In Serbia, Grupa 484 (Group 484) has worked for twenty years with migrants, providing legal, social, and psychosocial assistance, while also advocating for the State to set up decent reception facilities. Through social innovation-led activities, Grupa 484 also aims to empower local communities, especially young people, to be open to and tolerant of diversity. Jean-Luc Janot (AEIDL) tells us about the organisation.
Through its activities in Serbia and Southeast Europe, Grupa 484, together with migrants, the local population, youth, and various organisations and individuals that support similar values, aims “to contribute to a society in which diversity and the rights of everyone are respected.”
“We want a world in which people have equal opportunities to exercise their rights and realise their potential wherever they wish, while being ethnically and culturally diverse”, says Robert Kozma, coordinator.
Grupa 484 is a non-governmental organisation, founded in 1995 to support the resettlement of 484 refugee families who found refuge in Serbia after fleeing Krajina and the Croatian army’s Operation “Storm”. The founder of the organisation was Jelena Šantić, a renowned ballet dancer and peace activist, who was awarded the Pax Christi International Annual Peace Prize in 1996.
From an initial group of enthusiasts who provided humanitarian, psychosocial and legal assistance and information to refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and later to displaced persons from Kosovo and Metohija (since 1999), as well as those returning from Western Europe (since 2001), Grupa 484 has become a structured organisation with a systemic approach to the issues of migration and forced migration. Direct assistance has gradually been extended to educational and research activities in order to encourage decision makers to develop more sustainable solutions. The association is funded and supported by 17 institutions throughout Europe.
Besides empowering forced migrants, Grupa 484 also aims to empower local communities, especially young people, to be open to and tolerant of diversity. Since its foundation, it has provided support and assistance to over 100,000 beneficiaries. It has worked in over 70 towns in Serbia, formed a strong and efficient network of associates, and has also initiated and participated in numerous regional initiatives.
A three-pronged approach
Grupa 484 conducts its activities through three programmes.
- The PRIMO programme supports vulnerable groups. Based on three principles of social innovation – support, social entrepreneurship and change – PRIMO encourages their active participation in tackling economic and social issues through self-employment, associations and social cooperatives, and by establishing social enterprises. It also supports the development of new and innovative providers of social protection services and the inclusion of civil society and social enterprises into the social welfare system. Grupa 484 encourages national institutions to develop a favourable legal and strategic framework, funded from public sources, which recognises the principles of an inclusive economy, as defined in the EU Agenda 2020. In this regard, Grupa 484 advocates the development and implementation of public-private partnerships that include civil society organisations and perform activities of public interest at both national and local levels.
- The ‘We and the Others’ programme works in cooperation with schools, universities and museums to promote human rights and respect for differences. It focuses on reading and teaching methods that emphasise social history and multiple perspectives. “By teaching students about the history of everyday life and regional literature, we prompt critical thinking, teach them to observe differences in society as a value and richness that should be respected and developed”, says Robert Kozma.
- A Centre for Migration (CEMI) was established in 2011 as the organisation’s think-tank. It now develops cooperation with institutions and universities in Serbia and abroad. The Centre’s members publish articles in national and foreign magazines, and participate in national and international meetings dealing with migration issues. The Centre conducts research on forced and voluntary migrants.
There are currently eight ongoing projects deriving from these programmes.
Addressing the current refugee crisis
This summer Grupa 484 had to get organised quickly to provide material assistance when migrants gathered near the borders and in Belgrade. In Serbia, there are five centres for the reception of asylum seekers. However, they are not located near the borders where there are no reception, so they remained empty all summer. It was only during the winter that the centres are over-occupied. Because of the harsh winter weather, migrants need to take shelter.
According to UNHCR, between July and August 2015, as many as 66,500 people were registered in Presevo, the border point between Serbia and Macedonia, and many more arrived without registering. In September, the flow continued unabated. There is a majority of Syrians, but also a lot of Afghans, Iraqis, Somalis, Eritreans and Pakistanis.
Arriving migrants usually make a stop in Serbia to regain strength, staying from several hours to two days on average. Until August, they took a bus to Belgrade, before taking another bus or a train to the Hungarian border. In Belgrade, migrants began to stop and sleep in a park near the bus station. Only the richest took a hotel. Citizens and associations, including Grupa 484, provide help: food, sleeping bags, hygiene kits and medical aid.
"With volunteers we have also organised activities for children, as well as unaccompanied minors, as we do throughout the year. We are very committed to raising awareness among local communities in contact with migrants. We constantly ask ourselves, how can Serbian society be more welcoming? How can we awaken interest in other people’s plight? It is difficult to have access to families, but through the schools where we operate, we touch migrants through the children. We encourage contacts: sometimes we invite people to come and eat with asylum seekers. Another time, it is the children who prepare a meal with the asylum seekers, inviting their families,” says Robert Kozma.
Grupa 484 must respond and act. Migrants lack everything – food, water, shelter, and a place to wash themselves. This is even more pressing now that the weather is getting worse. The association is, therefore, asking authorities to provide more shelter and to grant people refugee status.
"Serbia set up an independent asylum system in 2008 to meet the requirement to become a candidate country for accession to the European Union. Between 2008 and 2014, about 5,000 people have applied for asylum but, while the procedure exists, in reality no one gets refugee status. The authorities often operate on the pretext that the refugees do not want to stay in Serbia. Nevertheless we campaign for Serbia to grant a refugee status and accompany people who wish to remain," says Robert Kozma.
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Read more from the Beyond Crisis: Innovative Approaches to the Migrant Integration collection here.