ACT - In un centro collettivo

Ada Sostaric, collaboratrice dell'Osservatorio, indaga sulla situazione di sfollati e rifugiati in Serbia. Attraverso interviste ad esperti legali, rappresentanti di ONG ed agli stessi profughi. Il testo è in inglese.

06/02/2003 -  Ada Soštarić Belgrado

Collective centres
According to the data of the High Commissariat for Refugees, Republic of Serbia, there are 383 collective centres all over Serbia. In those collective centres live refugees from the former Yugoslav Republics, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and internally displaced persons from Kosovo and Metohija, who did not manage to find private property or did not have any relatives or friends to stay with (Republika Srbija, Komesarijat za izbeglice, Beograd 11. 09. 2002. Carice Milice 2, information office, Mrs. Sanja Zec).

By the end of the year 2003/04 the UNHCR demands that these collective centres be depopulated. Since 1950/51, when the UNHCR was established, the operation of helping refugees in former Yugoslavia was the largest of such UNHCR operations.
Now, after ten years this aid, including aid to collective centres will come to an end. UNHCR aid to collective centres covered the maintenance in the collective centres as well as provided them basic meals.
After almost three and half years since the last clashes in former Yugoslavia Republics (excluding Kosovo and Macedonia), donors no longer believe aid is necessary and will stop financing collective centres. The people living in these centers must either integrate completely into the Serbian society, or if possible, return to their countries of origin.
The whole UNHCR budget for the year 2002 (including money spent for collective centres) was around 30 million dollars. The UNHCR budget for the same activities in 2003 was reduced to 20 million dollars.The UNHCR and High Commissariat for Refugees, Republic of Serbia maintain that their contributions were adequate and insist that it is now time the refugees confront their reality.
The High Commissariat for Refugees says that of all flats built in the period from 1997- 2002, 60% was offered to families living in collective centres. In the refugees' local integration programme, people living in collective centres have the same rights to obtain flats as other residents, as they are subject to the same rules.
High Commissariat found that the number of the families from collective centres that will integrate depends on both the number of refugees and their willingness to do so.
It is also important to remember that the Serbian Government adopted a National strategy for resolving the problems of refugees and IDPs. Two major points of this strategy are as follows:
1. Either refugees return to their homes, with all the relevant help regarding rights afforded to them by Serbian law, i.e. the return of property, etc.
2. Or establishing an atmosphere condusive to the integration of refugees into the local community; and helping them develop a decent life in an economical and social sense.
These are two parallel processes, which are left to refugees and IDPs to choose from.
Regarding the depopulation of the collective centres, the UNHCR forewarns that the circumstances will be difficult when it is time for the refugees to leave these centres. However, as funding diminishes depopulation is unavoidable.
Another reason for depopulating collective centres is so that the owners of these facilities may reclaim their property. On the other hand, those centres with no owners will be shut down.
A well known example of this occurring is that of Camp Kamenovo at the Montenegrin seaside, close to the city of Budva, where a collective centre was made after IDPs from Kosovo came. However, a year and a half ago a company who owned Camp Kamenovo asked for their property back. The process was started against Commissariat for IDPs in Montenegro, and the company won. Eventually, when the company's representatives came to reclaim the Camp the IDPs refused to leave and threatened to burn themselves alive. The agony was prolonged. The IDPs are still there but all are aware the IDPs tenuous position will not last.
How do refugees see their situation? A Survey in the collective centre of Bele Vode, Belgrade

None of the refugees or IDPs living in this collective centre wanted to give their names, especially not surnames. One women refugee from Knin with whom I spoke asked that her name be left off the record. In this specific collective centre there is more than 100 refugees and IDPs. There are 12 children under the age of eighteen, of whom only two have a good record of performance in school, while the others have not shown satisfactory performance in school. A woman from Knin comments that this is a result of the family living in close quarters with one another. The whole family lives in one room, where all the daily activities occur.
All the refugees and IDPs living in CC in Bele Vode complain about the food they receive in the collective centres, they therefore choose to cook meals in their rooms.
There are only 4 toilets, of which only two are in use. There are two showers and two washing machines.There are four families from Bosnia and four from Kosovo; the rest are likely from Croatia.
Regarding their integration they said this was a distant concern. At the moment, they claim to spend money on practical needs. If they earn any money they spent it immediately on food and hygiene, therefore they can not yet consider renting a flat, or anything similar.
When asked whether they have tried to leave the country, and go abroad, they explained that this was very hard, almost impossible. They did recall four families from their collective centre that left, but these families had relatives in Australia. Also, they add that those who have the advantage to move abroad are people from multi ethnic/mixed marriages, or those who were prisoners of war.
They mentioned some three collective centres in Belgrade where only IDPs are living. Those are: Visnjicka Banja, Lestane, and Mirjevo. Lestane however is the only one recognised.
In Krnjaca there is a collective centre with some 800- 900 invalids.
NGO stance. Bojana Shkorc from NGO "Hi Neighbour" talks about projects this NGO is doing regarding collective centres
Hi Neighbour (HN) implements psychosocial programmes for refugees and internally displaced people involving all age groups. The main objectives of the programme were to support refugees and IDPs to cope with difficult living conditions through various programme activities. The programme integrates psychosocial support, self- help projects, ethnic programme, alternative education, cultural and recreational activities, etc. HN teams operate according to the plans to work with refugees and IDPs in private accommodations and in 68 collective centred in 25 municipalities in Serbia. In addition HN supports a number of IDPs placed in private accommodation in Serbia who live in larger groups (few families together) operating as small and unrecognised collective centres- having 10 to 40 people.

Bojana Shkorc said that the situation in collective centres has changed throughout the period of the last ten years. At the beginning of the crisis in the Balkans CCs were located much more closely to the cities and were some kind of media spectacles. Throughout the mentioned period it changed and the number of the CCs multiplied.
Shkorc explains that people living in CC centres represent the most vulnerable of society, as they have not managed to change their position in the course of five, or in some cases, even ten years.
Mrs. Shkorc said she understands why the UNHCR wishes to depopulate all CCs by 2003. The wars ended nearly three-five years ago and in some places even longer ago. However, she added that the alternatives offered to these people are not reasonable.
For instance, they have offered to move the elderly people to Centres for Old people but the eldery are resistant. Shkvorc gives a testimony of one old lady who comments that in the general CC she can at least see children, while on the other hand, in the centres for elderly she will see only old people.
Shkvorc commented that predominating opinion of the NGO sector on the depopulation of the CCs is that neither the economic nor social situation is stable enough for this to occur. By allowing depopulation to occur, it is feared that the already marginalized people will become even more so.

Shkorc also commented that school children refugees, are showing very good results, and added that education in Serbia has further allowed integration into the local community. However, she added that people coming from Kosovo are completely different from those coming from BiH and Croatia, explaining that they can not follow school well. She specifically mentioned Roma children from Kosovo having difficulties with the language.
She concluded saying that repatriation is not a solution for the large number of people, rather only for smaller populations.

What does the law say? An interview with Gordana Krivokuca, lawyer and refugee herself

The Law on Refugees was adopted in 1992. The omissions of the Law most often mentioned by law experts are the following:
The Law in its First Paragraph gives a problematic definition of refugees. In the text of the law it is said: "Serbs and citizens of other nationalities being forced to leave their homes...". A young lawyer from Belgrade, Gordana Krivokuca, herself a refugee from Karlovac, Croatia, finds the term "Serbs and other nationalities" a blatant discrimination against non Serbian nationalities.

Besides that Krivokuca mentions the violation of the FRY Constitution and international conventions in the following acts towards refugees:
1. Refugees were forced to serve in the army and to work, which is a violation, but another one is that even when they were working and being sent to the front they were not allowed to apply for FRY citizenship.
2. Refugees were often sent to Kosovo against their will, where again there is a violation of the international conventions by which refugees have the right to choose their place of inhabitance. People were put in trains supposedly destined for Nis were sent instead to Kosovo. At that time it was a political strategy aiming to enlarge the percent of the Serb population living in Kosovo.
3. In the paragraph 8 of the Law it is stated that temporary accommodation will be provided in special made buildings, but those collective centres were often abandoned ruins, far away from the cities. Above all, these facilities were not temporary. Although the conventions stipulated that the refugees stay no longer than 3- 6 months, it was not uncommon for them to occupy the centres for a period of ten years.
Miss Krivokuca also quoted census figures that said that by the year 1995 there were 200 Collective centres on Serbian territory. That number rose to 765 after the operation known as "Bljesak" and "Oluja". At that time in 1995 the largest number of CCs were in Kosovo, while in Belgrade and Vojvodina there were far fewer CCs.
According to the last census of refugees from 2001, conducted by High Commissariat for Refugees in Serbia there is some 23,000 people living in CCs, which is 6% of the total refugee population in Serbia.
Interview with Biljana Stanojevic, President of the Law- documentation Office "PRADOK"
OB: Was anything improved or changed in the Current Law on refugees since its adoption in 1992?
Stanojevic: The Law on refugees was adopted on April 4, 1992.
The law on refugees was not adopted with special care, and was not aiming to permanetly solve the refugees' problems. By this act refugees were equal to the Serbian citizens in terms of rights and duties however, they did not have the right to vote or be voted to office.
Some parts of the law are not in accordance with international acts on refugees, especially in the field regarding the military service of refugees.
OB: Two decrees were adopted in 1992 and 1995, the former regulated the position of refugees coming from Croatia (Prognanici) and the latter one regulated the IDPs situation. What this meant for the refugees and IDPs situation?

Mrs. Stanojevic: The decree on catering refugees was adopted in 1992, and was officially published in the Official Announcement of the Republic of Serbia ("Sluzbeni glasnik") No. 20/92. The decree was created in 1993, 94, and 1995. The basis of this decree is derived from the Serbian Government, specifically paragraph 2 from the 4th part of the Law on refugees.
This document neither takes away nor gives more rights to refugees, it just applies certain parts of the refugee Law by naming means of helping refugees and the kinds of help available to them.
The major problem is that it was applied on a individual basis, i.e. certain individuals were given rights to implement certain actions without respecting the law.
There were many misuses of help, blackmails in finding accommodations and other illegal works.
There were certain revisions of the law while decrees were being implemented, so certain refugee rights were diminished regarding the use of CCs or obtaining refugee status.
In this period people that migrated from Bosnia and Herzegovina or the Republic of Srpska, and were of Serbian nationality were not given refugee status. Obviously, this is due to the fact that at that time the Republic of Srpska was considered a part of Serbia and FRY.
Thus these people were not afforded the same rights as refugees, were not permited to live in collective centres, and could not apply to third countries.
OB: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Law on refugees?
Mrs. Stanojevic: Serbian Law on Refugees is a law without many omissions. However, the major problem is the improper implementation of the law.
Besides refugees being obliged to military service, the law properly addresses refugee issues and concerns.However, because this law was not implemented correctly rights guaranteed to refugees were not afforded to them.
For instance, all the financial aid committed to refugees was not disbursed neither was all the aid forthcoming delivered to them.
Neither was there any control over financial aid, it was just expected that state organs and the Red Cross would not misuse it.
The Law also gave to broad authority to the Commissariat and Commissioner, which in practice led to a lot of misuse as well as the misallocation of aid coming from countries all over the world.
Do you have any information on how much the state financially supports refugees/ IDPs?
Mrs. Stanojevic: Paragraph 8 of the Law on refugees stipulates that refugees should, besides other aid, recieve money. The refugee aid packages are small and often incomplete, and I do not recall refugees receiving any money.
The Serbian Government was looking for the financial aid from abroad, but on the other hand, it did not control where that money was going.
There is a group of people, of whom I myself represent, find that the big part of Serbia and its citizens lived on humanitarian aid for refugees, and that also a great number of health institutions and individuals working with the aid misused medicament aid for refugees.
We never discovered where those convoys with medicines and similar equipment ended up, but refugees were buying those very same medicines in private pharmacies.
It is obvious that the scale of misuse is still undetected, but what is also obvious is that today no one is really concerned. Those who survived do not have any more interest in solving these problems.
OB: About Collective Centres?
Those I have seen are not the places where any human being should be placed.
For the miniscule aid offered in collective centres, which is also on occasion nonexistant, refugees are disposed to various pressures, blackmails, and forms of abuse.

OB: Are there collective centres in Serbia not being recognized by the high Commissariat?
Mrs. Stanojevic: I have not heard of such CCs, but perhaps you are thinking of wild settlements built by Roma population from Kosovo and Metohija after NATO intervention. It is hard to believe that such camps exist.

OB: By the end of year 2003 it is planned that all CCc centres will be depopulated. This will also be the last year of donations to the people living in CCs. Are you familiar with any of the plans the state is making in order to prepare for that event? What rights will these people have when forced to leave their accomodation in CCs? Will they have the opportunity to choose their own accommodation, or will they just be moved to some other place?
Mrs. Stanojevic: I have not heard that the state is planning anything in particular; everything with refugees was done quickly, ad hoc, or only after receiving pressure from outside.
I am afraid there will not be any more pressure from outside, because as everyone knows Serbia is now a democratic state. If some special act is adopted it will be very hard to implement due to the poor social and material situation Serbia is now facing.
There has been a lot of announcements about some integration programmes (for instance by, vice president Zarko Korac) in which it is said that there will be some credits for flats, or something similar, so that people will inhabit Serbia freely. I do not believe in that fairy tale, because prior experience has taught me otherwise.

The people will not be moved to other locations, because it is obvious that there are no more locations serving that purpose, and the authority never made any effort in building real collective centres. People lended various pieces of their property to refugees for their use during difficult periods but now the owners want their property back, which is normal.

I think the major problem of this is with the older people who are alone and incapable both physically and psychically. These people will face great problems, and I hope that the state will have enough will move to take special care of these people.
There is speculation that the majority of people will opt to stay in Serbia, especially those from Croatia and Kosovo. Those wanting to return have already done so or are in the process.
Also, another important issue is the exact number of refugees in Serbia at the moment. Several times there were censuses, which were always manipulated.
The refugees were afraid of giving sharing information about themselves, for fear of arousing protest or inviting other unpleasant situations.
The false information on the number of refugees was used to increase humanitarian aid and to present Serbia as a country supporting million of refugees in spite of all the social problems.
Presumably that period is now behind us, and I hope that the authorities will now put more effort into completing programmes for integration and the repatriation of refugees.
I also hope that authorities will start treating them as human beings and begin helping them, according to the law, in realizing their choice. Perhaps, however, I am just dreaming.