Crisis Along the Balkan Route: The Refugee Identity Under Threat

Following the closure of the ‘official’ Balkan migration route, humanitarian actors working on the ground have been forced to fill the gaps in refugee protection needs, as international organizations, NGOs, and refugees have found themselves at odds with the sovereign prerogative of states.

Jelena Djuric and Silviu Kondan take a closer look at the situation in Serbia. 

Masses of desperate refugees flooded the Balkan route last summer, making the hopeful journey towards peace and relative prosperity to Northern and Western Europe. EU and non-EU leaders alike, caught by surprise, welcomed throngs of international organizations in to their borders to assist them in what was the largest movement of refugees in Europe since the Second World War. Indeed, by the end of 2016, more than one million individuals made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea, originating from countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region as civil war, interethnic violence, persecution, and human rights violations have become widespread. Asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, in addition to nationals from Morocco, Eritrea, Iran, and Pakistan, among others, were not dissuaded as xenophobic laws were adopted in the Nordic countries, fences were erected on Europe’s frontiers, and the Schengen system was suspended –  all severely calling the ‘EU project’ in to question.

During our visit to Serbia in February 2016, mere weeks before the EU-Turkey Summit resulted in the closure of the ‘official’ Balkan route, humanitarian actors working on the ground sought to fill gaps in refugee protection needs, as international organizations, NGOs, and refugees themselves found themselves at odds with the sovereign prerogative of states. While the politicized nature of the refugee crisis severely impacted the policy-capacity of NGOs, civil society and grassroots organizations to deliver protection needs, dedicated citizens throughout the Balkan region sought to meet the whole range of needs essential for the survival of thousands of persons seeking refuge.

The pervasive securitization discourse — one that places a premium on the notion that refugees are a threat to national security – has, in fact, contributed to civilian paranoia, and a push to close borders and stem the influx of refugees. In an international system that is currently experiencing the disintegration of borders and internal displacement, a strictly formal and legalistic territorial view of refugee status is no longer relevant to human rights standards nor pressing humanitarian needs.

While the nature of protection provided to refugees by the UNHCR and NGOs is both context-driven and context-dependent, states are enacting ad hoc arrangements resulting in discrepancies between the UNHCR’s mandate and states’ obligations with respect to individuals who fall under the mandate of the UNHCR but are not recognized as legal refugees. For example, in mid-November 2015, in response to restrictive measures implemented in the EU, the Serbian government declared that individuals who were not from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan (SIA) were denied the official transportation means to travel to Croatia. As such, non-SIA nationals were advised to seek asylum in Serbia, or else risk push-back to Macedonia and further to Greece. UNHCR, along with other prominent international organizations and NGOs, argued against the adoption of this law, calling for claim to asylum based on an individual’s specific situation, and not on nationality.

Yes, the notion of refugee identity, seen through a rights-based, uncomplicated lens is under threat. Consequently, it is not only the fault of state policies and practices, but more seriously it is as a result of increasingly complicated developments on the ground which are oriented towards immediate humanitarian assistance, or needs. As policy changes in neighboring countries determine the flow and route of refugees entering Europe, the situation remains constantly unpredictable. A ‘domino effect’, that has forced states to respond to rapid policy changes elsewhere in the European and the MENA region, has had a crucial effect on the capacity of the Serbian state to respond to the needs of refugees and migrants in times of crisis, and has forced NGOs to establish contingency plans that are able to adapt to this rapidly changing and chaotic environment. The system of refugee protection is becoming increasingly complicated as it differs between countries and across regions. On the aggregate, this complexity is driven by the changing nature of displacement, the increased costs of hosting refugees, the spread of irregular migration, and the trafficking of people that blur the migrant-refugee distinction and growing gaps between people in need of protection. This has forced the UNHCR and NGOs to adapt to, and work within, an existing institutional structure and legal framework in cooperation with the host state.

In Serbia, the UNHCR works with the Ministry of Labor and the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees, in order to coordinate their strategies and priorities alongside the skills and capacities of NGOs, international organizations and civil society groups. The UNHCR and the Ministry of Labor coordinate weekly meetings with prominent Serbian and international organizations including ATINA, the Serbian Red Cross, Oxfam, and Doctors Without Borders in order to update humanitarian actors on the most pressing concerns with respect to refugee protection. Throughout our field-research, it was evident that organizations were required to cater to a wide variety of needs and respond suddenly to national policy changes.

The implementation of an identification and information system which collaborates with other countries in the Western Balkans has become a strategy for protection. The International Organization for Migration, in cooperation with the Ministry of Labor and Commissariat for Refugees have established an electronic system on its borders tracking the inflow of refugees within Serbia. Alongside this development, there has been a noticeable challenge with an increase of people without proper paperwork, and those providing inaccurate information at registration centers. In addition, access to translation and interpretation has been a struggle due to lack of financial resources, yet, it is an essential component which ensures a fair procedure for applicants. Local organizations are often the first point of contact with refugees, and require both translators and cultural mediators. This case of mixed irregular migration is especially significant as cultural mediators and translators who are skilled in languages including Arabic, Farsi and Pashto, are needed to document, and advocate on behalf of, individuals who have been subjected to human rights abuses.

Disintegrating borders in the MENA region and the erection of fences and border closures in Europe, serve as just few examples in the disparate approaches towards refugee protection across regions and between countries. As conflicts intensify, and individuals flee their country of residence for refuge elsewhere, industrialized countries will inevitably be faced with a large influx of people within their territories. Rapid policy changes both on the national and supranational European Union level illustrate the chaotic and unpredictable nature of the current refugee crisis. Currently, the movement is comprised of individuals from several nationalities, among those the elderly, unaccompanied minors, and single women are placed at heightened risk. A shift in the discourse of ‘rights’, one which presumes the existence of both ‘rights-holders’ (refugees, displaced persons) and ‘right-bearers’ (nation-states), to those of ‘needs’, is essential to the functioning of the UNHCR, NGOs, and international organizations in providing protection. Indeed, an emphasis on the latter ensures that organizations are able to cater to a wide variety of needs, as migration flows become even more heterogeneous, comprised of a variety of nationalities and persons with unique histories.


Jelena Djuric is a peace, conflict and justice studies graduate from the University of Toronto. Her previous field research experience and studies abroad have taken her to countries including Israel, France, Georgia, and most recently Serbia. She intends to provide a meaningful and critical perspective on pressing issues related to refugee protection rights and humanitarian assistance.

Silviu Kondan is an ethnic Romanian born in Vojvodina, Serbia. He is currently finishing his B.A. at the University of Toronto in Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies and Equity Studies with a particular interest in the Balkan region. As a community worker and organizer in Toronto, he hopes to collaborate with individuals and organizations from his native region in order to advance substantive social change.


Cover photo credit: Julia Druelle 

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