04 September 2015

In the last week of August, Western Balkan countries saw a sharp increase in the number of refugees expressing their intention to seek asylum, most them coming from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Different solidarity initiatives have been adopted by international and local organisations and NGOs, notably in the FYR of Macedonia and in Serbia, while the reactions of national authorities have raised many concerns.

After the deplorable violent reaction of the Macedonian police against refugees trying to cross the Greek-Macedonian border on 21 August, the FYRoM government organised trains departing from Gevgelija, towards the Serbian border.

In fact, since June 2015, refugees who express their intention to seek asylum are allowed to stay and move within the country during the 72 hours they have to submit an asylum application.Consequently, UNHCR has urged Macedonia to establish a site where refugees and migrants can be accommodated.

Given the lack of State support from Macedonian authorities, UNHCR, together with the Red Cross, UNICEF and other NGOs such as MYLA, LaStrada and Médecins Sans Frontières, as well as volunteers from the local community, have been providing basic services such as food, water and blankets and free legal assistance to thousands of refugees. Many refugees are in need of humanitarian and medical aid, some facing serious physical and psychological conditions. In response, international and national organisations and NGOs have offered medical assistance including  efforts to reunite those families who were separated by the police when crossing the Greek-Macedonian border.

According to the IOM and the Macedonian Young Lawyers Association (MYLA), between June and August 2015 47,994 people expressed the intention to submit an asylum application in FYRoM; while, as of the 25 August, UNHCR have estimated that 3,000 refugees have been crossing the Greek-Macedonian border every day.

In Serbia, a new processing centre was established in Preševo, close to the Macedonian Border. Moreover, in Belgrade, another centre was opened to provide refugees with relevant information and psychosocial assistance. Solidarity initiatives have been undertaken by local authorities, human rights organisations, activists and volunteer, to provide basic needs such as water, food and clothes. However, the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) stressed that many refugees are still without shelter and basic needs. In addition, refugees and migrants often have to wait for days before having their intention to seek asylum registered. Illustrative of these shortcomings in the asylum system is the Centre in Presevo, where there is no protection-sensitive screening consistent with international standards. Many asylum seekers prefer to leave Serbia, after having expressed the intention to seek asylum.

Since January 2015, 90,000 people passed through Serbia after having registered their intention to seek asylum; although approximately only 500 have entered the country’s asylum-seeking process. According to UNHCR, during one August weekend, more than 10,000 people reached Serbian borders.

On 26 August, the EU provided €1.5 million in funding to humanitarian partners in Serbia and Macedonia. Additional financial support has been provided to Western Balkans by the EU under the Instrument of Pre-accession Assistance (IPA). According to the final Declaration of the Western Balkans Summit, held in Vienna between August 26-27, “Western Balkans countries could be considered as ‘safe countries of origin’ by all EU Member States”. During the Western Balkans Summit, 70 migrants – mostly Syrians who probably took the Western Balkans route – had died of suffocation.

See more detailed information in our news brief from 28 August 2015.