Council of Europe has published a report of the Special Representative of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe on Migration and Refugees, Ambassador Tomáš Boček, on October 13, 2017, following his visit to Serbia and Hungary. The Special Representative visited the asylum centers in Krnjača and Bogovađa, and the reception centers in Adaševci, Principovac, Subotica, Sombor and Obrenovac, where he met with representatives of state bodies and non-governmental organizations. In Hungary, the visit focused on the transit zones of Röszke and Tompa, during which consultations were held with representatives of the local asylum authority, representatives of the UNCHR and the non-governmental sector.

In the introductory part of the report, Ambassador Boček points out significant efforts by the authorities in Serbia to provide humanitarian care to refugees in terms of housing, food and other forms of support. On the other hand, it points to the fact that access to the asylum procedure is problematic. In this regard, it is stated that there are often situations that refugees are forcibly returned to neighboring countries without any procedure, that in many cases refugees do not receive basic information on the asylum procedure in Serbia and that they are generally unable to contact the competent authority for asylum issues. Although many refugees in Serbia have formally announced their intention to seek asylum in Serbia, almost no one has been able to file a formal asylum application. Therefore, the vast majority of migrants and refugees reside in Serbia without a regulated legal status. Most of them are on the informal list for entry into Hungary via one of the two transit zones. The report also refers to the fact that the list is maintained informally and in non-transparent manner, which can lead to corruption.

Given that refugees currently staying in Serbia are uncertain when and whether they will be able to continue their journey to the country of destination, it is necessary to provide them with access to the asylum procedure if, during their stay in Serbia, they decide to seek international protection. It is necessary to strategically resolve the situation of foreigners who can not be expelled or returned from Serbia, who did not ask for asylum, as well as find solutions for their social and economic rights.

Due to the overcrowding of asylum centers and reception centers, the Special Representative in the report pointed out that there was concern that there could be a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Particular emphasis is placed on the problem of non-professional determination of the age of refugees and the consequences that this might cause in terms of the risk of violence and sexual abuse of children. It is also alleged that due to the desire of migrants and refugees to come to other European countries, the demand for smugglers will continue to grow, and that through time, the smuggling network will become complex and that the police in Serbia must be better prepared to fight this phenomenon.

Any person who has expressed the intention to seek asylum in Serbia must have access to an individual, fair and efficient asylum procedure. Difficulties in accessing the asylum procedure, especially when combined with poor housing conditions can raise issues of violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. All those who are issued a certificate of intent to seek asylum in Serbia should provide a real opportunity to contact the Asylum Office in order to exercise their rights. It is clear that the capacity of the Asylum Office must be strengthened to ensure its effective presence in all centers and the proper performance of its duties. All decisions on asylum applications should be fully in line with Articles 2, 3 and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Overall, the report states that Serbia would have to develop a strategy broader than resolving the state of emergency and that the current work on the adoption of new asylum laws and laws on foreigners is a good opportunity for that. Ambassador Boček concludes the report with a series of recommendations, including providing support to the Serbian authorities in drafting new legislative solutions to include all categories of aliens currently in Serbia and to make sure that the proposal is in compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights, to strengthen the capacity of the Asylum Office through HELP trainings and exchange of good practices, as well as training of border police officers in terms of providing refugees with the opportunity to seek asylum in Serbia. In addition, the Council of Europe could, in the opinion of the Special Representative, be able to support the strengthening of the coordination of NGOs, the prevention of corruption and ensuring transparency, and the development of long-term solutions to combat the smuggling of people. Funding of projects through Council of Europe funds for improvement of accommodation capacities is proposed, especially for unaccompanied children.