It’s hard for many to imagine the trauma of being driven from one’s home by violence and persecution, forced to leave family and friends and worry each day for their safety. It is still harder to fathom being turned away or criminalized at the borders of safe countries after making a perilous journey to reach them. Every day that European governments and the United States step up their border enforcement and refuse to raise their admission quotas, thousands of refugees suffer this fate.
UUSC is working with partners across the migration route in Europe to change this. The response begins in the Balkans, where UUSC is partnering with the Center for Peace Studies (known as CMS, its Croatian acronym) to support its new Welcome Initiative for Refugees. While pressing for institutional changes to uphold the right to seek asylum and freedom from persecution, the initiative will deliver essential support to refugees.
Why the Balkans?
The vast majority of refugees coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, and other major conflict zones hope eventually to get to Germany or Sweden, which have been relatively welcoming so far. To get there, however, refugees must pass through the Balkans and Hungary. The Hungarian government’s ruthless anti-refugee crackdown has made this increasingly difficult.
Hungary recently constructed a 109-mile fence along its border with Serbia, thereby sealing off a major entry and transit point for refugees. Those who still attempt to enter by scaling the wall now face criminal penalties. Some are told that, regardless of how grave their protection needs may be, they should have applied for asylum in the first country of arrival, and they are deported back to Serbia. Others are held in immigration jails and criminal detention centers within Hungary.
The Hungarian government claims it does not have room to welcome refugees into its society — but it apparently does have space enough for them in its prisons. Hungary is punishing these people for no other “crime” than that of seeking refuge.
People facing threats to their lives and the safety of their loved ones cannot be deterred for long, though. Since the Serbian border route has been closed, refugees are now moving instead through Croatia in order to reach the Hungarian-Croat border. The Hungarian government is meanwhile working feverishly to seal this other border as well. Until then, it is trying to move every refugee who arrives from Croatia across its territory as rapidly as possible. These refugees find themselves loaded onto locked trains and carted across Hungary without stopping. They are offered no legal process and no opportunity to register with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees along the way; in fact, their presence in Hungary is never officially recorded in any form.
Refugees in Croatia
Croatia has not generally been a destination for refugees, though it is safe. According to CMS, fewer than 5,000 people in total have applied for asylum there in the last 10 years. At the moment, thousands of refugees are moving through Croatia, but very few intend to stay.
This will change dramatically, however, once Hungary seals the Croatian border and effectively traps thousands of individuals and families. Furthermore, as EU member states finally reach a decision on their (woefully insufficient) response to the refugee crisis, Croatia will receive 1,614 refugees for resettlement — and possibly more in the years ahead, as the total refugee population in Europe continues to climb.
This new population of asylum seekers may be larger still if Hungary deports refugees to Croatia and if Germany and Sweden change their liberal admission policies due to anti-refugee backlash. This might lead them to send new arrivals back to the “first safe country” in Europe where they arrived, which is permitted under profoundly shortsighted EU asylum policy.
The Croatian asylum system is utterly unprepared to cope with this influx. Moreover, refugees are at risk of being excluded from Croatian society, especially the labor market, due to language barriers, administrative obstacles, lack of documentation, and difficulties in getting their degrees and qualifications recognized in Europe. CMS reports that of the 130 refugees they spoke to while researching the labor market for displaced people, only seven had any experience of employment in Croatia.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society will have to step in if refugees’ essential needs and human rights are to be protected in the face of EU member states’ intransigence.
Our new partner in Zagreb
CMS is a grassroots Croatian NGO based in Zagreb that focuses on social change and peace building. Its work encompasses direct aid, research, activism and policy change, civic education and awareness building about racism and xenophobia, and monitoring of Croatian police and military.
As part of its response to the refugee crisis, CMS is spearheading the Welcome Initiative, a collaborative effort of 50 NGOs to address refugee resettlement and of provide immediate humanitarian support for refugees in Croatia. The initiative encompass five pillars:
- Advocacy for changes in Croatian and EU asylum policy
- Pro-refugee and anti-xenophobic activism
- A media campaign to raise public awareness and sensitivity around refugee issues
- Education in local communities
- Direct humanitarian support
A new Refugee Support Center in Zagreb will provide an array of services — including legal aid, humanitarian support, psychosocial support, employment counseling, and a Croatian language program — to transiting and long-term refugees. The center will also offer special empowerment programs focused on women and families, children, and young men.
Through supporting the work of CMS, UUSC aims to provide immediate humanitarian aid, raise public compassion toward refugees, counteract the threat of xenophobic violence. and effect the revision of bankrupt EU asylum policies. Together, UUSC and CMS hope to reshape the deeply inadequate Western response to the refugee crisis and to build a world where every human being is guaranteed the right to safety and freedom.
This article was written by Josh Leach, intern for UUSC’s Rights at Risk Program.