OPINION: Getting accurate information on refugees in Serbia

MMP note: The Guardian on Tuesday published a story on refugees stranded in Serbia on the border with Hungary. Megan Passey, an independent consultant who is conducting research in Serbia for the Mixed Migration Platform and partner NGO the Danish Refugee Council, shares these observations on the story.

By Megan Passey

BELGRADE  I’m glad that the Guardian is interested in the situation in Serbia but the reporting was inaccurate and misleading. It also didn’t address much of what’s going on.

The current number of refugees/migrants/asylum seekers in Serbia dipped below 5,000 for the first time last week – not 7,600 as the Guardian reported – and as of 6 August, stood at 4,688. The number of unaccompanied minors had decreased to 700 – not 900 – by the end of June.

The Guardian implies that more than 900 unaccompanied minors attend local schools as part of a project to integrate them into the Serbian education system. In fact, this laudable project is a pilot and only a handful of refugee, migrant and asylum-seeking children have taken part so far. According to the latest figures from UNHCR, 45 unaccompanied and separated children received assistance to attend public primary and secondary schools in 2017, while only seven completed the school year in June.

Overall, UNHCR reports that 867 children took part in structured educational activities in 2017 – less than half the total number of refugee, migrant and asylum-seeking children currently in Serbia. Many others have been out of formal schooling for years and the availability of informal education varies considerably between sites. Some reception centres hold classes five days a week, while others lack access to even a child-friendly space. Based on the pilot, there is now pressure to enrol more children in school by the start of the new school year in September, but it’s far from certain to be the case.

Meanwhile, the large majority of those waiting are increasingly depressed about their situation. Our research – based on interviews with 60 individuals across the country – has found people are afraid of deportation or being moved to another reception centre. They are running out of hope and money. While the people we interviewed were grateful for the support they had received, very few have applied for asylum in Serbia or even can bear to think about staying another six months.

The only legal option for people to continue their journey is to move through Hungary. People wait for their names to reach the top of ‘the list’ of who will be able to go, but a lack of information and transparency is breeding resentment and tensions among different nationalities in reception centres. Many people – especially single men – feel that their only option is to take crossing the border into their own hands. According to one participant we interviewed this week, “Only families can go to Hungary, no singles. We have no chance – only to cross the border and pray”.

Despite the decreasing population of refugees and migrants in Serbia, many of those who try to cross are forced back. UNHCR reported more than 200 group pushbacks from Croatia and Hungary in the past week alone, although not all had arrived from Serbia. Reports of violence are common and some of those expelled reportedly were not allowed to apply for asylum. With no viable alternative, people continue to resort to smugglers and traffickers in an attempt to leave, despite the serious risks they face.