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Serbian human rights lawyer wins United Nations refugee agency in Europe award

Now, Kovacevic says his quest has become more important than ever amid rising anti-immigrant sentiment and populism in Europe.

The 32-year-old human rights lawyer from Belgrade will officially receive a prestigious award for Europe from the UN refugee agency on Thursday for helping dozens of people who have fled their homes, including those who have been returned beyond the borders of the region. .

The first recipient of the Nansen Regional Award for UNHCR Refugees from Serbia and the Balkans, Kovacevic told The Associated Press that refugee rights are at the very heart of European values.

“If we lose the fight for the legacy of the refugee convention, which was designed for us – Europeans – during World War II, what will happen next? Kovacevic asked. “…

The closure of borders and the practice of collective expulsions, both in the Balkan region and more broadly in Europe, have undermined existing layers of protection designed for refugees, he explained. People who try to flee their homelands are often simply sent back without a country “even trying to see what will happen to them”.

“Today, as we speak, dozens and dozens of Afghans are stuck in a no man’s land between Poland and Belarus,” he said of the latest European migration hotspot, where Poland alleges Belarus takes money from vulnerable migrants and sends them to Poland to destabilize the entire 27-country European Union.

“Accessing inclusion is access to the territory, saying: ‘Hello, Mr. policeman, Mr. border police officer, I’m here. I come from Afghanistan, I want to access my rights ”, he declared.

While the Global Nansen Prize was awarded this year to a humanitarian organization in Yemen, the choice of Kovacevic as the regional winner in Europe underscored the importance of the Balkans as a key route in the flow of desperate people to reach Europe. western.

Thousands of migrants make dangerous journeys every day – especially those attempting to flee Libya via the Mediterranean Sea – and many have faced repeated refoulements from authorities and even violence as they attempt to escape. ‘reach Western Europe. Some of Kovacevic’s clients suffered serious injuries during such deportations from one country to another.

Over the years, Kovacevic has dealt with numerous cases ranging from the extradition of a Kurdish activist to Turkey to around a third of all protection claims granted in Serbia. He still clearly remembers his first visit to an asylum center in Serbia in 2012 and the Iranian family he met there.

“If you get this personal connection with the people who have lost everything, who talk to you (…) (the) exchange of something, of energy or of gratitude, of this feeling of humanity, it is a amazing feeling, ”Kovacevic said.

Announcing this year’s winner, UNHCR said Kovacevic has shown exceptional dedication and contributed to better asylum procedures in Serbia. He has helped his clients find shelter, employment, and access to education and medical assistance.

“His determination sparked their hope for a better life,” UNHCR said.

Last year, Kovacevic won a historic victory for refugees before the Constitutional Court of Serbia, which found that Serbian police had illegally deported a group of people from Afghanistan – including 9 children – to Bulgaria, and ordered the government to pay compensation to each of them.

The decision was seen as a rare official confirmation that European countries tolerate and conduct refoulements that violate both European and international laws, which prohibit the forced return of people to other countries without considering their individual situation or allowing them to seek asylum. .

Kovacevic also helped colleagues in Hungary bring to court the cases of the first two migrants who were deported to Serbia after the populist government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban erected a barbed wire fence at the border in 2015 to prevent migrants from entering.

Anti-immigration propaganda “is spreading like fire,” he warned, adding that human rights activists face a daunting task to counter disinformation.

The Serbian lawyer sent a message to all those who regard migrants and refugees as a danger to their society.

“How would they feel if they knew that their wives and children are standing in front of the barbed wire fence, where there are border police officers with sticks, pepper spray, dogs, who are ready to beat them up and send them back to the place where there is danger, where there is no security? He asked.

“In the end, it’s very simple: just try to put yourself in this kind of situation,” he said.


Read all of AP’s stories on global migration at


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