Refugees under siege – piece as war by legal means

Foto: Ana Vuković / Mašina

The Serbian state undertook action to evict refugees from their homes in Ustanička street and the Bristol hotel in Belgrade. In the first case the results of an open call for residency in the apartments used by the Commissariat for Refugees are used as justification for the evictions. In the second it is the whim of private investors.

The ones who are sacrificed and buried into the foundations of the political and economic order in Serbia best testify to its nature. The many who remain unmentioned, for they are the living reminder of the unfortunate nineties and the war-induced accumulation of capital.

They are referred to by “pet names”, as newcomers, refugees, invalids of war or “internally displaced” persons in order to cover up the role of the state in this criminal party – the administration looks the other way, and the solution to their problems has been just around the corner – for more than 20 years now.

As the world refugee crisis reaches its climax, Serbia hasn’t yet provided the roof over the heads of the “local” refugees – the ones from SFRY. Negotiations of the chapters of acquisare opened, social flats are built for the representatives of state intelligence services, the neoliberal ladder is climbed, but some of the direct victims of war still linger in collective centres, lacking adequate accommodation, renting out, with relatives or temporarily housed in some of the few state-owned hotels – dreading yet another loss of the roof over their heads, come vis maior.

According to the latest data of the Commissariat for Refugees and Migrations, the “refugee status” still applies to 27.802 persons (19. 038 from Croatia and 8.764 from Bosnia and Herzegovina), plus more than 201.000 “internally displaced” from Kosovo and Metohija.

The long years’ negligence and the politicians’ fight over funds meant for the refugees, the framing, the schemes and corruption tied to the allocation of apartments, caused the housing question to become the gravest issue for the people displaced during the breakup of Yugoslavia, as the representatives of the Commissariat admit themselves.

The most obvious example of the nature of the predatory system we live in and the attitude towards the refugees is the ongoing case of “Ustanička street”. Namely, during the next seventeen days – starting yesterday, and ending on the 10thof August – the singles hotel in Ustanička 244g in Belgrade, which has served as a home to the refugees from Croatia, BiH and Kosovo for more than ten years– will be under siege by the police, the municipal enforcement officers and, strangely – the employees of the Commissariat.

Yes, the inner contradictions of the socio-economicsystem in Serbia are so harsh and obvious to make even the ones meant to protect certain rights endanger them. To make the paradox bigger, the commissioners of the Commissariat are trying to evict ten families who live in the singles hotel, only to let another ten families, the ones who allegedly won at a pondered public competition held by the Commissariat, move in.

Commissariat ante portas

Dejan Lazović from Peć city, Kosovo, came “with the rest”, as he puts it, in 1999, and moved into a 16 square meters big derelict studio apartment at a building located at the top of Ustanička street nine years ago. When he first fled Kosovo he found temporary housing in Kraljevo city, moving next to Kragujevac and Sremska Mitrovica, where he worked as a contract soldier. After a while, when it became clear that he can no longer stand to work in the military, and that the war had took its toll on his psyche, he retired as an invalid. Receiving a monthly retirement income of mere seven and a half thousand Serbian dinars (approximately 90 Euros)at the time, Dejan followed his nephew’s advice and in 2008. moved into the hotel which had at the time stood empty for five years.

I came to live here empty pocketed. There was no other solution. Trust me when I tell you: what we are going through right now is harder to bare than being at the first lines – explains Dejan.

He is staying in one of the seventeen households to whose doors the Commission posted the notification of forced evictions last year. The evictions failed thanks to the activists of Krov nad glavomand Kolektivna odbrana stanara(eng Roof over one’s head and Collective residents’ defensecollectives).These days Dejan faces another threat to end up on the street.

The Commissariat is determined to evict these families in order to replace them with the families of refugees who “won” a reiteratedpublic tender for this accommodation, closed in 2016. The current residents are willing to leave the premises they admittedly live in illegally, but don’t want to end up on the street, and require adequate alternative accommodation.

Fleshback

Given his status of an “internally displaced person”, given that Kosovo is Serbiafor the state’s authorities, Dejan has no right to apply for an apartment at a building in Konjarnik municipality. Only refugees from the ex-Yugoslav states are eligible applicants. In such circumstances, he began to build a house in Boleč, at the outskirts of Belgrade. Roughly five thousand euros worth civic construction material is what he needs to finish this endeavour and move into his own home. The Commissariat cannot guarantee to meet even such minimalistic requests.

Commenting Dejan’s case, Petar Anđić, this institution’s representative, points out that the “criteria of vulnerability” will be taken into account:

This, still, doesn’t necessarily mean that he will get the civic construction material. That will depend on the number of applicants. The lists are pondered according to the criteria of vulnerability.

Acknowledging that a large number of activists gathered to defend the residents, Anđić added that the refugees will surely not be evicted violently. This leaves us wondering why is pressure even applied to refugees who had once already suffered a heavy trauma of war-induced homelessness. Why an alternative accommodation hasn’t been decided in advance for the refugees. During the past eight months, since the first eviction attempt, the Commissariat has received the keys to five apartments whose residents managed to find alternative accomodation. Instead, the Commission brings the “winning refugees” to witness the evictions, to provoke inter-refugee conflicts in front of the scandal-hungry media crews.

The people [who won the tender] are very persistent, insisting to enjoy their legal rights. As a Commissariat, we are not entitled to fight for someone’s rights. You know, in order to enjoy one’s rights, one must invest a bit of effort and fight for it – pointed out Anđić.

In short, someone with a mandate to “fight” for the refugees, and who gets paid to do that, recommends an “every man for himself” approach in the style of the most refined self help gurus.

The “objective” tender methodology

However, the very tender methodology the Commissariatholds so dearly isn’t flawless at all, and its “objectivity” has been questioned repeatedly. Namely, the tender for accommodationin Ustanička has firstly been opened in 2012, when the second degree Government’s commission annulledit for procedural reasons. The final decision on the “winners” of the apartments was made in February 2016. All of the 23 complaints to this decision, presented to the second degree Commission were found to be non legitimate Nine administrative litigations were also started, out of which the Administrative court found six to be without legal grounds. Three legal disputes on these matters are ongoing.

Also, two of the apartments were awarded to employees of the Commissariat, as well as a few heads of refugee organisations which cooperate with the Commission, who have been granted accommodationin different locations. A few of the families already living in Ustanička have applied for accommodation, out of whom only Vranić family found themselves among the first thirty on the pondered list. However, Vranići are a family of three, and the apartment given to them is a 16 square meter large studio apartment. The Commissariat admits the accommodationto be inadequate, but shout out the “free will”argument, pointing out that – hey!– every family can turn down the offered accommodationthey find displeasing.

The Commissariat can offer no other solution to all these people, saying, listen, you can’t stay here, but we’ll place you somewhere else. Instead they just tell them to leave. Where to? If all these people had somewhere to go, they would leave on their own, and they wouldn’t need to be chased out – wonders Miroslav Kruška, whose forced eviction has been scheduled for 30 July.

Refugees obstructing “progress”

Apart from the refugees in Konjarnik, a few dozen families of military officers displaced from the territory of SFRY fear the loss of roof over their head. For more than two decades they “temporarily” inhabit the Bristol hotel in Belgrade. Those who have “bled in favour of national interest” and their families this time find themselves in an unfortunate company of “rats, snakes and junkies”, all presenting an obstacle on Serbia’s path to neo-liberal progress – the infamous “Belgrade waterfront” development. The Serbian Parliament declaredthis project to be of national interest. The contract presentsthe UEA company which is the major stakeholder in the Belgrade Waterfront development project with the right to manage and profit from Hotel Bristol and a of other premises in the central part of Belgrade, called the Sava amphitheater.

As the city administration representatives point out, the time of “hotel leisure” is over, meaning that all of the occupants will have to leave the legendary hotel (which is, nota bene, also a monument of culture). However, as the tenants say, no one ever mentioned a possible location of their transfer. The Ministry of Defence, still in charge of Bristol, hurries to say that a solution will surely be found. Considering the importance of the Belgrade Waterfornt development for the clique at power, but also a number of previousof scandals tied to it, we doubt that they will repeat the same mistake and let another Hercegovačka happen.

Be as it may, what is clear is that the evil spirit of war which pushed Yugoslavia into the dustbin of history haunts Serbia every once in a while. It reappears in the form of inner contradictions of the socio-economic system, in moments when its heart breaks open as a rotten fig, and the warning paradoxes appear on the coasts of societal happenings. The refugees confront refugees, commissions begin to persecute the ones they should protect, “public” enforcement officers literally apply forcein favour of private persons, the “people’s” police batter the said people, and the infamous “national interest” turns out to be the interest of a coalition of hustlers and local political traitors.

All of the above happens as we speak and within the legal framework in Serbia. This is the biggest problem for the system. For, as we know very well, when unjustice transforms to law, resistance becomes a duty. These days Ustanička is the place where we cast our votes.

Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić

This article was originally published in Serbian on July 24, 2018.

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