Refugees win a rare victory in Serbia’s groundbreaking pushback decision

Belgrade, Serbia (AP) — Hamido Ahmadhi can still feel the cold of February night when Serbian police left him and 20 other refugees in the woods.

Refugees from Afghanistan thought they were packed in police vans and headed for asylum seekers’ camps in eastern Serbia. Instead, they were ordered near the Bulgarian border four years ago at midnight that night. At sub-zero temperatures, those desperately in need of help had no choice but to head to Bulgaria. Bulgaria is a country that left just a day ago.

“As long as I’m alive, I’ll never forget it,” said Ahmadi, who was 17 at the time and now lives in Germany. “Even after a period of good life and stability, one cannot forget difficult times.”

Serbian border guards were engaged in pushback or mass expulsion, one of many such actions along the travel routes used by migrants and refugees trying to reach Western Europe. However, unlike most such illegal deportations, the actions of officers in February 2017 have helped Afghan refugees win an unprecedented legal victory in the Supreme Court of Serbia.

In December, the Balkan Constitutional Court ruled that border officials illegally deported refugees and violated their rights. The court also ordered Serbian authorities to pay € 1,000 ($ 1,180) in compensation to each of the 17 members of the group in which the proceedings were filed.

“The importance of this verdict is immeasurable for Serbia,” said Nikola Kovacevich, a Belgrade lawyer who represented refugees in the case. It sends “a clear message to state authorities to harmonize border practices with national and international law.”

This ruling does not officially acknowledge that European countries are pushing back in violation of the European Union or international law.

Refugees and economic migrants passing through the Balkans regularly explain their practices, but authorities routinely deny their agencies performing pushbacks.

People fleeing war and poverty cross borders, spend months, if not years, on the road, and are exposed to the harsh conditions and dangers of smugglers and traffickers. I will. From time to time, refugees and migrants are sent back across two or three borders, which took months for them to cross.

Human rights groups have repeatedly called for the government to uphold its responsibilities, including refugee rights, and accused the European Union of blinding itself to the illegal activities committed at its doorstep.

This month, the UN mission in Bosnia called for urgent action to stop pushbacks along the border between EU member states Croatia and Bosnia. Croatia.

Last year, 25,180 people were pushed back to Serbia from Croatia, Bosnia, Hungary and Romania, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Serbia and its partners.

Serbian lawyer Kobasevic said mass expulsion has become more common after the EU and Turkey have signed a 2016 agreement aimed at curbing migration to Europe. Last year, more than a million people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia flowed into the continent. The agreement called for Turkey to control the flow of people leaving its territory in exchange for aid and other incentives for a large number of Syrian refugees in Turkey.

“All borders have introduced a systematic violation of the ban on collective expulsion,” Kobasevic said. “But at least now in Serbia, this has been officially confirmed by the highest authorities for the protection of human rights, not by local or foreign non-governmental organizations.”

To hide evidence of fraud, border officers regularly remove mobile phones and documents from refugees. In the case of Ahmadiyya and others, a clear trace of evidence was left behind, thanks to Kobasevic’s “blatant arrogance” of the Serbian police, who “thought they could do whatever they wanted to do.”

It began on February 2, 2017, when 25 migrants, including nine children, were captured at the border with Bulgaria and taken to a police station near Serbia. They were kept in the basement for hours and then taken to the judge for illegally cross-border charges. However, the judge decided that the group should be treated as a refugee and taken to an asylum center.

Ahmadhi, who spoke to AP from Germany through an interpreter, said he clearly remembers when the judge asked if he wanted to stay in Serbia. He said they were happy to finally be able to enter the camp after traveling to Turkey and Bulgaria.

A few hours later, in a border police van that was supposed to take them to the camp, Ahmadhi noticed something was wrong. When the police dumped him in the woods, he recalled, “I felt broken,” and said, “I thought about my family at home.”

In pitch black and freezing temperatures, refugees walked to Bulgaria and fell into the hands of the country’s border guards. They managed to call a Serbian interpreter and warn refugee rights activists in both Serbia and Bulgaria.

After staying in Bulgarian camps for a few days or longer, refugees returned to Serbia and later headed to Western Europe. Rights lawyers later collected documents left by Serbian courts and Bulgarian authorities, establishing clear traces of events that helped to formulate proceedings in courts.

Four years later, Kobasevic seeks to establish contact with all the people of Afghanistan he represented. They are scattered in countries including France and Bosnia. He said the blockade of the coronavirus made it more difficult to establish contact and arrange remittances for the damages they had won.

“It will take a little longer, but we’ll get there,” Kobasevic smiled.

Ahmadhi, who was granted asylum in Germany five months ago, said he and his wife are planning to use damages to help them start a new life in Europe. He is currently taking German lessons before looking for a job.

“This compensation makes a lot of sense to me,” he said. “If you rent an apartment, you can buy a bed and a little stuff for the apartment.”