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Serbia

The International Rescue Committee provides vital support to refugees in Serbia who are fleeing war and unable to continue their journey to safety. Many are trying to reunite with relatives in western and northern Europe. And hundreds are children sent alone by parents who desperately desire a safer, better life for them.

Country facts
  • Population: 7 million
  • Refugee population in Serbia: 4,000
  • Rank in Human Development Index: 66 of 188
IRC response
  • Started work in Serbia: 1992 during the break-up of Yugoslavia; closed in 2004; relaunched in 2015 during refugee crisis
  • People assisted: 65,000 as of February 2018

Serbia crisis briefing

Currently, approximately 6,800 refugees and migrants remain in government-run centres across the so-called Balkan Route—in Serbia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Macedonia, and Romania.

Hundreds continue to move under the radar each week towards Western Europe. The majority are being hosted in Serbia, a country where they do not want to be but from which they have extremely limited options for onward movement. Hungary is currently allowing only 10 people across their border per week. While they wait, refugees—the majority of whom are from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria—need specific services and care.

Most have fled conflict and have experienced trauma both in their country of origin and on the dangerous and unpredictable journey to Europe. Children need to be able to go to school. Women and girls, often amongst the most vulnerable, need to be able to access counselling and support.

Add to this that asylum seekers who make it into the European Union are invariably sent back to Serbia, sometimes, regardless of whether they have come from there or not.

Those with the means to do so are risking their lives with smugglers. This is a risky game with rare success. They usually find themselves back where they started, determined to try again.

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What caused the situation in Serbia?

Refugees in the Balkans have been forgotten. Some 6,800 people remain stranded somewhere along the Balkan route, hoping to get to Western Europe but with virtually no safe and legal options available for them to do so. In the absence of legal alternatives, refugees continue to risk their lives in their desperate attempts to seek refuge through the use of smugglers.

To date, EU policy has been focused on borders—not people. This means that, although the number of refugees who enter the EU through irregular means has dropped, for those who remain stranded in the Balkans, the situation has become increasingly dire. They can’t go forward, they are scared to go back and are therefore caught in an interminable limbo.

The average stay for refugees in Serbia—which hosts the most refugees currently stranded in the Balkans—is one year, and their needs have become more complex. 
 

What are the main humanitarian challenges in Serbia?

Many refugees now in Serbia are trying to reach family members in other European countries. Family reunification processes are slow and information about legal options regarding asylum often unreliable. Many refugees suffer from psychological distress and, with borders closed, foresee no improvement in their lives.

In addition, there are hundreds of children travelling alone who are currently stranded in Serbia. They are vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and a lack of adequate care. 
 

How does the IRC help in Serbia?

The IRC has been implementing programs to assist refugees in Serbia since October 2015. Currently, the focus of our work is threefold. We support partners in Serbia who assist women and girls who have endured verbal, physical and sexual abuse. We work with partners who provide safe shelter, counselling and specialized services to people who have been trafficked. We support Serbian authorities in their efforts to enrol children in the formal education system. 

Of particular concern are refugees who are survivors of gender-based violence. The IRC partners with a small organization in Serbia which is focused on ensuring that refugees’ sexual and reproductive health needs are met. Through this partnership, the IRC strives to empower refugee women and girls to know their rights and have access to the sexual health services they need. 

To improve the safety, health and economic well-being of refugees in Serbia, the IRC:

  • partners with six local aid organizations to reach those in need;
  • develops the capacity of local partners, including government and nonprofit agencies, to strengthen support for most vulnerable women and children, including survivors of trafficking and violence;
  • creates spaces for therapeutic arts and crafts workshops for refugees, where women, children and vulnerable individuals attend activities that can contribute to their psychological well-being;
  • supports mobile teams of aid workers to identify vulnerable refugees, including survivors of violence, children travelling alone, and people with serious medical needs, and refers them for specialized care;
  • provides one-on-one and group psychological support to children, women and other  survivors of trafficking;
  • provides reproductive health services to women refugees and migrants accommodated in governmental reception centres;
  • provides information about shelter options, asylum and other services to a thousand new people each month via Refugee.Info, a website designed for refugees to access using mobile phones;
  • provides legal information and interpretation services;
  • sets up internet access and computer gear at IT corners enabling refugees and migrants to stay connected. 
     

What still needs to be done?

The IRC aims to improve the lives of refugees, asylum seekers and other marginalized groups in Serbia by focusing on their safety, health, education and economic well-being. We are committed to working with the Serbian government to improve services at the refugee accommodation sites, and to support vulnerable groups, including survivors of trafficking and gender-based violence. Most of all, we are working to bring government and social-service agencies together and provide training that will help them better respond to refugees’ needs.

Safety
The IRC’s protection programming focuses on several core pillars: gender-based violence, legal aid, and protection monitoring. In partnership with State institutions, stakeholders, and relevant service providers, the IRC works to strengthen the overall protective environment for women, children, and other marginalized groups through the provision of accurate, relevant, and up-to-date information about their rights and available services and assistance; safe and supportive spaces; and advocacy to prevent and respond to trafficking and violence. 

The IRC provides technical support and capacity building to relevant stakeholders and service providers to prevent, identify, and address violence against women, children, and marginalized groups, and enhance available support to refugees on the move.  

Through the Refugee.Info website, we will continue to provide refugees with up-to-date information about available shelter and support services, the prevention and reporting of violence and exploitation, and legal rights.

Health
The IRC focuses on the often overlooked health needs of refugees, including reproductive health. The IRC will also continue an ongoing collaboration with partners to address mental health and psychosocial support outcomes for survivors of trauma and violence, including gender-based violence.

Education
Together with partners engaged in formal and non-formal education programming, the IRC works to improve access and provide culturally-appropriate, responsive education services for refugee and migrant children within local school systems. As schools began to take an increased number of refugee children, IRC started introducing social-emotional learning models such as safe, healing and learning spaces and healing classrooms to partners and local schools aiming to support teachers to create and maintain “healing” learning spaces in which children can recover, grow and develop.

Economic wellbeing
Over the course of the response, the IRC and our partners have provided food, water, clothing, hygiene items and shelter to the most vulnerable refugees. As funding becomes available, the IRC can consider expanding activities to implement income generating activities to support the most vulnerable. As the length of their stay increases, more durable solutions to build refugees’ skills (language, technical, entrepreneurial) and provide dignified opportunities to generate supplemental incomes, are increasingly needed. 
 

Our impact

Since the program inception in October 2015:

49,585

refugees were supported through protection mainstreaming (information, referrals and vulnerability fund disbursements).

The ongoing violence in Syria and other countries in crisis has pushed over 1 million desperate people to seek safety and a new start in Europe.

Learn how the IRC helps.
56,963

refugees received food aid packages and/or sets of spare clothes and toiletries.

We are providing clothing, medicine and other emergency aid to refugees on the Balkan route.

Read more.
32,250

refugee children, including those travelling alone, received support.

Little is known about the young boys fleeing by themselves to Europe from crisis zones like Afghanistan.

Read their story.

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