23 August 2017

Serbia: Building partnerships to help refugees

Vesna Mraković-Jokanović, National Director of SOS Children's Villages Serbia, visits a centre for refugees. Photographer: Katerina Ilievska

Andreas Papp, Director of Global Emergency Response for SOS Children’s Villages, explains how the organisation helps young refugees in Serbia.

Mr Papp was in Serbia earlier this month to visit programmes at refugee centres in Obrenovac and Adaševci.
 
SOS Children’s Villages Serbia provides emergency support to refugees in 12 of 18 government-run refugee centres and is the only non-governmental organisation working in six of these camps. SOS Serbia also operates mobile units for young refugees and families. The refugee emergency response began in October 2015. An estimated 4,700 refugees – half of them children – are living in Serbia. Approximately 700 are unaccompanied or separated minors.

In this interview, Mr Papp talks about the needs of young refugees and what is being done to help them:

Serbia was widely accused of failing to provide enough warm clothing and shelter for unaccompanied minors and other refugees during a severe cold spell this past winter. Is the country prepared for the coming winter?

Definitely. One of the problems during the last winter was that many of the unaccompanied minors were living in parks or abandoned buildings in Belgrade and were doing so by choice. Many did not want to be registered and were in hiding.

I discussed this with the commissioner for refugees and the secretary of state overseeing the refugee response. The government has worked with NGOs to plan and initiate a winterisation programme. The hope -- and certainly our desire at SOS Children’s Villages -- is that the availability of more shelters and outreach programmes for unaccompanied minors and young refugees who were living in the open in Belgrade will prevent the problems we saw last winter.

Unaccompanied minors have been a major concern because of their vulnerability to smugglers and exploitation. What is being done to help this group?

Providing care and protection for this very vulnerable group is one of our highest priorities in all the refugee emergency response programmes. But providing this care is not always easy. Many of the young people we spoke to in Serbia say they do not want to stay there. It is a very difficult situation because we cannot force them to stay until they can be re-united with family, but there is no doubt that it is dangerous for them to continue. Smuggling has not stopped and it is getting more dangerous and more expensive for the young people.
 
Svetlana Radosavljević, regional emergency advisor for SOS Children’s Villages, at a centre for refugees in Serbia. Photo by Katerina Ilievska

As the new school year begins, are there enough educational opportunities for refugee children?

One of the main challenges is keeping young people occupied and ensuring that those who are school-age are enrolled. UNICEF, which is one of our partners in Serbia, has worked with the government to ensure that children age seven to 14 will be enrolled in the school system this autumn. Plans for children who are in secondary education will follow. The challenge with the older children is they are less interested in starting school in Serbia because their main objective is to move on to another country.

What options are there for helping the older children?

We have discussed several options with SOS Serbia to address this older age group. These include offering vocational and occupational activities so the older children are learning and have something to do. One thing possibility is a mobile bus – similar to our Playbus that provides activities for younger children. The bus could move around and provide technological training, giving these young people a meaningful opportunity to learn about technology and improve their employability skills. We know there is interest because our ICT Corners – the communications services we offer at reception centres – provide one of the key activities at the centres. ICTs are one of the services that unaccompanied minors request most from SOS Children’s Villages.

How would you describe the role that SOS Children’s Villages Serbia has played since the emergency programme began in 2015?

What I find really is outstanding about SOS Children’s Villages Serbia is the capacity-building they are doing for the local authorities who are involved in the refugee response. Through a programme called “Solidarity”, we are building strong partnerships with local organisations, international organisations, and the local and national officials to improve their capacity to care for and protect children. They treat us with respect and we get very positive feedback for our work, especially for our expertise in the psychological and social care of children, and the capacity-building we do in the early detection of traumatic stress, first response and referral.
 
The dedication and commitment shown by the SOS Children’s Villages staff in their interactions with children and unaccompanied minors is also impressive. It was really touching to see how much they care and how they are respected by partner organisations and those we help.
 
Andreas Papp is interviewed by journalists at a refugee centre near Belgrade. Photo by Katerina Ilievska.

Facts and figures on the SOS refugee response

SOS Children’s Villages member associations in southern Europe and the Western Balkans operate emergency programmes that provide on-the-ground aid to refugee families and unaccompanied children in Greece, Hungary, Italy, FYR Macedonia and Serbia. We also help displaced children and families and those on the move in countries of origin, including Iraq and Syria, and in host countries such Lebanon. An emergency response is beginning in Jordan to help Syrian refugees and host communities.
 
We are working to ensure the care and protection of vulnerable children and the re-unification of families. Although services vary from country to country, our core help includes:
  • Providing child friendly spaces where children can be children – a safe place to learn, play and spend time with families.
  • Offering psychological and social care - working to ensure that children and their parents or guardians can get help from social workers, psychologists and trauma specialists.
  • Providing communication services – or ICT Corners – that make it possible for people to re-unite with their families or get news from home.
  • Providing residential care and shelter for unaccompanied and separated children and working with partner organisations to help them re-join their families.

Read more about our emeregency response for refugees here.