The new accommodation policy for asylum seekers and the racist counter-mobilisation in Vračević

This article has been translated into serbo-croatian by kontrapunkt.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

There are two open reception centers for asylum seekers in Serbia: one in Banja Koviljača and one in Bogovađa. And it is around these centers that the failures of the institutions to accommodate all asylum seekers and the racism of the local population most often intersect.

The center in Banja Koviljača was the first center for asylum seekers, which was renovated for these purposes in 2008. The center for asylum seekers has been located there since late 1960s, when asylum seekers, who have been waiting for the UNHCR to process their claim and get relocated, were living there. But the number of asylum seekers has been very low — until a few years ago, when Serbia developed its independent asylum system in 2008 and more and more people asked asylum, as they found themselves blocked in Serbia. Reasons for this were an increase in the use of the Balkans route because the Greece-Italy route was becoming closed, increasingly difficult transit because of Frontex on Serbian-Hungarian border and increased police violence towards illegalised migrants on Serbian territory. The situation in Serbia got “out of hand”, with a big numbers of people staying in Banja Koviljača, a lot of them unaccommodated by the center. This resulted in the biggest racist mobilisation against migrants so far, in October and November 2011, when a large protest, a school boycott and a road blockade were organised by the residents of Banja Koviljača, who demanded the closure of the center and the relocation of asylum seekers.

A few months before the mobilisation – in June 2011 – the second open reception center was opened in Bogovađa. This center was not close to its full capacity, until the migrants from Banja Koviljača got transferred there after the mobilisations. And then the problems of overcapacity started in Bogovađa too, culminating in summer 2012, when the center’s management decided to not accommodate more than 150 people, which is what its official capacity was. This means that people were for months staying outside: without any shelter or food provided to them by the authorities, which is against the Law on Asylum that says that asylum seekers have the right to be accommodated.

In the meantime, Serbian Commission for Refugees (KIRS) was trying to open a third open reception center. But after the protests in Banja Koviljača, the “problem of asylum seekers” was already on the agenda and any opening of a new center was met with substantial resistance in local communities. For example in May 2012, in Mladenovac, citizens staged a road blockade and said they are not moving, until KIRS and the government abandon their plans to open a center there – and they have.

It has been at least a year now that KIRS has been promising to open a new reception center and resolve the “problem” of asylum seekers.

In the meanwhile in Bogovađa, the situation was getting worse and worse. The number of migrants kept on being very high and then the snow came. The situation was difficult, with about a hundred people staying outside, some very sick and in bad condition, all inadequately nourished and dressed, sleeping mostly without shelter, even when the temperatures dropped below zero. People started to move into abandoned buildings, jungles [1] were being created. The people that were staying outside were not only asylum seekers, but also illegalised migrants (who either were prevented from asking asylum [2], or hoped to move forward soon) — this meant that police executed frequent raids in the jungles and the squats, squats were being shut down, things destroyed, everyone without asylum papers arrested, detained and deported to Macedonia.

The situation of hundreds of people living under most precarious conditions in the jungle was something that the authorities were both aware of and could probably predict its consequences – that it will continue like this (until the borders open, the migrants are not going to just disappear) and that the local population might react and might react negatively. They did increase the capacity in the center for a bit, when the first snow fell in November. But people were still staying outside and it was not until January 2013 that they said to themselves “something needs to be done” – by which point they started to out-source the accommodation.

THE NEW ACCOMMODATION POLICY

The Center for Asylum Seekers in Bogovađa and the local Red Cross decided to offer residents of the nearby villages to pay them for accommodating migrants. The house-owners would receive 50 Euros per person per month from the state to rent out their facilities to asylum seekers. This program was implemented when an agreement with Dragić Stojković, an individual living in a nearby village of Dučić kod Mionice, was signed on the 24th of January, that he would rent out his derelict 3 storey building in Vračević until May. In the media it was said that he would accommodate 80 asylum seekers there — so in one month, he would make around 4000 Euros.

vracevic house

When we visited Vračević on the 11th of February, migrants that are now living in the house told us that when the house was opened the manager of the camp in Bogovađa simply offered all the migrants living in the jungle outside the camp to move to the house in Vračević. Consequently, in the beginning there were around 120 persons in the house. “In the first days, around 20 people slept in each room”, A., an asylum seeker from Mali, said. The migrants slept in bunk beds, they all shared one bathroom and drank water from the well in the yard.

Two men, who were called “security” by the migrants and who told us that they were in charge of keeping the house safe, told us we have to leave the area in front of the house, if we don’t show them our IDs — although we were standing on a public street. They claimed that food “that will be enough for two years” is allocated inside the house. But as we were not allowed in, and the migrants were told to go back inside the house, we did not get a chance to find out how valid this information was. A. said that they had to cook for themselves and that groceries were available to them — sometimes once, sometimes three times a day.

ANTI-MIGRANT PROTESTS OF THE LOCALS?

As a consequence of the new accommodation policy of asylum seekers, some residents of Vračević started protests and demanded that their local government of Lajkovac removes the migrants from their village. According to GEM, the television chain of Lazarevac (03.02.2013), the locals feared for their security and claimed that because of the presence of the migrants they have to accompany their children on their way to and from school. Apparently there was an assembly of villagers that threatened the local authorities to blockade the Lajkovac municipality building and organize a school boycott, as it was done in the anti-migrant protests in Banja Koviljača in November 2011, if they wouldn’t react to their demands.

Hereon the local government of Lajkovac supported the protesters and said they will demand action from the national authorities. They pointed out, however, it is not about being racist or xenophobic, but that the place in Vračević should be closed down, because it was not appropriate for so many asylum seekers at once. Živorad Bojičić, the major of Lajkovac, claimed out that the protesting inhabitants of Vračević “do not hate the people of color”, but are demanding that the so-called problem of asylum seekers “is solved permanently and the right way” (Blic Online, 04.02.2013). The city council of Lajkovac supported the ultimatum the protesters issued to find an alternative solution to the accommodation of asylum seekers in the house in Vračević until the 8th of February, and thus shifted the responsibility to Belgrade. They also demanded the facility in Vračević to be rechecked.

Plus, there was a petition against the general presence of asylum seekers in Serbia signed by 250 households in Vračević (RTS 07.02.2013). The anti-migrant protest culminated when in one night locals gathered in front of the house in Vračević and stones were thrown, breaking two windows of the house. But what sounds like a racist mob attack was played down very much by the people we spoke to, when we were in Vračević. The two “security” men responsible for the house claimed that the protest is mainly initiated by three or four influencial individuals — in their words “persons that inofficially control the other villagers” — and that the whole controversy is actually about the money that house-owners can earn by accommodating asylum seekers. According to them, the protesters are driven by jealousy and not by their racist attitude. This is the interpretation that also Vladimir Cucić from KIRS presents: “The house in Vračević, where Asylum seekers are situated, is a way of making profit, along the lines of »why shouldn’t I but someone else earn the money«.” (RTS, 07.02.2013) Also the owner of the house, Dragić Stojković, affirmed in the press that the neighbours of his house in Vračević did not cause any troubles.

Stojković and his employees might be interested in playing down the protests to keep their house rented out, but also the migrants that are now living in Vračević did not complain about any racist harassement or assaults by the locals. The migrants we spoke with did not witness any visible protest like for example a rally, nor did they experience a general hatred by local residents. One person told us that he just noticed the stone throw attack in the morning and did not seem to be significantly bothered by it. An old lady that lives in Vračević said, “We don’t have any problems with the asylum seekers. The children sit next to them here at the bus stop, waiting for the bus, and everyone gets perfectly along with each other.” We had the impression that beside the conflicts that were addressed in the media, there is no exceptional everyday racist confrontation carried out by villagers.

CONSEQUENCES?

It is questionable whether the protest will lead to any noteworthy political consequences. The majority of the migrants accommodated in Vračević, about 70 people, were transferred to the asylum seekers camp in Banja Koviljača. [3] About 30 to 40 people are still in the house. Apparently all the migrants without papers were taken to a police station with a bus to issue their asylum applications and then further transported to Banja Koviljača. Whereas those who had already the temporary paper they get after they applied for asylum, but still had to live outside in the jungle because there was no places for them in the camp in Bogovađa, stayed in the house in Vračević. M. from Afghanistan told us about the transport: “I didn’t want to go to Banja because all my friends are in Bogovađa, and I didn’t want to enter the bus. But the securities yelled at us that we should get into the bus: “Sit! Sit! Sit!” they shouted and forced me to sit down.”

The transfer of 70 migrants to Banja Koviljača is presented by the local authorities as the answer to the protests. Bojičić, the major of Lajkovac, pointed out that the situation in Vračević is now calm and that there is no protest around the accommodation of asylum seekers anymore. He repeated that the locals from Vračević have nothing against the asylum seekers, but they only found that they were being unadequately accommodated in the house of Dragić Stojković (Blic Onlice, 08.02.2013).

So far it does not seem like the new accommodation policy will be taken back. The “securities” of the house in Vračević said that a contract was made between the owner and the KIRS and that in ten days six employees of a private security company will be in charge of the house. Moreover it seems like maybe other houses in the vicinity of Bogovađa will in the future accommodate asylum seekers. So the facilities of a restaurant in Bogovađa that also applied for lodging asylum seekers, were checked by the Commissariat last Sunday, the 10th of February.

It is difficult to draw a conclusion out of the different opinions on the protest. The expressions represented in the media indicate a deep-rooted general racist attitude towards the migrants. (In this post [link] we draft a response to the common racist arguments of the anti-migrant protests.) It seems like as long as the locals can make profit out of the presence of the migrants (buying in their shops etc.), they accept them around. In the example of Vračević this was reserved to one person so far, who rakes in high amounts of state money for badly accommodating migrants. Presumably, jealousy drives villagers to now no longer hold back their racist opinions. So the protest and its medial attention offers a platform for xenophobic expressions.

[1] informal camps in the nearby forests where migrants started to live in make-shift tents and dwellings 

[2] Very often when migrants want to issue their application for asylum at a police station they are simply refused and send away, so they have to try several times until they succeed in getting some paper and entering the asylum procedure. 

[3] According to “Blic Online” Bojičić, the major of Lajkovac, said that 40 people were transferred on the 6th of February and another 31 persons on the 8th. 

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