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Feting Of 'Little Picasso' A Sharp Contrast To Serbia's Treatment Of Migrants

FILE: 10-year-old Farhad Nouri from Afghanistan poses in front of his drawings during his first exhibition in Belgrade in August.
FILE: 10-year-old Farhad Nouri from Afghanistan poses in front of his drawings during his first exhibition in Belgrade in August.

Just as Serbia's migrant crisis was beginning to fade from national headlines, President Aleksandar Vucic brought it back into the spotlight with a seemingly grand act of benevolence. In full view of media gathered at his presidential palace in Belgrade, Vucic received the family of the 10-year-old artist affectionately known as "Little Picasso."

Farhad Nouri, whose family at the time had been living in a Serbian refugee camp for more than half a year, won the hearts of the public for donating the proceeds from sales of his artworks and photographs to pay for the medical treatment of a gravely ill Serbian boy. His reward, it was revealed after his meeting with Vucic, would be an offer of Serbian citizenship for the five-member family.

Yet despite the apparent show of generosity, the Serbian government has in fact shown little enthusiasm for granting asylum to refugee claimants.

'Little Picasso' Paints And Dreams In Serbian Refugee Camp
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A Syrian family granted asylum in early September was the first in the past eight months. Not long before, in late August, one migrant was the first to have the academic certificates from his country of origin officially notarized. By comparison with most of its neighbors, Serbia is falling short.

Thousands Stranded

In the Syrian family's case the procedure lasted more than a year, even though legally speaking asylum cases have to be resolved within two months. More than 7,000 refugees are currently stranded in Serbia, most of them in refugee camps.

According to data gathered by the Belgrade center for the protection and aid of asylum claimants, from the start of 2017 to August only one of 158 asylum applicants -- a Syrian -- was granted refugee status in Serbia, while an Afghan interpreter is reportedly close to becoming the second.

Migrants eat as others stand in line to receive free food outside a derelict customs warehouse in Belgrade. (file photo)
Migrants eat as others stand in line to receive free food outside a derelict customs warehouse in Belgrade. (file photo)

Thousands who had been forced to flee their war-torn homelands have had their hopes of sanctuary in the West dashed by closed borders and barbed wires. They face a reality where those prepared to help are vastly outnumbered by those seeking to profit from their misery.

The refugees stuck at various points along the so-called Balkan route to Western Europe could not have dreamed that they might have to seek permanent shelter in one of their intended places of transit, such as Serbia, or that their children might have to learn the Cyrillic alphabet.

But even those willing to make that compromise face a variety of obstacles, from outright hostility from their host communities to bureaucratic foot-dragging. Ten-year-old Farhad -- whose family had reportedly planned to settle elsewhere, such as Germany, Switzerland, or Sweden -- would be the exception should they take Vucic's offer, but that has not stopped politicians and others from using the publicity around his case for their own ends.

'Dysfunctional' System

According to Sonja Biserko, the president of the Serbian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, "Little Picasso has been exploited for the self-promotion of numerous public figures."

And Nikola Kovacevic, a lawyer with the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), suggests that official hypocrisy stands behind Vucic's offer to the Iranian-born Farhad, whose father fled Taliban rule in Afghanistan but left Iran two years ago amid mounting pressure on Afghan refugees.

"It's nice that [Farhad's family] may be granted citizenship, but what about the 99 percent who have met all the conditions, and have applied for asylum but are still waiting because of Serbia's dysfunctional immigration system?" he asks.

Kovacevic adds that, while he is glad for Little Picasso's Afghan family, many others from even more devastated places such as Syria and Iraq are still in legal limbo.

Some like Biserko argue that Serbia does not have the means or capacity to accept many refugees, and that few want to remain in the country anyway.

Yet this is also changing, according to Kovacevic.

'Better Than Nothing'

"I have worked with a number of families whose original destination was not Serbia, but who as a result of various things that occurred on the road from Turkey and across Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Greece -- from dealings with people smugglers to border police -- came to realize that going any further would be perilous, whether because of the Hungarian fence, the brutality of the Croatian police, and the obstacles to immigration everywhere," Kovacevic tells RFE/RL in an interview.

"Some people are beginning to accept that something is better than nothing, and are applying for asylum in Serbia," he adds.

Migrants warm themselves by a fire inside a derelict customs warehouse in Belgrade. (file photo)
Migrants warm themselves by a fire inside a derelict customs warehouse in Belgrade. (file photo)

Among those who have come to terms with the new reality and have applied for asylum in Serbia, the most numerous are Afghans (1,924 applicants so far), followed by people from Pakistan (519), Iraq (429), and Syria (244).

Yet, according to a recent Gallup poll, Serbia is among the countries with the most negative attitudes to the settlement of refugees. It is ranked 135th among 138 countries included in the study, which asked the question whether it was considered a good or a bad thing for immigrants to live in the country; to have them as neighbors; or to have them as in-laws.

Commenting on the poll findings, Kovacevic says that attitudes in Serbia have changed over the course of the migrant crisis.

"At the beginning most people's reaction to the refugees was positive because it was assumed that they would eventually move on," says Kovacevic.

"Most [Serbians] now say that they don't want the refugees here permanently -- they don't want a refugee camp on their doorstep, or refugees as their neighbors -- and yet there is still sympathy for their plight."

There have been relatively few confrontations between local populations and refugees -- with some apparent exceptions in places like Sid and Kanjiza, although these have not been sufficiently investigated.

Apart from the public perception that the refugees were merely in transit through Serbia, the absence of inflammatory rhetoric from officials and political figures appears to have helped in maintaining goodwill.

Human rights lawyer Nikola Kovacevic (file photo)
Human rights lawyer Nikola Kovacevic (file photo)

"I think overall Serbia has handled the situation well. People were donating humanitarian aid throughout the crisis, especially when refugees were sleeping in Belgrade's public parks," says Kovacevic.

Kovacevic feels that, while Serbia's treatment of migrants has not been without a blemish, the response to the humanitarian aspect of the crisis has been mostly positive. More problematic is the treatment of those refugees who decide to stay in the country, usually due to a lack of other options.

"The main problem is that Serbia has not done nearly enough to expedite the processing of asylum requests, and officials even ignore the country's own immigration laws. The result is that those who wish to remain in Serbia are denied that right even when they fulfil all the legal requirements. In many cases they are told that they should apply for asylum in another country."

Darker Side To Story

Moreover, in July last year, Serbia deployed mixed police-military patrols to keep people out and expel those who enter the country, in contravention of international laws. That is the darker side of the story, according to Kovacevic.

While the humanitarian response during the initial phase of the refugee crisis -- when it was a question of providing shelter and food -- was handled well ("No one died," says Kovacevic, "and there were no epidemics"), other aspects of the official response were more troubling for Kovacevic and his colleagues at the BCHR:

"The state (not only Serbia, but also Bulgaria and Macedonia) invested great effort into simply ensuring that people were moved from one border to the next, passing the buck to others as quickly as possible. Nothing was done to address asylum policy and processing, which is the key to the resolution of this crisis," he says.

"It should not have been expected that all those millions fleeing conflicts in the Middle East would make it to Western Europe. It is not enough to hold up our hands and say that richer countries should absorb the influx when the number of refugees is over 60 million," Kovacevic adds.

"Every country is duty-bound to accept its share of people and allow at least some of them to settle there. Serbia could have done so much more over the past few years had it simply adhered to the laws applying the safe third country concept. Everything was done to send the people away as quickly as possible, rather than to integrate them."

According to Kovacevic, the Gallup poll findings reveal more than the attitude of the Serbian public.

"If the message [of the poll findings] is, 'We sympathize with the refugees but we don't want them to stay here long,' I think that also describes the actual -- albeit unofficial -- policy of the Serbian government."

Vucic's photo-op with Little Picasso Farhad Nouri -- and the publicity surrounding his case -- would thus serve as an exception to the rule.

For while his case shows that there is no shortage of sympathy for the plight of refugees, many of whom will never reach the promised land of the West, it also shows that no matter his fate, there is little willingness among officials in general to enable migrants to settle in Serbia.