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Asylum seekers in Serbia
Image: Reuters/Marko Djurica

Seeking refuge

Nemanja Rujevic / db
December 10, 2013

In Germany, more Serbs than Syrians apply for asylum. But even Serbia grapples with refugees from Asia and Africa, amid increasing protests from the local population.


At the end of November, snow fell in Serbia for the first time this year. The children were overjoyed, drivers were stressed and the snow clearing services were busy. But the snow was a nightmare for those asylum seekers who had not yet been appointed housing. Hundreds of refugees were forced to sleep outdoors.

"We arrived here wearing summer clothes, and had to stay outdoors, in the forest, in these low temperatures," Kamran Ali told Belgrade's Kurir newspaper. The 17-year-old Pakistani had not expected the weather, nor had he expected that local residents in several communities would protest against the installation of asylum centers in their midst. "We fled the war, but here, people want to lynch us," Ali says. "What have we done wrong?"

Serbiahas accepted about 500 asylum seekers, most of them from Syria, Somalia, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last week, the Serbian Commissioner's Office for Refugees finally managed to settle them all in refugee homes and emergency shelters. "The government got involved much too late," says Rados Durovic, who works for the Serbian Relief Center for Asylum Seekers. The onset of winter should hardly come as a surprise to a national government, Durovic told DW. Lack of accommodation is a chronic problem, he says: unlike in neighboring countries, Serbia had neglected to build new refugee shelters. "In view of the crisis in Syria, the state should have reacted sooner," the activist says.

Prejudices on the rise

The government in Belgrade appears helpless in the face of violent protests against asylum seekers. An emergency shelter in Skela, a village near Belgrade, was set on fire at the end of last month after demonstrators erected road blocks to prevent the arrival of 70 refugees. "If the police had forcibly ended the protest - that would not have been a good solution," Jelena Maric of the Commissariat for Refugees argues. "A show of power wouldn't change the citizens' attitude toward the asylum seekers; the refugees would still be confronted with hostilities," Maric told DW. For years, the Commissariat has urged using an abandoned barracks near the town of Mladenovac as an asylum center, but protests have prevented any such move.

Asylum seeker in forest, under blanket
Winter is fast approachingImage: Reuters/Marko Djurica

Durovic accuses local politicians in towns that either already have refugee housing or plan to erect asylum centers of resorting to cheap populism to score politically. "Some mayors say that the foreigners will spread epidemics, rape women and swamp the Serbs demographically." Of course, Durovic says, these assertions are false and xenophobic, and they nurture prejudices among the Serbian population, but "the state remains silent."

Unfounded fears

Serbiais no stranger to refugee issues. After the civil war that broke up the former Yugoslavia, about 200.000 Serbs fled Croatia. It is regrettable, Durovic says, that today, many of the former refugees fuel the protests against the new asylum seekers. "The expelled Serbs were housed in the same buildings that today house Syrians and Afghans," he says. "I asked some of the demonstrators why they were so hypocritical, but they didn't respond." Durovic concedes that the economic situation in Serbia is so bad that the people "have forgotten humanity and solidarity."

Asylsuchende in Serbien
Refugees often have no access to basic facilitiesImage: Reuters/Marko Djurica

The protesters claim they fear increased crime rates, adding they are "concerned citizens" and by no means racists. The foreigners are welcome in general - just not in their own neighborhood. DW's contacts point out, however, that charges against asylum seekers have been filed in no more than 10 cases in all of Serbia, while the police is after hundreds of Serbian citizens for assaulting asylum seekers. "The refugees are attacked and beaten," Jelena Maric says, and mentions organized groups whose members beat foreigners up. "They know that asylum seekers receive money from relatives so that they can continue traveling on to Western Europe."

In fact, many asylum seekers continue westward within a few days or weeks. More than 4,000 refugees requested asylum in Serbia this year, but most of them have already left the country without waiting for a ruling. From Serbia, where they are free to go wherever they please, the refugees travel to Hungary, and then on to Germany or Scandinavia. None of the refugees wants to stay in Serbia.

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