Safe House project report – 3.5.2000

In last two weeks several religious objectors were released from prisons in Zabela and Nis, Serbia (one Orthodox Christian and few Jehova’s witnesses). In fact their five-year sentences for draft evasion or refusal to carry a weapon in times of war (NATO military intervention) were replaced with one-year sentence, usually given in times of peace.

Nothing was communicated to the public nor were we able to collect sufficient information to interpret this sudden move. There could have been a deal struck between the authorities and the respective religious communities. Since some other religious objectors are still kept in prison (for whose behalf there were no interventions so far) as well as many other draft evaders and deserters we fear that this was done just to allow for more space in the prisons. There is no mention of a possibility of Amnesty law in Serbian media and actually the state controlled media intensify propaganda and hate speech against "traitors”, "deserters” and all those who refused to participate in last year’s war or fled the country because of it.

In Hungary where many of the deserters found shelter their position is no better but clearer. The Hungarian Ministry of Interior officially replied to an appeal made by local NGO activists and prominent intellectuals about inadequate treatment of Yugoslav deserters and draft evaders. The statement reiterated the previously held position that all deserters and draft evaders are safe in Hungary and will not be deported back to Serbia. As for the living conditions it said that their toleration status enabled them to work and support themselves. A similar opinion was expressed by the UNHCR office in Budapest which admitted the conditions are not ideal but tolerable. The EU and NATO member states embassies in Budapest now reject every application made by deserters with this very same explanation and it seems that it is actually the EU who imposes that all deserters remain in Hungary as a condition in the process of EU enlargement.

The reality is strikingly different. Not all deserters and draft evaders have got the toleration yet. The toleration does not entitle them to any kind of social aid. The right to work exists only theoretically. In practice, the deserter should find an employee willing to hire him. Then the employee should apply to the labor office, announce the vacancy and only in case no Hungarian citizen applies for the position hire a foreigner. This procedure takes months and no employee would ever do it, especially since deserters have only temporary protection that ends in few months, ending thus their right to work and the whole procedure should then be repeated. Moreover, it is necessary to speak Hungarian and apart from few ethnic Hungarian deserters from Vojvodina no other deserter possesses that knowledge. We have already written several times about miserable living and sanitary conditions in refugee camps. Let us only repeat that health care is usually not available to deserters and draft evaders who are not considered as refugees but simply tolerated.

In conclusion, not even bare living conditions are met for the deserters and draft evaders who escaped from Serbia to Hungary during the NATO military intervention last year. The EU and NATO countries continue to deny their responsibility for the problem and the status of this people who cannot return to Serbia where extremely harsh imprisonment is awaiting them. Therefore, we urge you once again to put pressure on the authorities of EU and NATO member states to give these people refugee status in their respective countries at least until the adequate Amnesty law is enacted in Yugoslavia.

Budapest, 3. 5. 2000