Having well-connected platforms where local service providers (public and NGOs) collaborate effectively is essential to providing timely services to returnees coming back to their home communities, whether it’s access to personal documents, healthcare, education, or employment. Despite the Serbian government allocating significant funds from its budget to support vulnerable returnee groups access to these services and programmes has remained a challenge for most vulnerable. Several years ago, Local Migration Councils were established to help returnees navigate through complex bureaucratic processes to access necessary institutional support and services. However, since their establishment, the councils were not very vibrant, leaving the local service network rather fragmented and not fully functional and effective for returnees.
With support from the EU and UNDP, the Local Migration Councils have been re-energized and capacitated to effectively provide integrated and holistic support to returnees. Today, the Local Migration Councils are vibrant platforms where different local stakeholders – city administration, police, Centre for Social Work, local employment office, local Commissioner for Refugees and Migration, Red Cross, and CSOs – regularly convene, coordinate and work together effectively to address returnee challenges. The Local Migration Councils have a cross-sectoral approach, ensuring that local institutions and providers are connected and accessible to returnees, making it easier for returnees to access employment opportunities, education, and healthcare services. By mapping complex challenges faced by returnees, identifying systemic bottlenecks and finding (often innovative) solutions to address returnee challenges, migration councils are system solutions and connectors between national policy makers, local (public and NGO) service providers.
The assistance was provided under the EU-funded project “Strengthening National and Local Systems to Support Effective Socio-economic Integration of Returnees in the Western Balkans.” As part of this project, the UNDP is aiding three local governments – Novi Sad, Valjevo, and Bujanovac – in activating, or in some cases reactivating, their Local Migration Councils. The project also provides capacity building support of public service providers and local NGOs to provide holistic support and streamline access of returnees to local level services, and to introduce new services addressing returnees specific needs. This forms part of UNDP’s collaborative efforts with partners to experiment and implement innovative, system-wide solutions for socio-economic reintegration of vulnerable groups of returnees, particularly Roma.
There are a number of vital roles that the Local Migration Councils play in effectively reintegrating vulnerable returnees. One of these roles is scanning the needs of returnees and connecting actors for providing holistic solutions. For most returnees across the Western Balkans economies one of the biggest challenges is lack of formal jobs, majority of returnees earning for life through informal jobs. However, there are other critical challenges that returnees face, explains Ljiljana Mihajlovic, Director of the Office for Roma Inclusion of Autonomous Province of Vojvodina and a member of the Local Migration Council in Novi Sad, Serbia.
In Novi Sad, the largest informal Roma settlement in the city is Veliki Rit, where most returnees reside. Alongside poor infrastructure and substandard living conditions, there is no provision for registering a home address in Veliki Rit. As a result, returnees are unable to acquire personal documents, and without identification, they are ineligible for social protection. To address this urgent issue, the Local Migration Council in Novi Sad identified a temporary, short-term solution of registering returnees at a temporary local address, enabling them to access vital services promptly. Meanwhile, the Local Migration Council is actively working towards a long-term solution. “We are working on establishing procedures and a local network that will assist returnees in obtaining personal documents,” says Ljiljana. Although the process requires coordination between many entities and multiple procedures, the Local Migration Council is taking the lead in seeking a solution for returnees.
The Local Migration Councils also play a leading role in the formulation and implementation of Local Action Plans(LAPs). The LAPs are strategic and action documents that local governments adopt along with budgets to ensure that necessary actions addressing needs are put into action. The project provided expert support to the local migration council in Novi Sad and two other municipalities in preparing their Local Action Plans.
In the instance of Novi Sad, apart from the challenge posed by the absence of a home address, few other pressing priorities were identified to address the needs of returnees. One of the identified priorities is to set up a one-stop-shop service centre near the Veliki Rit settlement, so that services are brought closer to returnees. It is of importance for Roma and returnees to have easy and speedy access to different services through this centre. Priorities that have been identified have been included in Novi Sad’s LAP, along with a proposed budget to implement them. For example, in this service centre, support for enrolment to schools of returnee children and learning assistance to returnee children is provided, which are vital for preventing school-drop outs and contributing to enhanced education outcomes and reintegration of returnee children.
Bogdanka Tasev Perinovic, Project Manager at UNDP Serbia, explains that local migration councils play a significant role in ensuring that returnees can successfully reintegrate into their home communities and lead fulfilling lives. By providing assistance and support to returnees, promoting social inclusion, and monitoring and assessing the reintegration process, the local migration councils ensure that returnees have the necessary support to thrive in their home communities. “I would like to emphasise that this is the first time these institutions have come together to workon the returnee priorities and challenges specifically and in a holistic manner. In Western Balkans and in our case in Serbia, this is a significant step towards ensuring that returnees receive the support they require to thrive in their home communities,” says Bogdanka.
About the project
The Reintegration of Returnees in the Western Balkans project is focused on addressing key barriers for socio-economic reintegration of vulnerable returnees in the Western Balkans, specifically in Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia. The project is part of the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA) II Multi-Country Action, EU support to Fundamental Rights of Roma Community, and Reintegration of Returnees, entrusted to UNDP, World Bank, and the Council of Europe.
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