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(New York) – Asylum seekers and migrants in Serbia experience harassment and abuse at the hands of Serbian police, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch interviewed migrants and asylum seekers who described violent assaults, threats, insults, and extortion, denial of the required special protection for unaccompanied children, and summary returns to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Some families and unaccompanied children said they had been turned away when they tried to register as asylum seekers and were sleeping outside in the bitter cold.

“Serbian authorities should be protecting asylum seekers and immigrants, including children fleeing war and persecution, not allowing the police to victimize them,” said Emina Ćerimović, Koenig fellow at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should put an immediate stop to police intimidation and abuse and hold those responsible to account.”

Between November 2014 and January 2015, Human Rights Watch interviewed 81 asylum seekers and migrants, including 18 children, in various locations in Serbia and Macedonia. Three of the interviews were conducted by phone.   

Human Rights Watch found that migrants and asylum seekers experience a range of abuses at the hands of Serbian police, particularly in Subotica, a town on the border with Hungary, but also in southern and eastern Serbia, and Belgrade, the capital.

Twenty migrants and asylum seekers, including seven children ages 13 to 17, described extortion and abuse by police officers in and near Subotica. Most are Syrians or Afghans. They said the police stopped them on the street or found them in the Ciglana brick factory, a makeshift camp for migrants. They said the police forced them to hand over their money and mobile phones, insulting them and threatening violence and deportation. Five, including children, said the police hit, kicked, and punched them. Two said police hit them in the eyes with pepper spray.

Six other migrants and asylum seekers said they had experienced physical violence and insults in separate incidents at the hands of police officers in southern and eastern Serbia and in Belgrade. They said that police officers slapped or punched them while fingerprinting them or when they registered to apply for asylum. Those who succeeded in applying said the police gave them a notice of their registration with instructions to report to a specific asylum center within 72 hours.

Eight of those interviewed, including two 16-year-old children, said that the Serbian police summarily returned them to Macedonia without adequate screening to determine their individual need for international protection. They said they were forced back across the border as part of larger groups without proper procedures and with no opportunity to lodge asylum claims. All eight said they had been sent back across the border at places that are not official crossing points. 

“Aalem,” a 16-year-old Afghan boy, said that twice in November police forced him and three of his friends – ages 12, 13, and 15 – back to Macedonia. They succeeded in applying for asylum in Serbia after their third attempt. Four adults said the border police in southern and eastern Serbia told them to hand over money to avoid being pushed back to Macedonia and released them after they did.  

Human Rights Watch also interviewed 13 people, including two unaccompanied children, ages 14 and 17, who said police had refused to register their intent to seek asylum – in the Železnička police station in Belgrade, in the Bogovađa Asylum Center, south of Belgrade, and in the police station in Sjenica, in southern Serbia. The refusal not only denied them access to the asylum system, but also to shelter, food, and medical care.

During three visits to the Bogovađa Asylum Center in November and December, Human Rights Watch found more than 20 people living outdoors. Some said it was because the police had refused to register their intention to seek asylum, so center authorities had refused to admit them, and others said the police had registered them but sent them to distant centers that they could not reach.

A police officer at the center who was responsible for registering asylum seekers said he only has time to register 15 people a day and that sometimes as many as 50 show up. The registration process at this stage requires the police officer to fill out a simple form that includes only minimal information and does not require the police officer to conduct screening or to make decisions on claims. The process should only take a matter of minutes to complete.

Migrants Shelter in Serbia

Three Syrian men had to build an improvised sleeping area pictured here outside of the Asylum Center in Bogovadja, as police had refused to register their intention to seek asylum, so center authorities had refused to admit them.  © 2015 Emina Ćerimović/Human Rights Watch

A police officer at the center who was responsible for registering asylum seekers said he only has time to register 15 people a day and that sometimes as many as 50 show up. The registration process at this stage requires the police officer to fill out a simple form that includes only minimal information and does not require the police officer to conduct screening or to make decisions on claims. The process should only take a matter of minutes to complete.

The officer said that families with children, pregnant women, and unaccompanied children have priority for registration. However, the people living outside the center included two families with small children and six unaccompanied children, all except one of whom said they had been denied the opportunity to register. One 16-year-old Afghan boy said the police officer had registered him but instructed to go to another center, approximately 112 kilometers away.

Human Rights Watch met with the Serbian government’s Commissariat for Refugees and Migration, and the Ombudsman, also known as the Protector of Citizens, as well as representatives of nongovernmental organizations, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and the Delegation of the European Union (EU) to Serbia.

However, the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs did not agree to meet with Human Rights Watch, despite repeated requests, nor has it responded to a January 20 letter setting out concerns about the credible allegations of harassment, abuse, and pushbacks to Macedonia.

Serbian authorities should immediately investigate cases of police abuse against asylum seekers and migrants and hold to account anyone found responsible, Human Rights Watch said. The government should issue clear guidance to police officers that they should treat asylum seekers and migrants, with respect and in a manner consistent with human rights obligations, and should never summarily deport them. Officials should make clear that police will face punishment for harassment, violence, and extortion.

Serbian and international law prohibit ill-treatment and use of unjustified and excessive force by police, and require authorities to address police bribery and extortion.

Summary returns of unaccompanied children and adult asylum seekers, without procedural safeguards or the opportunity to lodge asylum claims, violate Serbia’s obligations under national and international law. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Serbia is a state party, obligates Serbia not to summarily return unaccompanied children unless their claim has been fairly determined. The European Convention on Human Rights guarantees the right to an effective remedy against return or refusal of asylum while its Protocol No. 4, which Serbia has ratified, prohibits collective expulsions of foreigners.

The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, as well as its own Constitution, also bind Serbia to respect the right to asylum and the principle of nonrefoulement – the prohibition on returning a person to where they may face persecution.

Serbia is a candidate for European Union membership, and actively participates in the Stabilization and Association Process, a step on the way to membership. Summary returns also run afoul of European Union laws concerning the right to seek asylum, protection against refoulement, and procedural safeguards in returns of irregular migrants. Under the Stabilization and Association process, it is required to follow certain requirements for its asylum system and treatment of migrants. The European Commission progress report for 2014 urged Serbia to streamline the asylum procedure in line with EU standards.

“If Serbia truly aspires to join the EU it should put a stop to any police abuse and promptly investigate allegations of ill-treatment by the police,” Ćerimović said. “Anyone who expresses a wish to apply for asylum should have a meaningful opportunity to register their asylum claim and present their case.”

Migrants and Asylum Seekers in Serbia
Over the past two years, Serbia has experienced a rapid increase in the number of migrants attempting to reach northern Europe through Serbia and in asylum seekers. According to official statistics, 5,066 people registered to seek asylum in 2013 and 16,490 in 2014, a 225 percent increase. Syrians currently form the largest group of asylum seekers.

According to Frontex, the European Union’s external border agency, in 2013 over 40,000 irregular border crossings were detected at the borders of five Western Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. Half were crossing from Serbia into Hungary, an EU country. According to Frontex, many of the illegal crossings are by Kosovo nationals. However, Syrians and Afghans who originally entered the EU through Greece also travel through Macedonia and Serbia into Hungary. By the end of 2014, the Western Balkan route had become the third most-used route into the EU for migrants and asylum seekers, according to Frontex. In January and February 2015, Frontex registered more than 26,600 irregular border crossings along this route.

Makeshift Camps

Migrants and asylum seekers, including families with small children and unaccompanied children, live in makeshift camps in Serbia, near the border with Hungary. © 2015 Emina Ćerimović/Human Rights Watch

Local nongovernmental groups, the UNHCR in Serbia, and the Serbian Ombudsman told Human Rights Watch that many migrants who enter Serbia choose not to claim asylum and that the majority of those who begin the asylum process move on before the final decision, even though many – those fleeing Syria, for example – have strong asylum claims. Some of those Human Rights Watch interviewed said they decided not to claim asylum in Serbia or wish to travel onward because they want to go to EU countries, where they have relatives or friends and hope to lodge asylum claims, while others said that the ill-treatment by police and delays in the Serbian asylum system had deterred them from seeking asylum there.

Serbia granted refugee status for the first time in 2012. As of December 2014, only 16 people had received some form of protection – six were given refugee status and 10 subsidiary protection. 

Those who do not claim asylum, including families with children and unaccompanied children, are particularly easy targets for police abuse, Human Rights Watch found. They receive no assistance from the government or local groups, and since they are considered irregular migrants, they can be detained and deported. Those interviewed said that the lack of legal status and fear of detention and deportation also deterred them from reporting police abuse.

Human Rights Watch conducted most of the interviews privately, with an interpreter the only other person there. In four interviews, a family member was present. Four other individual interviews were in group settings. All children interviewed had been travelling unaccompanied, except for one 13-year-old boy interviewed with his mother present. Interviewees are not identified by their real names to protect their privacy and security.

Human Rights Watch explained the purpose of the interviews and its voluntary nature to each person and was given oral consent. Those interviewed received no compensation. All are described as migrants in the text, except those who have applied for international protection in Serbia, who are described as asylum seekers.

Police Harassment
Twenty-six migrants and asylum seekers said police forced them to hand over money and mobile phones, using threats and violence. They described incidents of police abuse in Subotica, Belgrade, and in southern and eastern Serbia. 

In November and December, Human Rights Watch made three visits to the informal camps in and around the Ciglana brick factory in Subotica, a border town close to Serbia’s frontier with Hungary. More than 50 people, including women and very young children, were sleeping in improvised tents, on bricks and piles of paper with little or no shelter from the freezing cold – with temperatures as low as minus five degrees Celsius during the night.

Tibor Varga, a local pastor who provides migrants with blankets and food, said that at times,  more than 100 people are at the brick factory and that it is especially worrisome that so many families with small children and unaccompanied children as young as 12 live there.

Fourteen people there said police had threatened them with detention and deportation if they would not hand over their money and mobile phones. Seven said the police hit or slapped them or sprayed them with pepper spray, then took their money. 

“Younes,” a young man from Afghanistan, said that police extorted money twice from him and three other men he was traveling with. The first time, near Subotica, two police officers stopped the men’s car and told them they would have to give the police money or spend three months in prison. “We were scared, so we paid €80 for them to let us go,” Younes said. 

When they reached downtown Subotica, Younes and his three friends were awakened by two police officers at about 5 a.m. as they slept in the town’s public park. “They asked us what we were doing,” Younes said. “We said we wanted to go to Hungary. Then they took us to a side street, behind a hotel and told us ‘Take out everything from your pockets. Don’t hide anything.’ We said we didn’t have money. Then one of them searched all our pockets and said, ‘We will deport you back to Afghanistan. You have to pay. It is the policy in our country.’”

Asked if he had reported the abuse, Younes said, “No. We are illegal and they [the police] can do what they want.”

“Nahla,” a 38-year-old mother from Afghanistan, was traveling with her four children ages 6, 9, 11, and 13. Nahla and her 13-year-old son said police had come to the factory two or three nights earlier as they slept, awakened them and sprayed them in the eyes with pepper spray, then took money from them. 

“Nevres,” a 15-year-old boy from Afghanistan, said police sprayed him in the eyes with pepper spray during the same incident. All three described intense pain from the attack. 

“Ammar,” a Syrian asylum seeker, interviewed first in Serbia on November 20 and then again by phone on December 4, said that on December 1, police in Subotica had threatened him with imprisonment and deportation to get him to hand over his money: 

I had just arrived to Subotica and was on my way to the supermarket to buy food when two police officers stopped me. They asked me where I was from. I told them I was Syrian. Then they took me to their car and told me, “You have two options: either you give us money or we take you back to Macedonia.”

Following the police officer’s instructions, Ammar left €50 in the car. In Subotica, police took money from him on two other occasions. He said that in all he was forced to hand over €450.

“We know this, we are Syrian people, and if you are Syrian they always ask for money,” “Omar,” 26, said in a phone interview on December 8. He said that two policemen had approached him and three other Syrians as they got off a train in Subotica seven days earlier. He quoted one as saying: “Give us money and we will let you go. Otherwise, we will take you to jail or back to Macedonia and then to Greece and then to Syria.” Omar and two others handed over a total of €200. “One person did not give them money, they took him away and we don’t know what happened to him,” Omar said.

“Israr,” a 16-year-old boy from Afghanistan traveling alone, said his parents had died in Afghanistan and that he had become separated in Turkey from his two brothers, one of them 10 years old. He described what happened when he tried to cross the border into Hungary:

I tried to cross the Hungarian border when the Serbian police caught me. They asked me to give them money. They took €100 from me and my two mobile phones. But, then one of the police officers said he wouldn’t let me cross even though I gave them money. He started kicking me. He was kicking me in my ribs and in my legs. He was shouting, “fuck you” and “no border” in English while he was kicking me. I fell down on the ground. I was on the ground and he was still kicking me. Then, another police officer grabbed the collar of my jacket and pulled me up. Then they searched my clothes and took all the money I had.

Israr said the officers put him in a car, drove him first to a police station, and then dropped him in the woods outside of Subotica. He wandered around for two days in the cold before he found his way back to Ciglana.

Two police officers near the Hungarian border forced Israr to hand over money again two days before Human Rights Watch interviewed him. He said the two police officers took €20, which was all he had. “If you don’t give them money, they will take it by force,” he said.

“Rabah,” a 28-year-old asylum seeker from Syria, said that he and seven other people he was traveling with gave the police money in southern Serbia to avoid being returned to Macedonia. “We expected Serbia would be the easiest part of the trip, but it was the most difficult,” he said. “We were seven Syrian Kurds. We were to be smuggled to Belgrade… There was a police checkpoint. The smuggler took €50 from each of us to pay the police a bribe and to let us go.”

“Riyad,” a young Syrian asylum seeker, said:

We were on our way to Subotica when we were stopped by the police. They stopped us twice on the highway road between Belgrade and Subotica. We had to pay bribes twice, the first time €200 and the second time €100. At one point our driver flashed his lights as we were approaching the police to signal for the police to stop us. I am 100 percent sure that there was an agreement between the driver and the police to split the bribe money.

On November 20, “Malik,” a 20-year-old Syrian, told Human Rights Watch that police officers had beaten him and his brothers, the youngest 16, 10 days earlier in Vranje, in southern Serbia:

From Macedonia we went to Vranje. We were stopped by the police there. They asked us if we had money or mobile phones. Then they took us to a police station near the border… They hit us…repeatedly. They were laughing at us, humiliating us, and calling us “bitch” in English and calling us names in Serbian that we couldn’t understand but we knew they were bad. They were slapping me on the back of the head and on my face… The youngest was hit the least…The hitting was just to humiliate.

He said the police then took fingerprints and photographs of him and his brothers before taking them to the border with Macedonia. Once at the border, police ordered them to walk in the direction of Macedonia.

Pushbacks to Macedonia 
Eight migrants and asylum seekers, including two unaccompanied children, told Human Rights Watch that Serbian police pushed them back to Macedonia without adequate screening of their individual need for protection. They said Serbian border police apprehended them on Serbian soil, took them to the border and ordered them to walk in the direction of Macedonia. In some cases, the police beat or otherwise mistreated them.

“Adnan,” a 35-year-old asylum seeker from Afghanistan, said Serbian police pushed him back to Macedonia three times. Human Rights Watch interviewed him in English in a group setting in an asylum center in Serbia in which he was living on the basis of his asylum claim, after his fourth and successful attempt to seek protection in Serbia. He said:

We reached the second village in Serbia from the Macedonian border. We were 65 people traveling in my group. We went and presented ourselves to the police but they gave papers only to nine people. They returned the rest of us to Macedonia. The second time, we were 55 people in a truck with a smuggler. Police caught us and took us back to the border. They said “You are too many. You shouldn’t come like this.”

He said they were not taken to an official border crossing and that they were not handed over to Macedonian police. “Serbian police just told us ‘This is Macedonia, go, go,’” he said. “Other migrants told me Serbian police are good, but they are not. I saw police slapping people during fingerprinting. During our third deportation [on December 1], they forced more than 24 people in a van and police punched two men so they could fit in.” 

“Salim,” a 22-year-old Palestinian asylum seeker from Syria, said on November 20 that he had experienced police brutality in southern Serbia a month earlier before being returned to Macedonia:

At the third village inside Serbia we met the police. It was around midnight, 1 a.m. They arrested us and took us to the police station. There were many police officers there. A huge guy took our fingerprints and photographed us. He hit people who did not do their fingerprints properly. I was hit while doing my fingerprints. He slapped me and punched me.

Salim said the police then put them in a car and took them to the border with Macedonia.

“Bilal,” an 18 year-old asylum seeker from Syria, said:

They arrested me and took me to a police station. There were three other Algerians in the same police station. I told the police I was Syrian. Nothing happened for the next five hours. Then, they put me and the three Algerians in a car and drove us to the border. It was around 10 at night. When we got to the border they told us to walk over in the direction of Macedonia. None waited for us at the other side.

“Farouk,” a young Kurdish asylum seeker from Syria, who is traveling with his parents and brother, said that Serbian police twice deported him and his family back to Macedonia:

The first time, we had crossed the border when police caught us. They took us to a police station where they took our names. Then, they forced us in a car and took us to the border with Macedonia. It was not an official border crossing. They just told us to go in the direction of Macedonia.

They were sent back in a similar way a second time. During their third attempt to enter the country and lodge an asylum claim, Farouk and his family paid police to prevent being sent back. “The first and second time they did not take anything,” he said. “The third time they told us to pay.”

In January, Human Rights Watch visited Lojane, a village in Macedonia on the border with Serbia. “Walid,” a young man from Algeria who had been forced back to Macedonia by Serbian police though he tried to claim asylum, said:

I was at a bus station waiting for a bus to Belgrade when two police officers approached me. They arrested me and took me to a police station where they took my fingerprints. I asked for asylum. They told me to go back to Macedonia. The same day they put me in the car and took me back to Macedonia. It was not an official border crossing. They just ordered me to leave the car and to go in the direction of Macedonia.

“Aalem,” a 16-year-old Afghan boy, said that in November police twice returned him and three of his friends, ages 12, 13, and 15, to Macedonia. They succeeded in applying for asylum in Serbia after their third attempt:

We walked for eight hours before we entered Serbia. There were 50 people in our group. We went to a mountain. Our agent [smuggler] told us to stay there and that a car would come soon to pick us up. Near afternoon, police came. They took us all to a police station where they took our fingerprints before deporting us to Macedonia. We said, ‘We are children.’ They didn’t care.

Aalem said Serbian police did not take them to an official border. “There were no Macedonian police on the border,” he said. “They just pointed in one direction and said, ‘Go back.’”

Human Rights Watch also documented abuses during registration processes at the Železnička police station in Belgrade. Malik, the 20-year-old Syrian, said:

When we entered Serbia for the second time we went to Belgrade. We went to the police station near the main bus station. We told them we were Syrians and that we needed a paper to stay in their country. They told us “Go back to Syria and don’t come back anymore.”

“Sayid,” a 23-year-old Syrian, said that police officers in the Železnička police station in Belgrade hit him on November 14 when he went there to register his intention to seek asylum:

We went there to ask for asylum. They took us to the third floor and put us in this one room and asked if anyone is speaking English. I said I did – I wanted to help in interpreting. Then, one police officer told me to come closer to him which I did. Then, he hit me six times and was shouting “don’t speak” to me.

Five other people described being turned away from the Železnička police station when they presented themselves as asylum seekers. “Sami,” a 22-year-old from Syria, said:

I went to the police station in Belgrade and asked for a paper that would allow me to stay in Serbia. They told me, “Not now. Go back to Macedonia or go and sleep in the forest.”

Sami went back four times before he managed to register his intention to seek asylum.

Denial of Protection to Unaccompanied Children
Human Rights Watch heard detailed accounts of harassment, pushbacks, and denial of the right to access the asylum procedure for unaccompanied children, in violation of international and national law. In addition, unaccompanied children in Serbia are denied the specific protection they are entitled to due to their unique vulnerability, such as the right to a guardian and to other special measures of protection.

Serbia’s Law on Asylum provides that care should be provided to children separated from parents or guardians and that they should be assigned a legal guardian. Such assistance is not, in practice, provided. None of the 17 unaccompanied children Human Rights Watch interviewed who told Serbian police they were children were assigned a guardian.

Aalem, the 16-year-old Afghan boy who was returned twice to Macedonia before finally being able to apply for asylum in Serbia, did not understand when the Human Rights Watch researcher asked him if he or any of his three friends, all of whom clearly appeared to be under age, were assigned a guardian. “You are the first person I’ve spoken to about my situation,” he said. Aalem was interviewed in English, with the other three children present, in the asylum center in Belgrade where they had been sent.

Radoš Đurović, executive director of the Asylum Protection Center, a nongovernmental group that provides free legal aid to child and adult asylum seekers, said that unaccompanied migrant children often disappear from the asylum system and possibly leave the country without any record of where they go. “Children are usually left on their own without assistance or their basic needs ensured,” Đurović said.

Human Rights Watch spoke with eight unaccompanied children who had experienced difficulties and delays in applying for asylum and, as a consequence, delays in accessing shelter in asylum centers. Three children had not yet been able to get shelter.

On three visits to the Bogovađa Asylum Center, 67 kilometers south of Belgrade, in November and December, Human Rights Watch found six unaccompanied children and two families with children who had spent at least one night sleeping outside the center in the cold. They said they were not allowed into the asylum center because their claims had not been registered, which also denied them the right to get food and medical care.

Bogovadja Makeshift Shelter

Migrants were forced to live in improvised, self-built, sleeping areas outside the Asylum Center in Bogovadja, such as pictured here, because the police had either refused to register their intention to seek asylum, or the police had registered them but told them to go to other, far away camps.     © 2015 Emina Ćerimović/Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch interviewed “Wahed,” a 17-year-old boy from Afghanistan, in front of the center on November 18, 2014. He said he had spent the night outside. The temperature was one degree Celsius, and it was raining. Wahed was traveling with four other boys from Afghanistan. He said:

We went to the police, and the police just told us to come here. When we got here they told us that there is not enough place in the camp [asylum center] and that only those that are sick can get into the camp and that the rest of us have to wait. We slept in the woods here. I have been on my feet for 11 days. My friends and I walked all the way from Greece to here. Here, I am waiting for one day and one night. I haven’t had a proper meal for 11 days. It is so cold outside. I only slept two hours last night.

“Obaid,” a 14-year-old Afghan boy who was traveling with Wahed, confirmed that the police simply told them, “Take a cab and go to a camp.”

“Ehsan,” a 16-year-old boy from Afghanistan interviewed a week later, said he had spent two nights outside of the Bogovađa Asylum Center and had not eaten anything for two days:

When I came to Belgrade I went to the police station which is close to the railway. There were three police officers outside of the police station. I told them I came to ask asylum. They told me, “Money, money.” I told them I don’t have money. They told me then to go away.

He said he then went to Bogovađa Asylum Center and asked the police officer there to register his asylum claim. “He accepted me but then gave me a paper which says I should be accommodated in another camp which is far away from here and I don’t have money to go there,” he said.

Ehsan showed the paper to Human Rights Watch researchers. The paper, called “Asylum Request Intention,” provided details on Ehsan’s identity, including his age, and ordered him to report within the next 72 hours to the Banja Koviljača Asylum Center, in western Serbia approximately 112 kilometers away.

Failure to recognize the unique vulnerability of unaccompanied children and denying them the right to a guardian and special care is a violation of Serbia’s international and national obligations. Serbia is bound both by its Asylum Law and by the Convention on the Rights of the Child to assign a guardian or a legal counsel to an unaccompanied child and to consider the “best interest” of the child in all actions concerning unaccompanied children. Failure to provide unaccompanied children with alternative care arrangements, including accommodation and health care, is a further violation of the Convention on the Rights of Child. It also runs afoul of Serbia’s aspirations to join the EU, which has urged Serbia to give particular attention to children.

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