Announcement

Press Release: Situation in Afghanistan and expected new refugee wave

August 18, 2021

bg cent en aWith regard to the ongoing developments in Afghanistan, the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights notes that people from Afghanistan account for most migrants on the Balkan Route and that the situation in this country will very likely give rise to a new influx of refugee in the coming months. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that over 550,000 Afghans have been internally displaced by conflict within the country since the beginning of 2021, including 126,000 new IDPs between 7 July 2021 and 9 August 2021.

Given the decades long hostilities, legal uncertainty and human rights violations in Afghanistan, parts of the population of this state have for decades been in need of international protection. The Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration (CRM) data 1 show that Afghan nationals account for most of the residents of state centres providing accommodation to migrants and refugees. CRM statistics* indicate that 22,000 Afghan nationals passed through Serbia in 2020 and that another 8,500 of them passed through its territory since the beginning of the year. According to data available to the BCHR, a total of 181,065 Afghans expressed the intention to seek asylum in Serbia in the 2012-2020 period and 300 of them applied for asylum in the 2016-2019 period. A total of 17 people from Afghanistan were granted refugee status and another eight subsidiary protection in Serbia in the 2016-2020 period. Serbia upheld a total of 194 asylum applications in the 2008-2020 period.

UNHCR has been monitoring the situation on the ground, where the security and human rights situation has been rapidly deteriorating in large parts of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of international troops from that state, and the upsurge of violence has had serious impact on civilians, including women and children and has called on all states to allow civilians fleeing Afghanistan access to their territories and to ensure respect for the principle of non-refoulement at all times. UNHCR noted the imperative to ensure that the right to seek asylum was not compromised, that borders were kept open and that people in need of international protection were not consigned to areas inside their country of origin that could potentially be dangerous. UNHCR called on States to suspend the forcible return of nationals and former habitual residents of Afghanistan, including those who have had their asylum claims rejected. It said that a moratorium on forced returns to Afghanistan would need to stay in place until the situation in the country has stabilised, pending an assessment of when the changed situation in the country would permit return in safety and dignity.

The BCHR appeals to all the relevant authorities in Serbia to bear UNHCR’s recommendations and the current situation in Afghanistan in mind when ruling on asylum applications filed by individuals from Afghanistan.

UNHCR’s Position on Returns to Afghanistan is available at: https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/611a4c5c4.pdf

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*Radio Free Europe, Balkan Route Countries Readying for Refugees Fleeing the Taliban, 17 August 2021, available in
Serbian at: https://www.slobodnaevropa.org/a/avganistan-talibani-izbeglice-balkan/31414941.html.

Equality Commissioner Finds Banca Intesa Discriminated against Refugees and Asylum Seekers

July 12, 2021

Logo englishHaving reviewed the complaint filed by the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality found that Banca Intesa a.d. Belgrade had violated Article 6 of the Anti-Discrimination Act since it had directly discriminated against refugees and asylum seekers in Serbia when it refused to allow them to open bank accounts. The Bank negatively generalised against these people based solely on their nationality and place (country) of birth, whilst failing to assess whether they fulfilled the legal requirements to open accounts in that Bank, said the Equality Commissioner in her Opinion.

The BCHR filed a complaint with the Equality Commissioner in April 2020, after Banca Intesa refused to allow a number of its clients – nationals of Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan granted asylum or subsidiary protection in Serbia or seeking asylum in Serbia – to open accounts with that Bank. The Bank refused to let them open accounts because of their national or ethnic origin, as well as because of their citizenship. In her Opinion, the Commissioner found the Bank in violation of the Anti-Discrimination Act because it had not reviewed whether the applicants fulfilled the legal requirements to open accounts in each individual case. The Equality Commissioner recommended that the Bank: review the fulfilment of the legal requirements by the applicants without making negative generalisations about them based purely on their citizenship or place (country) of birth; make sure it does not violate anti-discrimination law; and, notify her of measures it plans to take in order to implement her recommendations. 

The BCHR applauds the Commissioner’s conclusions and notes, in particular, that banks should explain their suspicions, refrain from indiscriminate and discriminatory assessments, and operate in accordance with Serbian laws, irrespective of their in-house procedures, rules and risk assessments. Our view is corroborated by the opinion voiced by the National Bank of Serbia in response to BCHR’s request. The NBS said that specific banking regulations did not constitute grounds for precluding an entire category of people from the possibility of opening bank accounts on grounds of their nationality or citizenship and referred to national legal provisions prohibiting discrimination. 

BCHR has been UNHCR’s executive partner since 2012 and has been extending legal aid to refugees and asylum seekers, strategically representing them before domestic and international bodies, extending them support in integrating in Serbia’s society and advocating the improvement of the status of all refugees in Serbia.  

The Equality Commissioner Opinion and recommendation is here in serbian.

The National Bank of Serbia response to BCHR’s request is here in serbian.

Still without conditions for CSO participation in the development of the Strategy for an Enabling Environment for Civil Society

July 9, 2021

Regarding the frequent official and informal calls on civil society organizations to get involved in the consultation process with the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue for drafting The National Strategy for an Enabling Environment for Civil Society Development in the Republic of Serbia, we remind that the intolerant atmosphere towards civil society, due to which civil society organizations made their decision not to participate in this process in April of this year, has not changed.

On that occasion, the following requests were issued to the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue and the Government of Serbia:

  • that the Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing publish a report on the case of “the List”, and that the competent institutions initiate the procedure of establishing responsibility for exceeding the authority and official powers of the Administration prescribed by the Law on the Prevention of Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism; 
  • that the National Assembly put a stop to MPs violating the Code of Ethics and abusing this institution to spread lies, libel and intimidate the civil sector; 
  • to stop tabloid campaigns against the civil sector and independent journalists in the pro-regime media.

In this regard, we would like to remind you once again that the egregious attacks on members of civil society and independent media that took place in the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia during March 2021 passed without any epilogue. In those days, several MPs, including the head of the largest parliamentary group, Aleksandar Martinović, went beyond acceptable behavior and abused the institution of Parliament to launch verbal attacks spreading intolerance and hatred towards the civil society organization CRTA and the independent investigative outlet KRIK, as well as for malicious personal attacks on several activists. Furthermore, even after one year since the case of “the List”, no steps have been taken to determine the responsibility of the Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing for the fact that this body sent a request to all banks in Serbia to submit data on the accounts and financial transactions of 37 organizations and 20 individuals from the media and civil society without a clear legal basis.

CSOs have repeatedly asked for dialogue with the authorities in order to urgently resolve the requests submitted to the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue, which, in turn, has publicly declared itself incompetent to address pressure and attacks on civil society. It is the responsibility of this ministry, as well as all other institutions, to, with respect to the Constitution and the laws of Serbia, influence the provision of basic conditions for the work and activities of civil society, before starting any process that would promote an enabling environment.

If the institutions of the state of Serbia sincerely wish to create a stimulating environment for the work of civil society with this Strategy, and do not simply intend to engage in further simulation of dialogue and democracy, we believe that they will do everything in their power to fulfill our previously sent requests. In order to enjoy the high standards of modern democracy, open society and media freedoms, nurture a culture of dialogue and create a tolerant social environment, it is necessary for key social and political actors to see civil society as an important partner, whose activities are aimed at improving the living conditions of all Serbian citizens.

Signatories:

  • Civic Initiatives
  • Belgrade Center for Security Policy
  • Belgrade Center for Human Rights
  • Catalyst Balkans
  • European Policy Centre
  • Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA)
  • European Movement in Serbia
  • Humanitarian Law Center
  • Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR)
  • Initiative for Economic and Social Rights – A11
  • Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights – YUCOM
  • National Coalition for Decentralization
  • Autonomous Women’s Center
  • Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia
  • Bureau for Social Research (BIRODI)
  • Youth Center CK13
  • Policy Center
  • Partners Serbia
  • Slavko Ćuruvija Foundation
  • Trag Foundation
  • Transparency Srbija
  • Vojvodina Civic Center
  • Center for Rule of Law
  • PROTECTA

BCHR Presents Report on Investigations into Police Brutality during July 2020 Protests

July 8, 2021

posteri ispred skupstineThe Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) marked the first anniversary of the civic protests in Serbia, during which a large number of citizens were victims of police brutality, both in the streets and in police stations, by presenting its report Investigations of Police Brutality during the July 2020 Civic Protests. The report focuses on the course of the ongoing investigations against police officers by the public prosecution offices and the Protector of Citizens.

The BCHR filed 32 criminal reports against over 70 unidentified police officers and as many initiatives and complaints with the Protector of Citizens, requiring that he review the lawfulness of the MIA’s operations. A11 – Initiative for Economic and Social Rights filed another nine criminal reports of police brutality in Belgrade and five initiatives seeking the review of the MIA’s operations by the Protector of Citizens.

The report identifies a number of flaws in the handling of the criminal reports, complaints and initiatives by the relevant authorities, greatly undermining the likelihood of the identification and punishment of those responsible. The effectiveness of the investigations into police brutality is questionable given the lack of activity on the part of the Belgrade First Public Prosecution Office, and lack of thoroughness and promptness of the MIA’s Internal Control Sector (ICS) and the Protector of Citizens, wherefore the victims of police brutality will probably be forced to seek justice before the Constitutional Court and international human rights institutions.

Herewith some of the major flaws identified in the report:

  • Forwarding of criminal reports and evidence of ill-treatment (witness statements, medical documentation, video footage, proposed evidence, etc.) to the police units where the implicated officers work before taking any action in response to the criminal reports (questioning of the suspects, collection of evidence) – facilitating collusion of the suspect police officers and their co-workers;
  • Written communication between the Belgrade First PPO and the ICS during the investigations via the Belgrade police – compromising the confidentiality of the investigations;
  • Written communication between the Protector of Citizens and the ICS during the investigations via the Police Minister’s Office and the MIA Secretariat – compromising the confidentiality of the proceedings before the Ombudsman;
  • Delays in taking statements from police officers – more than two months after the incidents;
  • Delays in taking statements from victims – more than seven months after the incidents – some victims have not even been summoned yet;
  • Failure to order court expert reports on the injuries and medical documentation;
  • Delays in collecting the video footage of cameras that may have recorded police brutality and failure to check MIA claims that some of its surveillance cameras on Belgrade streets were not operational;
  • Failure to organise identification parades in cases where the victims said they might be able to recognise the officers who had ill-treated them, who were not wearing visors or masks during the incidents;
  • Failure to penalise police officers who obviously made false statements during the preliminary investigation proceedings and produced identical (copy-paste) reports on use of force;
  • Failure to take statements from all officers involved in the incidents and to question their superiors’ assessments that their use of force had been legal.

The report is available here in english, as well here in serbian. 

The development and publication of this report has been supported by the European Center for Non-Profit Law (ECNL) within the project “Legal Support to Victims of Police Brutality during the July 2020 Protests and Analysis of Judicial and Prosecutorial Practices in Torture and Ill-Treatment Cases in the January 2018-June 2020 Period”.  

The report is part of BCHR’s publication on investigations of torture and ill-treatment in the 2018-2020 period, which will be published in the coming weeks.

Press Release on International Day in Support of Victims of Torture

June 26, 2021

On 26 June, International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the Belgrade Centre of Human Rights alerts the public to the fact that offences of torture and other forms of ill-treatment in Serbia still go largely unpunished, that the few perpetrators actually found guilty of these crimes – are handed down extremely lenient sentences, usually conditional prison sentences, while the courts regularly neglect the victims’ right to redress and refer them to file damage claims, resulting in their revictimisation and additional expenses. The realisation of the victims’ rights, especially to redress, is further undermined by the discontinuation of criminal prosecution for such offences due to the expiry of the statute of limitations. The victims are again merely left with the possibility of launching civil proceedings to prove they had suffered “civil law damages”, while the criminal liability of their torturers and abusers can no longer be ascertained.

The numerous cases of police brutality during the July 2020 protests illustrate the impunity of public officials for torture and other forms of ill-treatment. None of the implicated officers have been punished for their brutality during the protests; only a few, those who participated in the incident in Novi Sad, have been identified. The Belgrade Public Prosecution Office took the statements of most victims only in the spring of 2021. The only procedure in which the police were found guilty of ill-treatment and violating civil rights was the one concerning eight cases that was conducted by the Protector of Citizens, who, however, missed the opportunity to require of the state to afford redress to the victims of police abuse without delay.

The BCHR also draws attention to this year’s messages of UN experts, that torture victims are entitled to rehabilitation and that individuals, experts and civil society organisations assisting them in the process have the right to carry out their work unfettered of restrictions and reprisals. The UN human rights experts expressed concern that torture survivors continued to face challenges in accessing redress and reparations, including the fullest rehabilitation possible. They urged States to “enable a conducive environment for redress and rehabilitation for victims of torture, and for civil society to operate freely.”

In their joint statement, UN human rights experts said that the trend of reprisals, through restrictive and retaliatory measures against civil society and torture survivors seeking redress through the UN mechanisms remained prevalent and that impunity was widespread across the world. “Governments continue to systematically deny the existence of such abhorrent practices, refuse to prosecute perpetrators and use intimidation and reprisals against civil society organizations, human rights defenders, whistleblowers and journalists in order to deter them from speaking out and obtaining redress for victims.”

The BCHR has for over a decade now been analysing court and prosecutorial cases concerning torture and ill-treatment at the hands of public officials. Our experience and direct work with the victims demonstrates that victims of torture in Serbia face obstacles at all levels as they attempt to obtain justice and rehabilitation.

Press Release: World Refugee Day

June 20, 2021

On World Refugee Day, marked on 20 June, the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights alerts to the plight of refugees, exacerbated by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Fleeing from conflict and persecution, refugees have been facing substantial limitations of their fundamental rights as numerous states introduced a number of restrictive anti-COVID-19 measures. According to UNHCR data, nearly 80 million people, almost half of them children, are displaced globally due to persecution or conflict.

Over the past year, refugees living in Serbia have had difficulty accessing the asylum procedure. Their freedom of movement has been restricted and they had difficulty exercising some of their integration-related rights. Refugees living in Serbia largely depend on support extended by civil society organizations, while systemic solutions and efficient coordination among state authorities are lacking. Some headway has, however, been made: the state has recognised refugees and asylum seekers as a vulnerable category and included them in the COVID-19 vaccination process.

In 2020, 144 people applied for asylum in Serbia, almost half as many as in 2019. The difference can be ascribed to the decline in the number of newly-arrived refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. The Asylum Office upheld 29 asylum claims in 2020, bringing the number of successful asylees to 194 since the asylum system was established in 2008.

At the same time, the problems of refugees and IDPs, who fled the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, have not been resolved. Assessments are that over 26,500 of them still have the status of refugees.

The Belgrade Centre for Human Rights has been extending free legal aid to refugees and asylum seekers since 2012. It has been representing them before domestic and international bodies, supporting their integration in Serbian society and lobbying for the improvement of the status of all refugees in Serbia. Through its activities and its ongoing online campaign #MiLjudiZajednoMožemoViše (We People Can Do More Together), the BCHR has been endeavouring to raise public awareness of the importance of refugee integration, and the significance of social cohesion and multiculturalism for bridging the gap between communities and creating a more tolerant society in which everyone has the chance to live their life in dignity.