Refugees win rare victory in landmark Serbia pushback ruling

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Lawyer Nikola Kovacevic, who represented 17 refugees, talkx to Hamid Ahmadi from Germany through an interpreter, in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, March 25, 2021. Hamid Ahmadi still can feel the cold of the February night when Serbian police left him and two dozen other refugees in a forest. Groups of refugees and economic migrants trying to reach Western Europe regularly give accounts of police forcibly pushing them back across borders in the Balkans. Pushbacks are illegal, and authorities routinely deny that their agencies carry out such collective expulsions, which are difficult to prove and mostly go unpunished. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

BELGRADE – Hamid Ahmadi still can feel the cold of the February night when Serbian police left him and two dozen other refugees in a forest.

Crammed into a police van, the refugees from Afghanistan thought they were headed to an asylum-seekers' camp in eastern Serbia. Instead, they were ordered out near the country's border with Bulgaria in the middle of that night four years ago. In below-freezing temperatures and desperately in need of help, they had no choice but to head to Bulgaria — the country they had left just a day earlier.

“I will not forget it as long as I live,” 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 the tough times.”

The Serbian border police had engaged in a pushback, or collective expulsion, one of many such actions along the travel routes used by migrants and refugees trying to reach Western Europe. But unlike most such illegal deportations, the officers' actions in February 2017 resulted in the Afghan refugees winning an unprecedented legal victory in Serbia's highest court.

The Balkan country's Constitutional Court ruled in December that the border control officers unlawfully deported the refugees and violated their rights. The court also ordered Serbian authorities to pay the 17 members of the group who brought the lawsuit 1,000 euros ($1,180) each in compensation.

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

The ruling is a rare official acknowledgment that countries in Europe conduct pushbacks in violation of European Union and international laws which ban forcibly returning people to other countries without looking into their individual circumstances or allowing them to apply for asylum.

Although refugees and economic migrants passing through the Balkans regularly give accounts of the practice, authorities routinely deny that their agencies carry out pushbacks, which are difficult to prove and mostly go unpunished.