The media was full of the news that the international non-government organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) has published a report stating that the Serbian police abuses, insults, extorts money, steals telephones and in other ways makes life difficult for asylum seekers and migrants. Before we characterize this report as yet another attempt to overthrow the government, let’s see what it’s actually about.
First, we should understand who those irregular migrants, asylum seekers and the like are. Asylum seekers are people who were forced to leave their own country and ask protection of another due to oppression and fear for their own safety. Irregular migrants, who are often wrongly called false asylum seekers, are people who weren’t exposed to oppression in their countries per se, but stay in foreign countries illegally in search of a better life. In practice, however, it’s hard to distinguish who is a migrant and who is an asylum seeker, especially because the reasons for leaving the country are often mixed.
These two terms have another meaning. Namely, those migrants who have filed an asylum claim in a specific country are called asylum seekers, while those who haven’t asked for asylum in a country they had illegally entered are considered irregular migrants. This other meaning is also relative, because a migrant who hasn’t filed an asylum claim often didn’t leave his country due to oppression, while the one who did doesn’t want to file a claim in a country of his current stay for practical reasons. These two groups have one thing in common – they generally have bad experiences with the government, especially the part representing organized force, i.e. police, various militias and armed groups.
Although this attitude is often carefully described as distrust towards the authorities, it is actually fear of contact with any representative of the state or a group attempting to impose their rule, especially an armed one. And that fear is based on experience.
Which aspects of HRW’s report were previously unknown? The beginning of the report says that it contains testimonies by asylum seekers and migrants about physical attacks, threats, insults and extortions, refusal to provide special protection to under-age unaccompanied asylum seekers, arbitrary deportation to Macedonia, and staying in the open due to refusal to register their intent to seek asylum. The rest of the report contains detailed descriptions of said incidents and calls Serbia to respect its international obligations, Constitution and the laws.
The fact that asylum seekers and migrants have to stay in the open due to the lack of capacities in asylum centers or formal deficiencies (when the police refuse to issue a certificate of expressed intention to asylum seekers, which is a condition for them to be admitted into an asylum center) is well documented. The fact that asylum seekers are being illegally sent “over the field” into Macedonia is also well known. Now, we come to the abuse and theft of property of asylum seekers and migrants.
The Serbian Ministry of police issued a statement rejecting the accusations made in HRW’s report, saying that the migrants have never complained to Serbian authorities about the alleged abuse.
This answer deserves a more thorough analysis. First, we should emphasize the aforementioned distrust of migrants and asylum seekers towards the authorities and the fact that these people don’t speak Serbian and, often, don’t even speak English. So, even if some victims overcame their distrust and wanted to report an abuse or a theft committed by armed men in blue to other armed men in blue, in most cases it would prove impossible. The only point when an asylum seeker, assisted by a translator, can make a complaint to officials is during the hearing in an asylum procedure. And guess who’s in charge of that procedure? Of course, the men in blue.
So, the fact that the migrants haven’t complained directly about the alleged abuse shouldn’t surprise us. On the other hand, is looks as though MoP did have some knowledge about the alleged abuse of the migrants, but failed to do anything about it.
In their answer to the report, MoP says the following: The claims made by the migrants and asylum seekers to HRW aren’t substantiated by facts and evidence which would contribute to determining specific responsibility of any employee of the police or border patrol.
This claim is true, in the sense that most victims don’t have concrete evidence which could lead to punishing those responsible. However, its consequences remain unclear. Does this mean that the whole thing ends when you don’t get the evidence, or that officials will undertake certain investigative actions in order to shed some light on these allegations?
The core of the problem, and the most troubling fact, is the high probability of impunity for violations of the rights of migrants and asylum seekers by the police. Namely, the most important aspect of crime prevention is a real possibility that the perpetrators will be caught and adequately punished. Theoretically, we can speak of two extremes – a completely efficient state and an individual with no incentive to commit a crime on the one end, and, on the other, a completely inefficient state and maximum incentive for crime. Most people would probably rob a bank, if they were certain that they wouldn’t be punished. On the other hand, if the punishment was certain, no one would dare to rob a bank. In this specific case, stealing from unwanted, invisible and traumatized people who don’t speak our language and, in most cases, don’t want to stay in Serbia, carries a negligible probability of punishment.
The job of the state authorities, including the Ministry of police, should, therefore, be to increase that probability, that is, to show that punishment for such offenses is possible. Although it is unlikely that some eager measures suddenly implemented by Serbian authorities would persuade these suffering people to report incidents directly, some meaningful measures can be taken. The Minister of Police, for example, could publicly declare that this practice is unacceptable and encourage officers and other citizens to report such incidents of which they have knowledge. Furthermore, the state may designate a contact person in the prosecutor’s office or some other institutions independent of the police who would receive complaints from the migrants about the actions of the police, through people who provide legal assistance to asylum seekers and who they tend to trust more.
Unfortunately, the reaction of the MoP is, by all accounts, reduced to a statement denying allegations made by HRW report, which was released almost simultaneously with the report. This unusually rapid response is all the more puzzling if we bear in mind that the police have previously refused to meet with HRW representatives during their stay in Serbia. All this suggests that some sort of denial was prepared in advance. On the other hand, if the MoP was as quick to respond to the findings on misconduct or abuse of migrants by their employees earlier, there wouldn’t be a need to reject the accusations today.
At the end, we should say that various forms of maltreatment of migrants are more or less present all over Europe. So, in a bizarre way, Serbian police is actually implementing a “European standard”, but, in this case, most certainly a negative one.
Translated by Marijana Simic
- See reports of Belgrade center for human rights on the position of asylum seekers in Serbia, available at http://www.azil.rs/documents/category/izvestaji. ↑
- See the reports from the previous footnote. ↑
- See the statements of representatives of the Committee of lawyers for human rights and Belgrade center for human rights here: http://www.dw.de/optu%C5%BEbe-na-ra%C4%8Dun-srpske-policije/a-18384960. ↑