In the abandoned warehouses and streets of Belgrade, refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and beyond struggle with the living conditions they sought to escape. The harsh winter that has swept Europe, coupled with the bitter reception of refugees by European governments, has ensured that suffering and a perpetual feeling of desperation envelops the lives of refugees. Reports by humanitarian organizations, such as Medécins Sans Frontières (MSF) have revealed that an estimated 2,000 refugees in Belgrade are living in despicable conditions, and they are compounded by a lack of shelter, food, and medical supplies. For those who have found refuge inside abandoned buildings, their plight is only marginally better in comparison to those who have only cardboard boxes and makeshift campfires to keep them warm against the bristling Serbian winter.
Furthermore, the Serbian government, among others in the region, has faced accusations of deportations, pushbacks, and police brutality against refugees attempting to reach Western Europe through the Balkan route. This unethical approach to refugees in Europe and beyond must be seriously challenged. Unfortunately, for some governments and its citizens, xenophobia and indifference outweigh compassion and human dignity. There must be a concerted, worldwide effort to combat these derisive attitudes and improve the livelihoods of displaced populations.
Commenting on the situation in Serbia, UNHCR spokeswoman Cecile Pouilly stated the following: “Given the harsh winter conditions, we are extremely concerned by reports that authorities in all countries across the western Balkans route continue to push back refugees and migrants from inside their territory to neighbouring countries.” Indeed, there have been startling reports of illegal deportations occurring at the behest of Serbian authorities.
As well, Lydia Hall, a Human Rights Watch researcher, remarked: “It is particularly concerning that in November, buses with asylum seekers and migrants from Subotica being taken to Presovo camp were redirected and 40 people were dumped across the border into Macedonia.” Once deported, refugees are facing brutality at the hands of police and border authorities. For those who remain in Serbia, freezing temperatures and inadequate protection compound the situation. Andrea Contenta, Humanitarian Affairs Officer for MSF in Serbia, argues that “Serbia risks becoming a dumping zone, a new Calais where people are stranded and stuck.”
This situation is simply unacceptable. Whilst Serbia is not part of the European Union (EU), they nevertheless have a responsibility, under international law, to receive refugees and provide access to food, medical supplies, and shelter. Under the law of non-refoulement, states cannot return refugees to the countries from which they fled persecution. While Serbia has not forcibly returned refugees, it has conducted illegal deportations to neighbouring countries that use violence, brutality, and dehumanization that often forces refugees to return to their country of origin, or else return to the intolerable living conditions in Serbia.
At the bare minimum, Serbian authorities have a responsibility to uphold the human rights of refugees within their jurisdiction and allow unfettered access to shelter and other basic needs, particularly during the harsh winter months. Beyond this, the Serbian government must provide the option for long-term settlement and integration for refugees within its borders, through access to housing, welfare, education, and employment opportunities. However, for those refugees seeking residence in Western European countries, the Serbian government and other countries in the region must engage with the EU and create achievable means for refugees to settle in their desired country. This last point, though, has been a serious source of contention for the continent and solutions to this have more to do with issues of inclusion and xenophobic tendencies.
Winter will soon pass, but refugees in Europe will continue to experience the chilling callousness of governments that are unwilling to show respect and human decency. The scenes and images of Afghan refugees battling the Serbian winter have unsurprising similarities to the images of European refugees fleeing persecution in the Second World War, and, more recently, the ethnic cleansing in the Former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Serbia is not alone in its treatment of refugees. In Europe, and worldwide, states must remember their responsibility under international law and the capacity to care for suffering populations who share a common humanity.
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