In June the second Skopje Pride parade was held virtually. State representatives participated in online discussions, addressing the issues relevant to LGBTI rights and status, including the repealed antidiscrimination law and the ways in which the 2020 health crisis affected the lives of LGBTI persons. Skopje Pride 2020 garnered significant hate speech based on sexual orientation and gender identity. CSO Subversive Front filed five criminal complaints about sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI)-based hate speech with the PPO in July 2020.

CSO Subversive Front reported two cases of intersectional discrimination based on sexual orientation and HIV status in access to health care, and one case of discrimination based on sexual orientation and HIV status at the workplace. The victim in the latter case was fired when his employer stated his HIV diagnosis was a threat to the health of his colleagues and that he was endangering their working conditions. Subversive Front chose not to report these cases to the authorities due to prior negative experiences. Staff feared victims’ privacy would be violated and their HIV status disclosed and cited the poor implementation of the few laws and policies protecting LGBTI persons as contributing to their decisions.

Serbia

Executive Summary

The Republic of Serbia is a constitutional, multiparty, parliamentary democracy, led by a president. The country held extraordinary elections for seats in the unicameral National Assembly (parliament) on June 21 and presidential elections in 2017. International observers stated the country efficiently organized the June 21 elections in difficult circumstances, but the dominance of the ruling party, the opposition parties’ lack of access to the media, and the lack of media diversity overall limited voters’ choice. A coalition led by President Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party won an overwhelming majority with more than 60 percent of the vote. The Republic Electoral Commission ruled that elections had to be rerun in 234 of 8,253 municipalities–an unusually high number–due to calculation errors in the voting and other confirmed irregularities. In 2017 Vucic, leader of the Serbian Progressive Party, was elected president, winning approximately 55 percent of the vote in the first round. International observers stated that the 2017 presidential election was mostly free but that campaigning ahead of these elections was tilted to benefit the ruling party.

The national police maintain internal security and are under the control of the Ministry of Interior. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: serious restrictions on free expression and the press, including violence, threats of violence, and unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists; numerous acts of government corruption; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities; and crimes, including violence, targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals.

The government took steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, both in the police force and elsewhere in the government, following public exposure of abuses. Nevertheless, many observers believed numerous cases of corruption, social and domestic violence, attacks on civil society, and other abuses went unreported and unpunished.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but threats and attacks on journalists, a lack of transparency of media ownership, and the oversized role of the state in the country’s oversaturated media sector undermined these freedoms. The Nations in Transit 2020 report from the watchdog organization Freedom House downgraded the country from a “semiconsolidated democracy” to a “transitional or hybrid regime,” citing deterioration of media freedoms as one of the country’s biggest problems. In its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, the NGO Reporters without Borders noted, “Serbia has become a country where it is often dangerous to be a journalist and where fake news is gaining in visibility and popularity at an alarming rate.” Unbalanced media coverage and a large volume of fake, misleading, or unverified news stories continued to threaten the ability of citizens to participate meaningfully in the democratic process.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active but were limited in their ability to express a wide variety of views by the oversaturation of the media market and government support of progovernment outlets. The media market was oversaturated with more than 2,500 registered outlets, many of which were not profitable.

Television was the most influential media format due to concentration of viewership and popularity. There were five national terrestrial television-broadcasting licenses in Serbia, and television stations were heavily dependent on government advertising monies. The largest distributor of paid media content was United Group, which controlled more than 50 percent of the broadband (cable) market, followed by Telecom Serbia, a majority state-owned firm with more than 25 percent of the market. Both firms were vertically integrated and controlled production and distribution of the media content as well as physical infrastructure. This concentration and dependence on government advertising monies strongly benefited incumbents during election periods and made it difficult for opposition leaders to communicate with potential voters.

Independent journalists and outlets continued to operate several independent newspapers, albeit with low and declining circulation. Tabloids remained popular but regularly published incorrect or unverified information. Many of the stories defamed political leaders of opposition parties. These stories were often presented in a false or misleading headlines on the cover page. On January 21, the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) published a report asserting that the four highest-circulation tabloids, Informer, Srpski Telegraf, Alo, and Kurir, published at least 945 false or unfounded claims on their front pages in 2019. Informer led with 317 such claims, followed by Alo (259), Srpski Telegraf (227), and Kurir (142). The report noted that these four publications negatively reported on the political opposition and its leaders while reporting positively on President Vucic and Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Violence and Harassment: The law prohibits threatening or otherwise putting pressure on public media and journalists or exerting any other kind of influence that might obstruct their work. The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia reported 72 cases during the year in which journalists had been attacked, threatened, or exposed to political pressure. The attacks included vandalism, intimidation, physical assaults, and frivolous lawsuits for reputational damage, which had a chilling effect on reporting. In July 2019 authorities detained Aleksandra Jankovic Aranitovic without bail for criticizing President Vucic on Twitter. In January the High Court of Belgrade sentenced her to six months of suspended imprisonment. According to the court verdict, the judge determined the tweet was a threat. Authorities released Aranitovic on the day of the verdict, since she had been imprisoned during the six-month procedure. In September, Internal Affairs Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic announced he was suing Danas for one million dinars ($10,000) for reporting eyewitness accounts of violence during antigovernment protests in July. In 2018, two assailants set fire to the home of Milan Jovanovic while he and his spouse slept inside. The couple narrowly escaped through a rear window. Jovanovic worked as an investigative journalist for a local news outlet in the Belgrade suburb of Grocka that reported on local corruption. Dragoljub Simonovic, the mayor of Grocka and an official of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, was indicted for ordering the arson attack. As of September the assailants were yet to be convicted or released as the trial continued. In the meantime Simonovic filed 16 lawsuits against Jovanovic and another journalist for reputational damage based on their reporting about his activities.

Spontaneous violence and threats against journalists also occurred and demonstrated the willingness of nationalistic groups to echo the rhetoric of political leaders while perpetrating violence. Local news and Safe Journalists, a regional press freedom group, reported on July 7 and 8 that demonstrators and police attacked at least 10 journalists who were documenting protests in Belgrade against the government’s decision to reapply restrictions to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

On April 1, police arrested Ana Lalic, a reporter for news website Nova.rs, hours after she published a report on the chaotic conditions in a local COVID-19-designated hospital. Authorities held Lalic in custody overnight and charged her with publishing information that could incite panic.

In April 2019, four former members of the security apparatus were sentenced to 100 cumulative years of detention for their role in the 1999 murder of Slavko Curuvija. Curuvija, a vocal critic of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, was shot and killed outside his house in Belgrade in 1999. On September 7, the verdict sentencing the four officers for his murder was overturned on appeal. According to the Belgrade Appeals Court, the trial court verdict convicting the men was quashed “due to significant violations of the provisions of the criminal procedure.” A new trial started October 5.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: On March 15, the government imposed a state of emergency enabling it to introduce a range of restrictive measures aimed at halting the spread of the COVID-19 virus. On March 29, the government adopted a decree, Conclusion on informing the population about the condition and consequences of the infectious disease COVID-19 caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The decree required all local crisis headquarters and medical institutions to send all COVID-19-related information to the Belgrade-based Pandemic Crisis Team, which would then provide information to the public. In support of government efforts to create a centralized flow of information, the decree warned of the “legal consequences for spreading misinformation during a state of emergency.” Civil society expressed concern regarding efforts to control the flow of information, noting the decision was not in line with the UN and EU recommendations that called for journalists to be allowed to work without obstacles to provide citizens with access to key information. The government ultimately rescinded the decree.

There were reports that the government actively sought to direct media reporting on a number of issues. Economic pressure sometimes led media outlets to practice self-censorship, refraining from publishing content critical of the government, based on a fear of government harassment or economic consequences, according to media association representatives.

Media outlets relied heavily on public funding to stay afloat. Direct government funding to media outlets was distributed in an opaque manner that appeared aimed at supporting entities loyal to the ruling party rather than bolstering independent journalism. In June the Press Council, an independent, self-regulatory body, issued a report, Cofinancing of Media that Violates Ethical Standards. The paper noted that during 2019 the state disbursed more than 2.1 billion dinars ($21.5 million) to media. The Press Council assessed that “local media [recipients], with rare exceptions…became the mouthpiece of officials and ruling parties.” The council stated that funds intended to support truthful reporting and impartiality in the media had become “a reward for obedience and praise of authorities.”

Government representatives continued to receive far more media coverage than opposition politicians. The law mandates equal coverage during campaign periods, but the Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media (REM) often considered campaign-style rallies by government officials to be official activities and therefore outside the scope of the law. Opposition leaders and civil society activists contended the REM did not pursue its mandate effectively and continually sided with the ruling party, ensuring an unfair media environment before, during, and after electoral campaigns and thereby effectively denying the political opposition access to the media.

Nongovernmental Impact: During the year several media outlets published articles that accused numerous journalists, NGO activists, and independent institution representatives of being “traitors” to the country and attempting to overthrow the constitutional order. NGOs and their employees received frequent threats; these threats often mirrored or amplified the rhetoric employed by public figures on social media and were often targeted by distributed denial of services attacks to take their websites offline.

There were no reports that the government restricted or disrupted access to the internet, monitored private online communication without appropriate legal authority, or censored online content.

Although the internet remained unrestricted, the law obliges telecommunications operators to retain certain data for one year, including the source and destination of a communication; the beginning, duration, and end of a communication; the type of communication; terminal equipment identification; and the location of the customer’s mobile terminal equipment. While intelligence agencies may access this metadata without court permission, the law requires a court order to access the contents of these communications.

On April 2, Twitter announced that “toward the end of 2019, we identified clusters of accounts engaged in inauthentic coordinated activity that led to the removal of 8,558 accounts working to promote Serbia’s ruling party and its leader.”

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government limited these rights in some cases. The platform Three Freedoms for Preserving the Space for Civil Society in Serbia continued to register and report cases of alleged violations of freedom of association, peaceful assembly, and expression.

The constitution provides for the freedom of assembly, and the government generally respected the right. The law obliges protesters to apply to police for a permit, providing the exact date, time, and estimated number of demonstrators. Police generally issued a permit if a protest was not likely to disturb the public or public transportation; otherwise, police consulted with city authorities before issuing a permit. Higher-level government authorities decided whether to issue permits for gatherings assessed as posing high-security risks.

Large assemblies, including antigovernment protests, occurred throughout the year. On July 7, spontaneous protests broke out in downtown Belgrade in response to the announcement of possible COVID-19-related quarantines. Media and observers reported that some fringe individuals and groups among the larger group of protesters attempted to stoke violence and attack police, including by attempting to gain entry to parliament. At least one police action–caught on video and made viral on social media–showed police using disproportionate force on a protester who had fallen to the ground. Human Rights House stated the police response during the protest contained “elements of serious violations of freedom of assembly.” The law on public assembly was updated in 2016; civil society organizations (CSOs) opposed the law because it establishes penalties and fines for organizers of unauthorized assemblies to a point where organizations considered it overly restrictive of the right to free assembly established in the constitution. The law gives the government broad authority to identify organizers and impose misdemeanor sanctions or fines against individuals or organizations. The EC’s Serbia 2020 Report noted that while the laws on freedom of assembly are generally in line with EU standards, the country lacked secondary legislation to implement fully the law on freedom of assembly.

The constitution provides for the freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right.

All companies continued to pay mandatory annual membership to the Serbian Chamber of Commerce. In 2017 the Association for Protection of Constitutionality and Legality filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court, asserting that mandatory membership was against the constitution. In 2019 the Constitutional Court ruled that mandatory membership in the chamber was constitutional.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

The law provides protection to internally displaced persons (IDPs) in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, but implementation fell short in some areas. According to data from the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration (SCRM), 196,995 displaced persons from Kosovo resided in the country during the year. These displaced persons were predominately Serbs, Montenegrins, Roma, Egyptians, Ashkali, Gorani, and Bosniaks who left Kosovo, then an autonomous province of Yugoslavia, because of the 1998-99 war. Of these displaced persons, SCRM considered more than 68,000 extremely vulnerable and in need of assistance, because they met one or more of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) vulnerability criteria. This included households that had income below the poverty line; persons living in undignified conditions; persons with mental or physical disabilities; single parents; and elderly persons, women, and children or adolescents at risk.

According to UNHCR research, the 20,000 displaced Roma were the most vulnerable and marginalized displaced population in the country. The most vulnerable lived in informal settlements without access to basic infrastructure, electricity, water, and sanitation and were in constant fear of forced evictions. Internally displaced Roma had a 74 percent unemployment rate, and 98 percent of displaced Romani households were unable to satisfy basic nutritional needs or pay for utilities, health care, hygiene, education, and local transport. According to UNHCR, almost 90 percent of displaced Roma lived in substandard housing, and the vast majority had not been able to integrate into society or return home. The Romani communities were mostly in urban areas; some of the most vulnerable were in the informal settlements Cukaricka Suma in Belgrade, Veliki Rit in Novi Sad, and others in urban areas.

The situation of Romani communities worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s subsequent state of emergency. As of mid-March, vulnerable IDPs’ earnings, especially members of the Roma population, had almost completely dried up due to both limited freedom of movement during the state of emergency and the subsequent lack of work opportunities.

IDP children faced difficulty in accessing education when it switched to distance learning models such as television broadcasts and online platforms. This especially affected those who lived in informal settlements and collective centers and did not have access to internet or even electricity. According to UNICEF, less than 2 percent of IDP students had access to alternative modes of education, such as studying from printed materials. Of the 2 percent, approximately 25 percent were Roma, 20 percent were children with disabilities, and 13 percent were students from other vulnerable groups.

Over the past 21 years, the SCRM, with financial support from the international community, had been implementing measures to provide adequate living conditions to displaced persons from Kosovo. According to the SCRM, the government provided displaced persons from Kosovo 5,759 housing units, generally defined as living spaces for one family. The SCRM did not have records on how many of the units were given to displaced Romani families.

While government officials continued to state publicly that displaced persons from Kosovo should return, senior government officials also claimed that it was unsafe for many to do so.

To assist refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as displaced persons from Kosovo, the government continued to implement its 2002 National Strategy on Refugees and Internally Displaced People, which was slated to continue through 2020. The strategy was not comprehensive and failed to provide the technical and financial capacity to ensure durable solutions for displaced persons.

During the year the government provided 194 housing units (153 building material packages and 41 village houses) to displaced persons. There were no income generation packages provided during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions of the government’s tendering during the state of emergency. Local NGOs and international organizations provided additional housing, economic assistance, and free legal assistance for civil registration, resolution of property claims, securing work rights, and obtaining personal documents.

The housing situation of many displaced persons remained a source of concern. Many of the more than 68,000 extremely vulnerable displaced persons from Kosovo lived in substandard private accommodation. The SCRM reported 68 displaced persons from Kosovo (all of whom were Roma) remained in the “Salvatore” collective center in Bujanovac, a minimally habitable facility originally constructed for only temporary accommodation. These individuals were particularly marginalized and, according to UNHCR, did not have access to social assistance or economic empowerment programs. According to the SCRM, an additional 600-800 displaced persons continued to live in 22 informal collective centers scattered throughout the country; these centers were not funded by the state. According to research by UNHCR’s local NGO partner, the A11 Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, living conditions of displaced persons in informal collective centers were extremely difficult due to the lack of or limited electricity, drinking water, and access to bathrooms, as well as health problems, lack of health care, and unemployment.

The government cooperated with the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Refoulement: Humanitarian organizations noted the government lacked the resources and expertise to provide sufficient protection against refoulement consistently. Various press and humanitarian reports indicated that authorities pushed back irregular migrants without screening them to see if they were seeking asylum, and in at least one case even expelled them from an asylum center into a neighboring country. The situation at the Belgrade International Airport had not materially changed since the 2018 report of the UN special rapporteur on torture, who noted several problems regarding the assessment of needs for international protection and risk of refoulement. There was no systematic monitoring of the situation at the airport; however, free legal aid providers were granted access to the transit zone for counselling of asylum seekers upon request. During the first peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring, the government closed Belgrade International Airport as part of its decision to close all borders.

The government’s Mixed Migration Group was inactive during the year and did not deliberate on any of the issues in its portfolio or communicate the number of illegal entries prevented.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of refugee status or subsidiary protection, and the government has a system for giving protection to refugees. The Asylum Office within the Ministry of Interior (Border Police Department) is responsible for refugee status determination but lacked sufficient capacity, resources, and trained staff to do so effectively. In addition the law does not provide for a court assessment of appeals making the appeals procedure ineffective and cumbersome. A rejected asylum seeker can only file a lawsuit before the Administrative Court after an unsuccessful appeal before the Asylum Commission.

Through September 10, 2,084 persons expressed the intention to seek asylum and 72 submitted asylum applications initiating the formal asylum procedure. UNHCR estimated that most unaccompanied children did not have adequate protection services due to the government’s lack of capacity, especially regarding accommodation. UNHCR noted improvements regarding the provision of guardianship services, but appropriate models of alternative child care, including effective fostering arrangements, were not established. The Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veterans, and Social Policy was responsible for overseeing three government institutions for unaccompanied migrant children with a total capacity of 45 beds and two NGO-run institutions with a combined capacity of 30 unaccompanied minor children. In August, 163 unaccompanied children were accommodated in two SCRM asylum centers and 21 in social protection institutions and NGO-run shelters. The SCRM asylum centers–Bogovadja and Sjenic–were located in remote areas without around-the-clock supervision or sufficient child protection staff. According to NGO reports, Bogovadja was especially problematic for children, due to social tensions and violence among the population in the centers. In June the government’s National Preventive Mechanism and NGOs submitted a criminal complaint and informed the ombudsperson about physical abuse of children in Bogovadja by the security staff. The staff were subsequently dismissed.

The government had the capacity to accommodate approximately 6,000 persons in the 18 state-run asylum and reception centers, where the population of asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants was mixed. The number of asylum seekers and migrants fluctuated through the year from 5,350 in January to more than 9,000 during the state of emergency when they opened additional temporary centers to handle the increase. During the state of emergency, the government restricted movement for asylum seekers and migrants in the centers, allowing them to leave with special permits only.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: Under the asylum law adopted in 2018, UNHCR reported the Asylum Office had only applied the “first country of asylum” or “safe third country” concepts to reject two asylum cases. All other cases had been judged based on the merits of the individual claim.

For example, the Asylum Office granted international protection to a stateless Palestinian fleeing persecution from Hezbollah in Lebanon, despite the individual having unsuccessfully sought asylum in Hungary, which rejected his case on appeal. Rather than also rejecting the case based on the “first country of asylum” or “safe third country” concept, the Asylum Office granted the individual refugee status.

Employment: Asylum seekers have the right to work nine months after an asylum application is submitted. Employment is also available once an applicant is recognized as a refugee at the end of the country’s refugee determination process.

Access to Basic Services: Asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees have the right to access health and education services, although barriers including language and cultural differences limited access. Serbia provided accommodation, food, and basic health assistance to all migrants and asylum seekers in need. These activities were mostly EU funded. Children had access to government-funded education except during the COVID-19 state of emergency. Refugees and asylum seekers generally needed support from NGOs to access these services.

Durable Solutions: The government provided support for the voluntary return and reintegration of refugees from other countries of 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 citizens, including access to basic services such as health care and education, and had access to simplified naturalization in the country. They did not have the right to vote unless their naturalization process was complete.

Together with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro, Serbia participated in the Regional Housing Program (RHP) to provide housing for vulnerable refugee families who had decided to integrate into their countries of residence. During the year, 1,089 housing units were provided in Serbia (236 building material packages, five prefabricated houses, 39 village houses, and 809 apartments). A total of 5,103 houses were built through the RHP since its inception.

For refugees who originated from countries outside the former Yugoslavia, refugee status did not provide a pathway to citizenship. The government did not issue travel documents to recognized refugees, although it is provided for under the law. The government provided integration assistance that included financial assistance for accommodation for a period of one year and obligatory Serbian language courses. Despite harmonization of by-laws providing for individualized integration plans, which UNHCR considered a good model, coordination between relevant line ministries remained insufficient.

Temporary Protection: The government made no decisions on temporary protection during the year.

g. Stateless Persons

According to UNHCR, an estimated 1,950 persons, primarily Roma, Egyptians, and Ashkali, were at risk of statelessness in the country; approximately 300 of these remained without birth registration. The country has laws and procedures that afford the opportunity for late birth registration and residence registration as well as the opportunity to gain nationality. Children whose parents lacked personal documents (identification cards) could not, however, be registered into birth registry books immediately after birth, creating new cases of persons at risk of statelessness.

Poverty, social marginalization, lack of information, cumbersome and lengthy bureaucratic procedures, difficulty in obtaining documents, lack of an officially recognized residence, and lack of birth registration limited the ability of those at risk of statelessness to gain nationality. The Romani population was in need of legal assistance in the civil registration procedure, obtaining documentation, and the procedures for acquisition of nationality needed to access basic socioeconomic benefits of citizenship and be fully included into society.

Due to existing regulations, children of undocumented parents can be without birth registration for upwards of a year. Until they are registered, children remain legally invisible, at risk of statelessness, and deprived of access to numerous rights, such as health care and social protection. In October 2019, the Ministry for Public Administration and Local Self-Government, the Ombudsperson’s Office, and UNHCR signed a memorandum of understanding to resolve problematic birth registration cases through a case-by-case approach as proposed by UNHCR and NGOs.

Persons at risk of statelessness do not have access to social protection rights such as cash assistance, child and parental allowances, or soup kitchen services. They also were excluded from COVID-19 response measures, since they were not included in the social protection records and lacked identification cards.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of men and women, including spousal rape, is punishable by up to 40 years in prison. The government did not enforce the law effectively.

Domestic violence is punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment. While the law provides women the right to obtain a restraining order against abusers, the government did not enforce the law effectively. Media reported that through mid-August, 16 women had been killed in family violence. According to the Justice Ministry, there were 12,332 victims of family violence through mid-August, 8,924 of whom were women.

The law provides that authorities may protect domestic violence survivors by temporarily removing the perpetrator from a home from a minimum of 48 hours to a maximum of 30 days. This law requires that police, prosecutors’ offices, courts, and social welfare centers maintain an electronic database on individual cases of family violence and undertake emergency and extended measures. Women’s groups often cited a lack of timely and efficient institutional reaction, lack of response to reports of violence, and a tendency by authorities to minimize the circumstances that affect survivors’ security as contributing to the violence against women.

In May 2019 Mirjana Jankovic and her parents (Nada Pajic and Branislav Pajic) were killed in their family home in Novi Sad. Mirjana’s husband, Goran Jankovic, admitted to killing them with a hammer in front of his and Mirjana’s two children, ages 10 and three. He then threatened to hurt his children if they told anyone he had been in the home and fled. Mirjana had reported Jankovic for domestic violence and possession of an illegal weapon two weeks before the killing; she was granted a restraining order that should have barred him from approaching or entering the family home. In February, Goran Jankovic committed suicide in Novi Sad District Prison.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment of men and women is a crime punishable by imprisonment for up to six months in cases that do not involve domestic abuse or a power relationship, and for up to one year for abuse of a subordinate or dependent. According to women’s groups in the country, sexual innuendo in everyday speech and behavior was perceived as a joke and generally accepted as a form of communication and not as serious harassment.

On July 7, the country’s first prominent case of prosecution of a powerful individual for sexual harassment ended with a verdict against the former mayor of Brus, Milutin Jelicic. Jelicic was sentenced to three months in prison for sexually harassing Marija Lukic, a municipal government worker in the city.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide freely the number, spacing, and timing of their children; and to manage their reproductive health. Most persons had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. According to a 2018 UN Serbia report on sexual and reproductive rights, however, women with disabilities and Romani women lacked the same access as other women to information and the means to manage their reproductive health. Although there are no legal barriers to contraception, contraception remained taboo for some persons, reducing its use. According to a 2017 research by the ombudsman, 4 percent of Romani girls had their first child by age 15 and 31 percent before age 18. The report also indicated that Romani women were the most vulnerable population among vulnerable populations with a maternal mortality rate over 10 percent. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women as for men in all areas, but the government did not always enforce these laws. Women were subject to discrimination, both at home and in the labor force, with regard to marriage, divorce, child custody, employment, credit, pay, owning or managing businesses or property, education, the judicial process, and access to housing. According to the Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia, women on average did more than twice as many hours of domestic work as men.

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived from a child’s parents. The law on birth records provides for universal birth registration. Some Romani children were not registered at birth. Subsequent birth registration was possible but complicated (see section 2.g., Stateless Persons). Children who were not registered did not have access to public services, such as health care.

Education: Education was free through the secondary level, but compulsory only from preschool through the age of 15. Ethnic discrimination and economic hardship discouraged some children from attending school. In Romani and poor rural communities, girls were more likely than boys to drop out of school and normally did so at an earlier age. Romani children were also disproportionately identified as having mental or intellectual disabilities and were often sent to segregated schools that limited their educational outcomes.

By law ethnic minority populations have the right to be educated in their minority language, but this right was not respected. The Albanian National Minority Council provided free textbooks in Albanian for 4,000 Albanian students with financial support from the Coordination Body for Presevo, Bujanovac, and Medvedja, as well as the Albanian and Kosovo governments.

Child Abuse: The law prohibits child abuse with penalties ranging from two to 10 years’ imprisonment. According to research and reports, children were exposed to direct and interpersonal violence, physical and sexual violence, emotional abuse, and neglect. According to the Justice Ministry, 1,715 children were registered since 2017 as victims or at risk from becoming victims of family violence. The Autonomous Women’s Center reported that only 5 percent of all measures issued in cases of family violence in 2019 pertained to violence against children. In May the government adopted the Strategy for Prevention and Protection of Children from Abuse for 2020-2023 and the National Action Plan 2020-2021 to combat the problem further. Children also suffered violence stemming from existing patriarchal social structures that enabled marginalization of children and made them vulnerable to child abuse, discrimination, child marriage, and child labor. Children in historically marginalized groups, such as Roma, suffered various types of social exclusion and were more prone to marginalization. The country’s efforts to prevent child abuse largely focused on protection of victims rather than prevention of child abuse through targeted intervention; these programs included training for police, schools, and social workers as well as hotlines and other platforms for reporting violence.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage is 18. A court may allow a minor older than 16 to marry if the minor is mature enough to “enjoy the rights and fulfill the responsibilities of marriage.” Child marriages occurred in Romani communities but were not legal marriages. UNICEF reporting on child marriages in Romani communities stated the prevalence of child marriages in those communities had steadily increased. More than half of Romani girls were married by the age of 18, and one in five was married before the age of 15.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation of children, to include selling, offering, or procuring for prostitution, and practices related to child pornography; the government enforced the law, but abuses nonetheless occurred. Evidence was limited, and the extent of the problem was unknown. The minimum age for consensual sex is 14, regardless of sexual orientation or gender. During the year media reported on several cases of children who were sexually exploited by their parents. In March police arrested a father for sharing online footage of the sexual abuse of his minor daughter, and in August police arrested a man for raping his minor stepdaughter. In a separate case in Nis, a woman, together with four men, were arrested on trafficking charges related to her minor daughter. In September police arrested a man on charges of sexually abusing a minor and production and possession of pornographic material.

Displaced Children: According to local NGOs and media reports, an estimated 2,000 homeless children lived on Belgrade’s streets.

Institutionalized Children: Children in orphanages and institutions were sometimes victims of physical and emotional abuse by caretakers and guardians and of sexual abuse by their peers. The law on social protection prioritizes the deinstitutionalization of children, including those with mental or physical disabilities, and their placement in foster families, but the country had not adopted a comprehensive deinstitutionalization strategy. Children with disabilities who were housed in institutions faced additional problems, including isolation, neglect, and a lack of stimulation. Institutions were often overcrowded, and children were mixed with adults in the same facility. The majority of children with mental disabilities remained excluded from the educational system due to structural obstacles and prevalent discrimination that prevented them from entering formal education.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

According to the 2011 census, 787 persons in the country identified as Jewish. While the law prohibits hate speech, Jewish community leaders reported that translations of anti-Semitic literature were available from ultranationalist groups and conservative publishers. Anti-Semitic works, such as the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion, were available for purchase from informal sellers or used bookshops or posted online. Right-wing groups maintained several websites and individuals hosted chat rooms (although many were inactive) that openly promoted anti-Semitic ideas and literature. According to Jewish community leaders, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, online anti-Semitism rose dramatically in chat rooms discussing COVID-19 conspiracy theories laced with anti-Semitic language. In February anti-Semitic graffiti appeared in Novi Sad.

On February 24, the parliament adopted the Law on the Staro Sajmiste Memorial Center, establishing the country’s first Holocaust memorial center at the site of a former concentration camp. The law also extends protection to a separate site of a former concentration camp called Topovske Supe. On February 26, the government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of anti-Semitism. Holocaust education continued to be a part of the school curriculum at the direction of the Ministry of Education, including in the secondary school curriculum. The role of the collaborationist National Salvation government run by Milan Nedic during the occupation by Nazi Germany was debated. Some commentators continued to seek to minimize and reinterpret the role of the national collaborators’ movements during World War II and their role in the Holocaust.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The constitution and supporting laws prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, including their access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, buildings, transportation, the judicial system, and other state services. The government did not enforce these provisions effectively. The EC’s Serbia 2020 Report noted the government adopted a strategic framework regarding the rights of persons with disabilities in March but lacked a comprehensive strategy on deinstitutionalization. Persons with disabilities and their families experienced stigmatization and segregation because of deeply entrenched prejudices and a lack of information. According to the equality commissioner’s 2019 annual report, persons with disabilities were among the most vulnerable groups in all aspects of social and economic life. Approximately 16 percent of all complaints filed with the commissioner were those of instances of discrimination on grounds of disability. Most of these complaints related to accessibility issues in public spaces, which limited the ability of persons with disabilities to access public services including postal services, health care, and other government services. A high number of persons with disabilities were poor or at risk of becoming poor, had difficulty getting a job, and lacked adequate education.

The law requires all public buildings to be accessible to persons with disabilities, but public transportation and many older public buildings were not accessible. Many children and adults with intellectual disabilities remained in institutions, sometimes restrained or isolated. Persons with disabilities were excluded from some events promoting inclusion, demonstrating low government capacity to consider accessibility when planning public events.

According to the equality commissioner’s 2019 report, the lack of inclusion and support for children with disabilities in education continued. Some of the complaints filed with the commissioner indicated a lack of provision of transportation services or personal assistants to children with disabilities. According to media reports, authorities did not adapt online teaching programs, instituted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to meet the needs of children with developmental disabilities. The Ministry of Education announced there would be no special education or specific recommendations for children with disabilities in regular or special schools. The provision of pedagogical and personal assistance to support children in distance learning depends on individual schools based on their needs assessment and resources. The Center for Investigative Journalism reported that during the state of emergency, some schools did not organize teaching for children with learning difficulties.

The Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veterans, and Social Issues; the Ministry of Education , Science, and Technological Development ; and the Ministry of Health had sections with responsibilities to protect the rights of persons with disabilities. The Ministry of Labor had a broad mandate to engage with NGOs, distribute social assistance, manage residential institutions, and monitor laws to provide protection for the rights of persons with disabilities.

According to research done by the equality commissioner in late 2019, the general public, including employers, recognized persons with disabilities as subject to the greatest discrimination when it comes to employment. The National Employment Agency funded several employment programs for persons with disabilities.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

According to the equality commissioner, Roma were subject to many types of discrimination; independent observers and NGOs stated that systemic segregation and discrimination of Roma continued. Approximately 64 percent of all complaints filed with the commissioner related to discrimination against Roma.

Ethnic Albanians were subject to discrimination and disproportionately unemployed.

The government took some steps to counter violence and discrimination against minorities. The stand-alone government Office for Human and Minority Rights supported minority communities. Civic education classes, offered by the government as an alternative to religion courses in secondary schools, included information on minority cultures and multiethnic tolerance.

Hate speech occurred, however, including by senior government officials, including Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin, who continuously used a pejorative racial slur for Albanians.

Ethnic Albanian leaders in the southern municipalities of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac along with Bosniaks in the southwestern region of Sandzak complained they were underrepresented in state institutions at the local level. National minority councils represented the country’s ethnic minority groups and had broad competency over education, media, culture, and the use of minority languages. New council members were seated following the 2018 minority council elections and were to serve four-year terms.

According to the director of the government’s Office for Human and Minority Rights, more than 60,000 minority schoolchildren received education in their mother tongue. The Albanian National Minority Council provided Albanian textbooks to approximately 4,000 Albanian students in the country.

Although the law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the law does not describe specific areas in which discrimination is prohibited but is generally interpreted as applying to housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services such as health care. The government did not enforce these laws effectively, and violence and discrimination against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community were serious problems. On the occasion of International Transgender Day of Visibility, NGOs stated that transgender persons were still subjected to discrimination, hatred, and transphobic and transmisogynist violence, both verbally and physically, and to certain forms of institutional and online violence.

Credible NGOs noted a lack of significant progress in establishing dialogue, educating the public on LGBTI issues, and addressing hate crimes and bias-motivated violence.

According to NGOs, activists, and independent institutions, discrimination against members of the LGBTI community continued. The equality commissioner stated that workplace discrimination, degrading treatment in public, hate speech, and physical attacks remained part of daily life for some LGBTI persons and indicated that homophobia and transphobia were present. The ombudsman stated that “LGBTI persons were exposed to attacks and threats, were often victims of stereotypes, prejudice, hate speech, and hate crimes.” He cited difficulty for young persons forced to leave their homes after disclosing their sexual orientation, which became even more prominent and dangerous during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the lack of safe houses or other temporary accommodation services. NGO activists commented that homophobic members of society often used the LGBTI community as a way to score political points.

The NGOs Center for Research and Development of Society (IDEAS) and the Gay-Lesbian Info Center conducted social network research in May and June and reported that 58 percent of LGBTI high school students suffered some form of violence; 50 percent suffered psychological violence; 8 percent suffered physical violence; and 3 percent suffered sexual violence. The violence most frequently occurred at school, where 71 percent of LGBTI students heard teachers degrading LGBTI persons due to their sexual and gender identity.

On February 28, a group of masked men broke into the Belgrade Pride Info Center’s entrance and destroyed their inventory. This was the 11th attack against the center since its opening in 2018. The prime minister and ombudsman condemned the attack, but there were no reports of arrests related to the incident. NGOs reported that attackers against LGBTI persons were rarely convicted in court. On March 2, a group of young persons gathered in the town of Leskovac to protest against a fake social media posting which said the city would host a pride parade. The group chanted slogans against LGBTI persons and engaged in physical altercations with police.

In 2018 the courts issued their first verdict using the country’s hate crime provision. Hate crimes are not stand-alone offenses but can be deemed an aggravating factor to be considered during sentencing. The case involved multiple episodes of domestic violence perpetrated against a gay man by his father in the family home. The perpetrator was given a three-year suspended sentence. Activists criticized the sentence as being too light because the perpetrator would not serve prison time as long as he met the conditions of his suspended sentence.

On three separate occasions during Belgrade’s September 14-20 pride week, criminals vandalized the office of an organization whose members participated in pride week events with homophobic slurs and Nazi symbols.

According to government officials and NGOs, there was significant prejudice against persons with HIV or AIDS in all aspects of public life, including employment, housing, and access to public services. According to Serbia’s Public Health Institute, in the country, there were 2,843 individuals with diagnosed HIV infection, and it was estimated that another 400 persons did not know they were infected by the virus. Since the beginning of the year, 55 persons had been infected with the HIV virus, which was three times less than in the same period in 2019, when 175 cases of infection were recorded. The equality commissioner’s annual report noted that persons with HIV or AIDS were extremely vulnerable to discrimination but were often unwilling to make a complaint, making the scale of the problem difficult to define.