Coronavirus: UNHCR offers practical recommendations in support of European countries to ensure access to asylum and safe reception

April 28, 2020

With the world mobilizing to combat the spread of COVID-19, many countries in Europe and beyond have adopted exceptional measures to manage their borders, limiting air travel and cross-border mobility. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has called today on European countries to safeguard the many good practices and redouble their efforts to strengthen asylum systems in Europe in these trying times.

It is encouraging that nearly two thirds of European countries have found ways to manage their borders effectively while allowing access to their territories for people seeking asylum. Medical screenings at borders, health certification or temporary quarantine upon arrival are some of the measures put in place by European countries. These are important positive precedents for other States in Europe and beyond.

“With refugees and asylum-seekers at the centre of our efforts, we have prepared a series of practical recommendations in support of national asylum systems as we continue to provide our expertise to governments,” said Pascale Moreau, UNHCR’s Regional Director for Europe.

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BCHR Calls on the Serbian Authorities to Immediately Respond to Claims about the Existence of an Alleged Serbia-Austria Agreement Migrants and Asylum Seekers

April 17, 2020

The Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) calls on the Serbian Government to publish accurate information in response to claims about the existence of an inter-state agreement between Serbia and Austria on Serbia’s admission of irregular migrants and unsuccessful asylum seekers at Austria’s request.

Following a number of media speculations, the Deutsche Welle Serbian language programme published a report on 15 April 2020 stating that the Austrian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) had confirmed the existence of a “working agreement” between Austria and Serbia on Austria’s return of unsuccessful asylum seekers to Serbia, that such an agreement was signed on 24 April 2019, and that both parties agreed not to publicly divulge their mutual rights and obligations. Given that Deutsche Welle obtained such confirmation indirectly, through insight in the Austrian MIA’s response to a question posed by the Liberals in the Austrian Parliament, BCHR considers it crucial that the Serbian authorities urgently and precisely clarify whether such an agreement exists.

The BCHR recalls that increasingly radical anti-migrant views are regrettably being propagated by some Serbian groups, and that some media and social networks are flooded with unconfirmed reports and dubious information about the alleged Austrian-Serbian agreement. Imprecise, unclear and partial information that is now available gives rise to risks of various forms of abuse and is not in the interest of the legal certainty of either Serbia’s citizens or the people transiting through Serbia and seeking international protection.

The BCHR calls on the relevant state authorities, primarily the Serbian Ministries of Internal and Foreign Affairs, to respond to the allegations about the agreement between Austria and Serbia. If these claims are true, the authorities should make the document available to the public. The BCHR notes that it is critical that Serbia’s state representatives conduct a clear and transparent migration policy.  

“Skype hearings” erode safeguards against torture and ill-treatment

April 8, 2020

Belgrade Centre for Human Rights alarms the public on the problems that can be caused by conducting court hearings using technical means of transmitting sound and images (Skype) in light of the absolute prohibition of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. According to the Centre, conducting hearings using technical means of transmitting sound and images would erode guarantees for protection against ill-treatment arising from Article 25 of the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia and Article 3 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which are of non-derogable nature.

A defendant who has been a victim of ill-treatment and who is during the hearing under control by officers who ill-treated him or are in a close hierarchical or organizational relationship with the perpetrators, may be discouraged from disclosing allegations of ill-treatment to the court. Furthermore, the situation whereby the defendant does not make a personal contact with his defence counsel but rather communicates through technical means of transmitting sound and images, as requested by the Protector of Citizens in a recently issued opinion, would significantly contribute to the discouragement of the defendant to bring out the ill-treatment allegations.

Moreover, according to the European Court of Human Rights’ case-law, even when strictly speaking no complaint of ill-treatment has been made, an investigation must be initiated if there are sufficiently clear indications that ill-treatment occurred, i. e. bruises and injuries on the defendant’s body (Stanimirovic v. Serbia, App. no. 26088/06, Judgment of 18 October 2011, § 39). In this respect, the possibility of a judge to make an injury into the defendant's body during the hearing, in which the defendant’s is present only via technical means of transmitting sound and image, is questionable. In some cases, European Court of Human Rights took into consideration such possibility of the judge during the hearing when examining the violation of the material aspect of Article 3 of the Convention (Almaši v. Serbia, App. no. 21388/15, Judgment of 8 October 2019, § 82).

Since the state of emergency was declared in Serbia on 15 March 2020, Belgrade Centre for Human Rights filed three criminal charges against police officers on suspicion of committing torture and ill-treatment (Article 137 of the Criminal Code) by using unjustified force against citizens who violated the prohibition of movement.

Citizens Violating Curfew will be Exculpated after the State of Emergency is Lifted

April 7, 2020

The Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) hereby alerts the Serbian Government to the detrimental effects of the regulations enacted during the state of emergency and providing for the imposition of misdemeanour penalties against individuals violating the Order Restricting and Prohibiting the Movement of Individuals in the Territory of the Republic of Serbia (hereinafter: Order).

To recall, BCHR is of the view that the Order is unconstitutional, because it does not constitute valid grounds for derogations from constitutionally guaranteed human and minority rights (notably, the right to liberty and security of person and the freedom of movement) and that the Decree on Misdemeanour Violations of that Order provides for violations of the ne bis in idem principle. It therefore reminds the Serbian Government of the legal obstacles to convicting citizens of misdemeanours under the Order.

On 20 March 2020, the Serbian Government enacted a Decree on Statutory Limitations in Court Proceedings Conducted during the State of Emergency. Under this Decree, statutory limitations for appeals of misdemeanour decisions shall not run during the state of emergency, which was declared on 15 March 2020. This means that the statutory limitations for appeals of first-instance decisions convicting individuals of violating the Order will start running only once the state of emergency is lifted. However, pursuant to Article 202(3) of the Constitution, the Decree on Misdemeanour Violations shall cease to be effective when the state of emergency is lifted.

Article 6 of the Misdemeanour Act lays down that misdemeanour offenders shall be tried under the law that was in force at the time they committed the offence, or, in the event it was amended in the meantime, under the law more favourable to them. Therefore, the BCHR is of the view that individuals prosecuted for violating the Order will be exculpated after the state of emergency is lifted. In other words, misdemeanour courts will be unable to punish them and will be forced to discontinue all ongoing misdemeanour proceedings for violations of the Order.

Furthermore, the criteria for determining whether the individuals who violated the Order should be charged with a criminal offence (non-compliance with health regulations during epidemics) or with a misdemanour under the Decree remain unclear given that the elements of these offences are identical, while the penalties they warrant and their other legal consequences differ. This brings into question both equality before the law and legal certainty in criminal law, which the Constitution does not allow even in a state of emergency.

BCHR regrets the inadequate legal formulation of the numerous regulations the Serbian Government has enacted during the state of emergency, which will have grave consequences on the human rights and, ultimately, the budgets of Serbia’s citizens.

The state institutions should fight against the coronavirus, not the freedom of media

April 2, 2020

We draw the attention of the domestic and international public to the unacceptable recent moves by the state authorities in Serbia during the state of emergency introduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which undermine democracy, rule of law, basic human rights and especially freedom of media.

We condemn the arrest of  Nova.rs journalist Ana Lalić, to whom the Novi Sad Police Department imposed a measure of detention of up to 48 hours on April 1, 2020 because, as her lawyer stated, she is suspected that she could repeat the crime, publishing articles which are causing panic and chaos. This kind of treatment of journalists not only directly represents a violation of media freedom, but also creates an intimidating effect for all journalists in Serbia, which are the key point for adequate information of citizens in this country.

In a difficult situation we are in, combating a contagious COVID-19 disease that threatens all of us, the activities and measures of state bodies even in the state of emergency must be in accordance with the Constitution of Serbia, the European Convention on Human Rights and the international acts to which Serbia committed itself to. One of them is certainly the freedom of media, and above all the right of the public on accurate, true and timely information, especially in a situation where the public health of the entire population is endangered.

Announcement by the Prime Minister of Serbia Ana Brnabić that today, on 2 April 2020, just four days after the adoption, the Government will withdraw its Conclusion on informationduring the coronavirus pandemic, which stipulated that all information regarding the pandemic is provided exclusively by the Crisis response team headed by the Prime Minister of Serbia, is a positive step. We hope that the decision to withdraw the Conclusion was made by the Government of Serbia after listening to the opinion of the profession, journalist associations, legal experts and international organizations whose mandate is the protection of human rights, who considered that this kind of centralization of information represents censorship and drastic violation of the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution – freedom of expression, freedom of media and the right to be informed. On the other hand, we think that the Prime Minister’s statement that she will appeal to the relevant authorities not to make similar arrests is not in accordance with the Constitution and the principle of separation of powers, therefore it can be considered as pressure on the prosecution by the executive branch, which has become a frequent practice to which we have pointed out before.

While we believe it is important that the Government of Serbia and the Crisis response team continue to publish information on the number of tested, infected, hospitalized, deceased and citizens in home isolation, quarantine and similar accommodation in Serbia, and on the measures that the state intends to introduce and provide interpretations of intended and existing measures, we also consider it necessary that not only national, but also institutions at the local level (mayors, emergency staffs, etc.), as well as health institutions and health workers, provide information to the public that may be relevant for the suppression of the infection. It should be noted that the health and lives of people depend on the timely response of the authorities.

At the same time, we urge the Government of Serbia to introduce all measures it adopts during the state of emergency imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular those relating to the derogation from human and minority rights, in the form required by the Constitution of Serbia and in proportion to the need for their introduction.

Signatories:

  • Belgrade Centre for Security Policy
  • Belgrade Centre for Human Rights
  • Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights YUCOM
  • Civic Initiatives
  • Center for Practical Politics
  • Helsinki Committee for Human Rights
  • Centre for Contemporary Politics
  • A11 – Initiative for Economic and Social Rights
  • CEPRIS
  • National Convention on the EU

BCHR Condemns Protest against Accommodation of Migrants in School Recreational Centre Čardak

March 27, 2020

The Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) vehemently condemns the protest of the residents of Deliblat at Kovin in response to the announcement of the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration that a group of migrants would be accommodated in the School Recreational Centre Čardak pavilions in the Deliblato Sands Special Nature Reserve. The protest and road blockade by a group of residents in Deliblat has regrettably been staged at a time when both Serbia and the world are in dire need of solidarity, tolerance, help and support to successfully combat the coronavirus pandemic that has rocked the foundations of the whole world.

Unfortunately, the protest organised in Deliblat demonstrates the high degree of xenophobia, intolerance and discrimination in our society. Migrants and asylum seekers are among the most vulnerable groups in Serbia and protests such as this one merely stoke the atmosphere of hate and lynch of migrants that has been on the rise lately. Rather than keeping mum, the relevant state authorities must react swiftly and efficiently, especially in light of the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has led Serbia to declare a state of emergency and limit the freedom of movement and assembly to protect the health of the population.

The BCHR is thus all the more surprised that the authorities allowed the assembly of a large number of people in Deliblat and their blockade of the roads with their farm machinery, notwithstanding the risks such actions pose to public health. Has the state demonstrated its impotence when it gave in to the protesters’ demands and abandoned the idea to accommodate the migrants in Čardak? Will protesters foment hate and intolerance of migrants across Serbia? To recall, it is in the interest of public health that migrants and asylum seekers, who are not granted permission to rent private accommodation, live in the centres run by the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration, which is
under the obligation to provide them with the requisite accommodation.

The BCHR calls on the relevant state authorities to condemn the incident and again appeals to all Serbia’s citizens to show their solidarity and humanity in these difficult times, not only towards each other, but also towards migrants and asylum seekers. Although we are under a state of emergency, all of us, nationals of the Republic of Serbia, must not forget that our Constitution protects fundamental human rights even during a state of emergency. We hope that the Deliblat protest was an isolated incident and that the state will clearly and unambiguously respond to all such events in the future and protect everyone’s human rights.