Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. However, unsolved attacks against journalists, political interference with the public broadcaster, smear campaigns carried out by progovernment tabloids, and unfair treatment and economic pressure from government ministries and agencies against independent and pro-opposition media remained a significant problem.
Freedom of Speech: Amid the subsequent tensions and protest walks (litije) of Serbian Orthodox Church followers following the adoption of the contentious Law on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Legal Status of Religious Communities (religious freedom law) authorities arrested, detained, and fined a number of journalists, political activists, and private citizens for posting disinformation, “fake news,” or insulting comments against government officials on social media.
On January 5, police detained journalist Andjela Djikanovic from the online portal FOS Media and charged her with causing panic and disorder after publishing a false report claiming that 250 members of Kosovo’s ROSU Special Forces Unit would be deployed in Montenegro (under the command of Montenegrin authorities) to help provide security during the Orthodox Christmas Eve on January 6. The government denied the veracity of the report and called on prosecutors to react promptly. Both national and international organizations called for Djikanovic’s release; she was held in detention overnight and released January 6. The case was pending as of mid-November.
One week later, on January 12, police detained the editors in chief of the Montenegro-based pro-Serbian and pro-Russian online portals IN4S and Borba, Gojko Raicevic and Drazen Zivkovic, and charged them with causing panic and disorder by falsely reporting that an explosion took place at a government building in Podgorica used to hold ceremonial events. After questioning in the basic prosecutor’s office, Raicevic and Zivkovic were released from detention on January 13. Their cases were pending as of mid-November.
The European Commission and Reporters without Borders expressed concern over the arrests of journalists for spreading disinformation. Journalist associations, NGOs, and opposition political parties accused the authorities of introducing a dangerous precedent that could easily lead to a practice of censoring media by arbitrarily deciding what constitutes “fake news.” The Ombudsman’s Office warned that detaining journalists must be a measure of last resort, and that, if detention is used, it must be done in only extremely justified situations and in line with international practices. Other government officials contended the arrests were necessary to counteract internal and external actors attempting to destabilize the state.
On February 10, the Agency for Electronic Media (AEM) decided to ban temporarily for three months the rebroadcasting of segments of certain programs of Serbia-based television stations Happy and Pink M for “promoting hatred, intolerance, and discrimination towards the members of the Montenegrin ethnicity.” The AEM’s managing council found that TV Happy’s Good Morning Serbia, Cyrillic, and After Lunch programs as well as TV Pink M’s New Morning program were used as vehicles for an “unprecedented hate speech campaign” by Serbian media against Montenegro over the Montenegrin religious freedom law.
The Atlantic Council of Montenegro’s Digital Forensic Center warned on January 28 that “a well coordinated and planned disinformation campaign aimed at spreading confusion and havoc” was occurring following the passage of the religious freedom law. Similarly, on February 20, the European External Action Service noted that most of the false news in the country was originating from media based in Serbia, including state-owned outlets, as well as the Serbian-language publications of Russia-owned Sputnik and several pro-Serb portals in the country.
On January 23, the Misdemeanor Court of Niksic fined Milija Goranovic 500 euros ($600) for posting an allegedly insulting comment on Facebook about the national police chief. According to reports, Goranovic posted a comment below a statement of the police director on Facebook telling the police chief “not to talk rubbish.” Police arrested Goranovic and brought him to the prosecutor, who charged him with violating the Law on Public Peace and Order. The law prescribes a fine ranging from 250 to 1,000 euros ($300 to $1,200) for “anyone who severely insults another person in the public place or otherwise behaves in an impudent, shameless, or abusive manner.”
On January 28, police detained Vesko Pejak, the coordinator of the small political party Alternativa Crna Gora, on suspicion of causing panic and disorder by commenting via Facebook that the ruling party and the president intended to drag the country into war. Pejak was released from detention the following day. The Montenegrin Center for Investigative Journalism called Pejak’s detention a violation of his rights. The HRA also described the authorities’ actions as a “coordinated suppression of the freedom of expression,” contrary to international standards. The HRA also announced that it had challenged the constitutionality of Article 398 of the criminal code, which was the basis for the controversial detentions and fines. That article allows up to a three-year prison term for persons who disclose or spread false news or allegations via the media that cause panic or seriously disrupts public peace and order. According to the HRA, the law was improperly being used by the government as a substitute for the criminal offense of defamation and insult, which was abolished in 2011.
At the beginning of May, Velimir Cabarkapa, a 29-year-old man employed by the public waterworks company in the city of Pljevlja, was arrested and detained for 72 hours for publishing a satirical version of the national anthem on Facebook. Cabarkapa made several allusions to drug trafficking, including substituting the lyrics, “We are sons of your cocaine and keepers of your heroin” for the original lyrics, “We are sons of your rocks and keepers of your honesty.” The parody followed the seizure by German police of 500 kilograms of cocaine in Hamburg on a vessel of the government-owned Barska Plovidba shipping firm a few days earlier. Prosecutors in Pljevlja charged Cabarkapa with violating the law that prohibits public mockery of the state, its flag, coat of arms, or national anthem and allows for a penalty of up to one year in prison. The law also prohibits changing the national anthem and performing it in a manner that impugns the state’s reputation and dignity and provides that violators may be fined up to 20,000 euros ($24,000). Several NGOs and journalists from the media outlets Dan and Vijesti shared the offending posts on social media, protesting the arrest and claiming that it impermissibly restricted freedom of opinion and expression provided by the constitution. In July, Cabarkapa was sentenced to two months in prison for defamation of the state and its symbols. The judgment was under appeal at year’s end.
Over the first eight months of the year, media outlets reported that police and prosecutors sanctioned at least a dozen persons on suspicion of causing panic or disrupting public peace and order through posts online. Separately, police and prosecutors temporarily detained several individuals in March and April on suspicion of causing panic by posting false information inflating the numbers of persons said to be infected with or died from COVID-19 and accusing authorities of hiding real data.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and generally expressed a wide variety of political and social views, including through articles and programs critical of the authorities. The NGO Center for Civic Education warned in each of its annual reports since 2012, however, that selective and nontransparent public funding through the purchase of advertising continued to exert undue influence on the media market. According to the NGO, such funding was provided to reward media outlets favorable to the government and withheld from media that questioned official policies or practices.
The independent television station and newspaper Vijesti continued to attribute its difficulties making regular tax payments to unfair media conditions, economic pressure from the government, and selective prosecution. It complained of large government subsidies to the national public broadcaster, favoritism towards progovernment media when distributing public funds through advertising and project tenders, and a favorable disposition towards foreign-based media compared with local outlets. On November 19, the Commercial Court rejected for the second time the 2014 lawsuit brought by Vijesti’s parent company, Daily Press, against the progovernment tabloid Pink M television for Pink M allegedly violating legal provisions on loyal competition by defaming and discrediting Vijesti in a series of reports in 2013-14. Vijesti announced it would appeal the Commercial Court’s decision to the Appellate Court, which in 2018 annulled the same Commercial Court’s ruling and returned the case for a retrial. Vijesti also alleged that the judiciary selectively applied defamation laws when independent media are involved.
Violence and Harassment: Unsolved attacks from previous years and an atmosphere of intimidation against media critical of the government continued to be a serious problem.
There was no progress in solving the 2018 shooting of Vijesti investigative reporter Olivera Lakic in front of her home in Podgorica. In February 2019, police announced that they had solved the case, identifying a criminal ringleader and eight members of his gang, which had also been accused of other serious criminal offenses. While initially police qualified the attack on Lakic as attempted murder, when the police announcement was made, the offense was reduced to criminal association with the goal of inflicting severe injuries. Only one of the nine individuals was imprisoned for other crimes. Formal charges in the Lakic case have still not been brought.
On April 8, police reported they had solved a nine-year-old case and arrested two persons suspected of setting fire to five Vijesti vehicles in three separate attacks in 2011 and 2014. A prosecutor from the Basic Prosecution Office in Podgorica pressed charges against a local criminal who had allegedly hired the two perpetrators to destroy the newspaper’s vehicles. On June 10, the Basic Court in Podgorica dropped charges against the alleged mastermind of the attacks because prosecutors did not provide enough evidence to corroborate the charges.
In October 2019, the High Court of Bijelo Polje fined Nova M, the company that acquired Pink M in 2018, for defaming Vijesti’s owners, Zeljko Ivanovic and Miodrag Perovic. Ivanovic and Perovic sued Pink M for its misleading reporting connecting them to a former Vijesti journalist suspected of collecting and distributing child pornography. Separately, 20 journalists from Vijesti individually sued Pink M for similarly attacking their reputations by misleadingly linking them to the accused. On January 28, the court ordered Nova M to pay a fine to one of the Vijesti journalists. An additional 19 cases were adjudicated in favor of the journalists but were still before either the basic or high courts. Vijesti criticized state institutions for alleged inefficiency in preventing progovernment tabloids from smearing independent media.
In December 2019 journalist Vladimir Otasevic, who worked for the independent daily newspaper Dan, was assaulted photographing controversial businessman Zoran Becirovic in the company of High State Prosecutor Milos Soskic in a shopping mall in Podgorica. Becirovic had previously been questioned by the State Special Prosecutor’s Office over alleged witness intimidation. According to media reports, Becirovic’s bodyguard, Mladen Mijatovic, grabbed Otasevic by the neck, hit him with his shoulder, and verbally threatened him. The assault reportedly occurred in the presence of Soskic, who according to media reports “remained silent” and did nothing to stop the incident. The incident received additional attention as Mijatovic was employed by the Ministry of Interior and did not have permission to work as a private bodyguard. The Ombudsman’s Office, media outlets, NGOs, and opposition political parties condemned the attack and urged authorities to investigate the role of the state prosecutor and the Interior Ministry’s employee in the incident. The Basic Prosecutor’s Office in Podgorica refused a request for Mijatovic to be criminally processed and launched a misdemeanor procedure against Mijatovic on January 30, which was pending at year’s end.
Media outlets reported that more than two-thirds of the 85 attacks on journalists since 2004 remained unsolved or did not result in sentences. Observers also noted that most of the attacks targeted independent or pro-opposition journalists and media professionals.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent and pro-opposition media complained about unfair treatment and economic pressure from government ministries and agencies. The Center for Civic Education claimed that selective and nontransparent distribution of public funds to media outlets created an unfair media environment and constituted “soft censorship.”
On July 10, the Basic Court of Niksic confirmed in a retrial its previous ruling, that parliament dismissed RTCG council member Nikola Vukcevic illegally, and ordered the state or parliament to pay court expenses to Vukcevic. In late 2017, parliament dismissed Vukcevic and NGO activist Goran Djurovic from the RTCG council allegedly over conflicts of interest. The case has gone through several court appeals since 2017, with the Supreme Court issuing a nonbinding advisory opinion in 2019 declaring that courts lacked the authority to adjudicate cases challenging the right of parliament to dismiss disobedient independent individuals and could not force reappointments as specific performance. While the Niksic Basic Court’s ruling was not yet final, legal analysts did not believe either Vukcevic or Djurovic would be reinstated to their positions, as those positions were filled by other individuals. Instead, they may only be entitled to compensation in civil proceedings for the damage they suffered. NGOs and opposition politicians asserted that the dismissals, which were followed by the replacement of the RTCG’s director general, Andrijana Kadija, and the director of the broadcaster’s television section ,Vladan Micunovic, were part of a coordinated campaign by former ruling party DPS to regain control of the RTCG.
In its October country report on the country, the European Commission (EC) noted that Montenegro made no progress on freedom of expression during the reporting period. The report highlighted the arrests and proceedings against editors of online portals and citizens for content they posted or shared online, the unresolved attacks on journalists, and the issue of the national public broadcaster RTCG’s editorial independence and professional standards as points of concern. The report also stated, “The growing volume of regionwide disinformation further polarized the society in the aftermath of the adoption of the law on freedom of religion and during the electoral campaign.”
In the Freedom House Nations in Transit report released on May 6, the country was downgraded from a semiconsolidated democracy to a transitional/hybrid regime. Freedom House noted that the overall media environment remained fractious and the development and sustainability of professional commercial media remained uncertain.
Some media outlets continued to demonstrate a willingness to criticize the government. A lack of training and unprofessional journalistic behavior, combined with low salaries and political pressure, contributed to self-censorship and biased coverage of events.
Libel/Slander Laws: There is no criminal libel law, but media outlets faced libel charges in civil proceedings. The government increasingly employed existing insult laws throughout the year against persons posting comments critical of the state or state officials on social media (see Freedom of Speech).
In a new trial on April 23, the Supreme Court repeated its 2015 decision to fine the independent weekly newspaper Monitor for defaming President Milo Djukanovic’s sister, Ana Kolarevic. Kolarevic sued the weekly for its 2012 reports on her alleged role in the controversial privatization of the national telecommunication company, Telekom Crna Gora. The case was returned to the Supreme Court for retrial after the Constitutional Court in July 2019 overturned the 2015 Supreme Court decision for violating Monitor’s constitutional right to freedom of expression.
On October 8, the High Court of Podgorica found investigative journalist Jovo Martinovic guilty in a retrial and sentenced him to one year in prison for drug trafficking, according to news reports. The court acquitted him of charges of criminal organization. Martinovic, an investigative freelance journalist who covered organized crime, spent 14 months in pretrial detention from 2015 to 2017 and therefore will not serve additional time according to the same reports. In 2019 the High Court sentenced Martinovic to 18 months in prison for being part of an international drug smuggling network, but an appellate court overturned the verdict in September and sent the case back for retrial. Martinovic claimed his contact with convicted criminals was solely in the context of his work reporting on organized crime. Martinovic stated he would appeal the decision, calling the decision a “political decision of the court.” The Committee to Protect Journalists called the ruling a “missed opportunity to bring justice” to Martinovic and stated “the ruling sends a wrong message to journalists…and will have a chilling effect on the country’s media.”
Actions to Expand Freedom of Expression, Including for Media: On July 27, parliament adopted two new media laws, a general law on media and a law on the RTCG.
The law on media introduced a number of new measures, including providing for the establishment of a fund to support media pluralism and diversity by providing financial assistance to commercial media; providing for greater transparency in media ownership by requiring outlets to make public information about shareholders who own more than 5 percent of a media company; requiring ministries and other public institutions to report the funds they have provided to media through both advertising and other means; and establishing a regulatory system for online media. Civil society and independent media criticized some of the law’s provisions, particularly one that obliges journalists to disclose their sources if a prosecutor deems it necessary to protect national security, territorial integrity, or public health. The NGO Center for Investigative Journalism stated that the restrictions imposed on journalists could damage investigative journalism and discourage potential journalistic sources from speaking to the media.
The new law on the RTCG introduced, inter alia, measures to increase the RTCG’s transparency, including requiring the managing council to inform the public in a more regular and comprehensive manner about its activities. The law also establishes an ombudsman position in the RTCG to make it more responsive to citizens’ complaints and demands; issues defined criteria for the selection of RTCG managing council members to prevent the selection of party officials; and abolishes a requirement that the RTCG conclude an agreement with the government as a precondition for receiving public funds, which was perceived as a way the government could influence the RTCG’s independence. The NGO Media Center claimed that, despite the government’s declared intention to decrease political influence over the public broadcaster, the way the law defines the parliament’s role in the appointment and dismissal process of the RTCG managing council, including allowing members of parliament to vote on the NGO-proposed candidates, shows that it wanted to retain control over the RTCG.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no official reports that 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 freedom of association and the government generally respected this right.
The constitution and law provide for the freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. There were credible reports that the government selectively restricted freedom of peaceful assembly in conjunction with the issuance of health measures by the Ministry of Health to prevent the spread of COVID-19 through arbitrary arrests, detentions, and fines (see section 1.d.). Public gatherings within 164 feet of government buildings are prohibited.
Police asserted that they prohibited gatherings that would disturb public peace and order, cause public transmission of COVID-19, or interfere with traffic. In some cases, authorities offered protesters alternate locations for demonstrations. In a few cases, police detained protesters for questioning or charged them with misdemeanors.
On June 24, when police arrested 17 opposition members, including former mayor Marko Carevic and local assembly speaker Krsto Radovic in Budva, who refused to relinquish power after losing elections, ongoing protests escalated, and police used tear gas to disperse the crowds. That same night, demonstrations erupted outside of police headquarters in the capital of Podgorica as well as in the central and northern cities of Niksic, Berane, Bijelo Polje, and Pljevlja, with protesters throwing stones at police in what officials of the former ruling party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), called well scripted actions from familiar playbooks of past pre-election periods. Police in turn used force to detain dozens of demonstrators in what observers characterized as excessive use of force. In total, police arrested 41 individuals, and prosecutors brought criminal and misdemeanor charges against 54 opposition officials and supporters across the country. Nine police officers were injured during the clashes with protesters.
Several NGOs criticized the government for issuing confusing and inconsistent announcements of limits on both outdoor and indoor public gatherings to contain the spread of COVID-19. The most drastic measures were announced at the end of June, when the government banned all religious gatherings and political gatherings in open spaces, even with social distancing. That ban was later extended to include private events. In July the NGOs HRA and Institute Alternativa requested the Constitutional Court assess the constitutionality of the prohibition on public gatherings and suspend the ban on the grounds that it introduced disproportionate and excessive limitations on freedom of peaceful assembly and that it was discriminatory in character. In addition, the Council for Civilian Control of Police Operations called on the Police Administration to ensure consistent application of police authorities and health regulations to all public gatherings, regardless of their character, purpose, or organizers.
In February the army chief of staff, General Dragutin Dakic, issued a statement warning that while soldiers were free to practice their faith, they were not allowed to participate in the ongoing Serbian Orthodox Church-organized religious processions (litije), characterizing them as “political” protests. Dakic stated, “There is no place in the Armed Forces for those who defend the church from the law, since a soldier is expected to defend the state in line with the law and the constitution.” Dakic added that “taking part in the protests, which are obviously political, which feature only the flags of another country, is unacceptable.” In June the ombudsman issued an opinion asserting that the army intervened arbitrarily and violated the right to freedom of peaceful assembly with its verbal order banning participation in the litije. The ombudsman emphasized that the order had no clear basis in the law because it did not prevent military personnel from participating in protests or political rallies “if they do not wear military uniforms or parts of uniforms while attending those events.” He also stated that freedom of assembly is a basic democratic right and, like the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, it a foundation of society and cannot be interpreted narrowly.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://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.
At the end of March, the Ministry of Health adopted a series of temporary measures to restrict movement to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect the public health. The measures banned movement on weekdays between 7:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m., between 1:00 p.m. on Saturday and 5:00 a.m. on Sunday, and between 11:00 a.m. on Sunday and 5:00 a.m. on Monday, except for persons performing regular work duties or providing essential public services. Authorities suspended intercity passenger traffic except for transportation related to the movement of goods, medicines, and emergency medical services, utility services, supply of fuel and electricity, and transportation of employees and to allow persons who were outside their place of residence to return home. The measures prohibited going to beaches, rivers, lakes, and picnic areas, suspended international passenger traffic except to repatriate the country’s nationals, and required that persons who did return be quarantined for 14 days after arrival.
Members of the former opposition Democratic Front (DF) alliance claimed the government acted inappropriately, as it lacked the authority for such actions without invoking a state of emergency. The government put forth three legal bases for acting without a declaration of a state of emergency that were broadly supported by the legal community and civil society.
During the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic between March and May, the restrictions on freedom of movement disproportionately affected residents of the largely Romani community in the Vrela Ribnicka neighborhood in Podgorica. At the beginning of April, the National Coordination Body for Communicable Diseases (NCB) decided to apply self-isolation measures on 23 residential buildings in Vrela Ribnicka after a resident from the neighborhood was hospitalized for COVID-related complications. The densely populated and economically disenfranchised neighborhood predominantly consists of 243 Roma, Balkan-Egyptians, and Bosnian refugees displaced during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. The NCB provided basic supplies and hygiene products to those in self-isolation, and the local police guarded the buildings and enforced isolation measures. While similar movement restrictions were imposed in other locations, including Biokovac near Bijelo Polje, the quarantine on Vrela Ribnicka remained in effect far longer than in the other locations.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
Ministry of Interior statistics indicated that 15,248 displaced persons (DPs) from the former Yugoslavia had applied to resolve their residency status as of September. Of the 12,379 completed applications, 12,194 received permanent resident status while 185 received temporary resident status; 164 applications were still pending. Individuals with temporary residence still needed support to acquire permanent residence because they still needed to acquire identity documents, such as birth and citizenship certificates, to get their passports.
Persons whose applications for “foreigner with permanent residence” status were pending with the Ministry of Interior continued to hold the legal status of DPs or IDPs. Some persons who were entitled to apply faced difficulties in obtaining the required documentation, particularly in regularizing previously unregistered births or paying the fees required to procure documents.
With support of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the government, together with the government of Kosovo, continued to assist displaced Roma and Balkan-Egyptians in obtaining personal identification documents under a Montenegro-Kosovo agreement on late registration of births of persons born outside the hospital system. By the end of 2019, approximately 1,400 persons received assistance through this cooperation. Some 40 others remained in need of Kosovo documents to be able to acquire permanent residence status in Montenegro. The process, supported by UNHCR, facilitated the registration of births of persons born in Montenegro or Kosovo, especially Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian children.
Conditions for IDPs and DPs from the Yugoslav wars varied. Access to employment, health care, and social services was sometimes limited due to language barriers, insufficient integration programs, lack of documentation, or unclear or inconsistent administrative procedures. According to UNHCR’s livelihood study launched in 2018, many remained vulnerable, in need of support to become self-reliant, and continued to live below the poverty line. The COVID-19 pandemic additionally affected livelihood prospects of refugees from the former Yugoslavia. According to two UN Rapid Social Impact Assessments on the socioeconomic consequences of the COVID-19 epidemic in Montenegro undertaken in April and June, 38.5 percent (in April) and 75 percent (in May) of refugees from the former Yugoslavia with a pending status had lost their jobs or income, as had 52.4 percent (in April) and 38.5 percent (in May) of refugees from the former Yugoslavia with temporary residence.
Together with Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country was a party to the Regional Housing Program, facilitated by international donors, to provide durable solutions for up to 6,000 DPs and IDPs in the country. A number of DPs and IDPs continued to live in substandard dwellings, struggled to pay rent for private accommodation, faced problems obtaining sustainable livelihoods, or feared eviction from illegally occupied facilities known as informal collective centers, mostly in the coastal municipalities.
Restricted access to employment pushed many DPs into gray-market activities. Poor economic prospects particularly affected Roma, Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptians, and IDPs from Kosovo in urban areas due to their low levels of schooling and literacy, high unemployment, and other obstacles to full integration in society. The high unemployment rate also affected the aging Kosovo-Serb population in the Berane area.
Although the law gives foreigners with permanent residence the full scope of rights of citizens with the exception of the right to vote, DPs and IDPs from the former Yugoslavia sometimes had limited access to employment, education, property ownership, and specialized medical care due to the difficulty of obtaining official documents. IDPs could find opportunities if they showed flexibility in accepting jobs that did not necessarily reflect their education or experience or did not insist on a labor contract.
The government continued to encourage IDPs and DPs to return to their places of origin, but repatriation was essentially nonexistent due to the preference of many IDPs and DPs to remain in the country out of fear of reprisals in their countries of origin or a lack of resources or the lost bond with their country or place of origin. During the first eight months of the year, the situation worsened due to movement restrictions to contain the spread of COVID-19 and related health concerns.
f. Protection of Refugees
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.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of refugee or subsidiary protection status, and the government established a system for providing protection to refugees. Authorities did not employ methods for managing mixed migration movements effectively, such as prioritization or accelerated procedures. Observers noted that attention and readiness to address the increased mixed flow of migrants remained focused on border control aspects, as authorities reported 1,589 illegal border crossings during the first eight months of the year. To reduce irregular migration, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) in July began assisting with border management by deploying personnel to areas where the country borders the EU.
During the first surge of the COVID-19 outbreak between March 16 and June 5, the country closed its borders and suspended access to asylum procedures. The Reception Center for Foreigners and Asylum Seekers in Spuz became a self-quarantine facility, and persons accommodated there had to follow generally applied restrictions on movement. A new reception center for foreigners and asylum seekers opened in July at Bozaj, on the border with Albania, that could accommodate up to 60 persons.
While transitory movement through the country resumed at the end of May, access to asylum procedures remained inconsistent. Families and vulnerable asylum seekers were admitted to reception centers after a 14-day quarantine in a separate part of the center. Authorities, however, increasingly returned single men trying to register their intention to apply for asylum directly to the Albanian border, then pushed them back into Albania. While the official number of migrants and asylum seekers registered after May grew steadily, observers believed their actual number grew exponentially, as migrants and asylum seekers bypassed reception centers and stayed in private hostels and abandoned houses. During the first eight months of the year, 1,702 persons registered their intention to apply for asylum with the Border Police. Of this number, 409 persons (24 percent) applied for asylum with the Ministry of Interior. In the same period, three persons were granted asylum status.
In addition to the pandemic-related suspension of asylum procedures, asylum seekers were negatively affected by continued delays in interviewing and decision-making after procedures resumed. During the first eight months of the year, authorities conducted 28 interviews, compared with a total of 78 interviews in 2019. As of October, 24 asylum seekers continued to wait for interview slots. Of the total applications filed, as of the end of August, 25 asylum seekers had actively pursued their asylum claim; the claims had been pending for eight to 27 months, although the deadline for decision-making is set at six months but can be extended under circumstances foreseen by law up to 21 months. Of 409 asylum applications, only three (0.7 percent) were approved; lack of follow through on applications contributed significantly to this figure.
Access to Basic Services: Once the asylum procedure is initiated, asylum seekers are granted access to free health care and education for minor applicants in line with international standards, although barriers to access, including language and cultural differences, sometimes limited practical access. During the year the Ministry of Interior decided to facilitate the effective access to the labor marker for asylum seekers who were in the asylum procedure for longer than nine months in line with the law. Previously, this right was largely theoretical as asylum seekers were not able to register with the Employment Agency without a personal identification number (PIN) issued by the ministry. A working group formed in 2020 between the ministry and UNHCR proposed a way for issuance of PIN numbers within the existing legislative framework. As of September, asylum seekers residing in the country for more than nine months could get a PIN number from the Ministry of Interior’s branch office in Podgorica, which would allow them to register with the Employment Agency. Many refugees had difficulties obtaining documents, and thus accessing services such as health care, due to language barriers.
According to the two UN Rapid Social Impact Assessments on the socioeconomic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic that were conducted in April and June, all asylum seekers in private accommodation lost their (informal) jobs in April. While 33 percent regained an income by June, 66.7 percent remained jobless. Similarly, 91.7 percent of refugees lost their jobs in April; 21 percent regained employment by June, leaving some 70 percent jobless.
Durable Solutions: A path to citizenship for refugees is available but requires evidence that the applicant had renounced citizenship in his or her country of origin. The government provided support for the voluntary return or reintegration of DPs from countries of the former Yugoslavia. Those who chose the option of integration rather than return to their country of origin enjoyed access to the same rights as citizens, including access to basic services and naturalization in the country, but they did not have the right to vote.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided subsidiary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. During the first eight months of the year, the Ministry of Interior did not approve any of the 404 requests submitted for subsidiary protection. By law, persons granted subsidiary protection are entitled to a facilitated integration plan for three years after receiving status. The integration plan is tailored to the individual’s particular needs and includes support in accessing education, Montenegrin language classes, employment, and the provision of accommodation for up to two years. Beneficiaries of refugee or subsidiary protection status may appeal a decision relating to their entitlements before the Administrative Court.