New initiative launched for better integration of vulnerable returnees from EU countries into Serbian society

July 1, 2021

Belgrade, 1 July 2021 - Francine Pickup, Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Serbia, and representatives of three local self-governments - Lazar Gojkovic, Mayor of Valjevo, Nagip Arifi, Mayor of Bujanovac, and Aleksandar Petrovic, Assistant Mayor of Novi Sad, signed a Memorandum of Understanding today, which will be the basis for joint work on improving the position and integration of vulnerable returnees from EU countries into local communities in Serbia.

The signing of the MoU marked the launch of an initiative funded by the European Union, which envisages the adoption of a series of measures of social protection and employment and entrepreneurship support, in order to protect this vulnerable group from poverty and social exclusion.

"Local self-governments play a decisive role when it comes to better social and economic integration of returnees, especially Roma, into society. How well they will adapt to the new environment in Serbia depends on whether there are social protection services and employment assistance measures in place and how aligned they are with the needs of returnees. Thanks to EU support, UNDP, in partnership with the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration and local self-governments in Novi Sad, Valjevo and Bujanovac, will ensure that returnees receive the necessary support to live in adequate conditions, educate their children and earn a living," said Francine Pickup, UNDP Resident Representative in Serbia.

According to the data of the Ministry of the Interior of Serbia, from 2011 to 2019, more than 45,000 citizens of the Republic of Serbia returned to the country under to the Readmission Agreement. The majority of returnees came from Germany, and 82.6% of them are Roma.

Upon their return to Serbia, vulnerable returnees face a number of barriers related to housing, access to education and employment.

Many of them do not have a home, while others return to long-abandoned houses, where they live in poor, inadequate conditions. Returnee children often face difficulties in following classes, due to their poor knowledge of the Serbian language, so they are commonly placed in classes with younger children. In terms of employment, vulnerable returnees are often people who left Serbia precisely because they could not find work, due to discrimination or lack of skills. Even those who worked while in the EU countries often return without official certificates of acquired knowledge and skills which could help them find a job in Serbia.

In order to address these issues, action teams will be formed in the three cities - signatories to the MoU, composed of representatives of local authorities and local institutions such as centers for social work and employment services, as well as civil society organisations with experience in providing services to the Roma population. This team will first assess the most pressing needs of vulnerable returnees, in order to propose new social and economic protection measures and services to support the integration of returnees into society. The returnees themselves will be interviewed, in order to have the opportunity to influence the decisions of local self-governments that affect them.

Some of the services that could be put in place include helping children to fit more easily into the school system, assistance in obtaining documents, as well as job training and small grants for those who wish to start their own business.

This initiative is part of the EU-funded regional project "Strengthening National and Local Systems to Support Effective Socio-Economic Integration of Returnees in the Western Balkans", implemented by UNDP, the World Bank and the Council of Europe in Serbia, Northern Macedonia and Albania. The National partner in the implementation of project activities in Serbia is the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration of the Government of the Republic of Serbia. The aim of the project is to contribute to the realisation of the fundamental rights of the Roma community and other vulnerable returnees, as well as to encourage the competent institutions to implement comprehensive solutions for their economic and social empowerment.