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Following a visit by PMA staff, a PC(USA) partner reflects on six years of refugee work in Eastern Europe

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Church World Service were key partners in founding InfoPark in Belgrade

by Jovana Savic and Stevan Tatalovic for Church World Service | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Program participants are being served at InfoPark, a refugee resource center in the heart of Belgrade. (Photo courtesy of Church World Service)

Editor’s note: Last Thursday, Presbyterians and millions of other people of faith observed World Refugee Day.

In all of Church World Service’s programs, there is an element that allows us to thrive: our partnerships. We recently took the time to appreciate one of these partnerships when our PC(USA) friends and colleagues Ellen Smith, Regional Liaison for Central and Eastern Europe, and Luciano Kovacs, Middle East and Europe Area Coordinator, visited CWS programs in Bihac in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Belgrade in Serbia.

Among these program visits, one stood out: a visit to InfoPark, a vital refugee resource center in the heart of Belgrade serving more than 15,000 refugees, migrants and asylum seekers annually. As we gathered around the meeting table in InfoPark’s bustling hub — complete with emergency shelter, educational spaces and internet hubs —memories of the organization’s beginnings came to life, highlighting the collaborative efforts that laid its foundation six years ago.

InfoPark was established in 2015 as a local grassroots collective when local founder Gordan Paunović recognized the unmet needs of Syrian refugees arriving in Belgrade. It soon grew into a more structured program, supported by the International Rescue Committee and the local foundation, B92 Fund. In January 2018, InfoPark registered as an independent nongovernmental organization.

An asylum seeker is being served by an InfoPark staff member. (Photo courtesy of Church World Service)

Church World Service supported this move alongside Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s Migration Accompaniment Ministries and the IRC through an initial grant that enabled InfoPark to expand its reach. This support was critical and allowed InfoPark to assist 1,927 refugees, migrants and asylum seekers during a five-month period.

The conversations with Kovacs and Smith on InfoPark’s journey over the past six years, particularly the challenges faced in the last year, reminded everyone of the critical role this partnership plays in supporting vulnerable individuals on the move. At the core of InfoPark’s mission are protection services delivered by dedicated cultural mediators and protection officers. These professionals provide essential information about asylum rights and accommodation options in asylum or reception centers. Additionally, InfoPark identifies and extends protection services to vulnerable groups, including women, unaccompanied and separated children and survivors of gender-based violence and human trafficking.

Over the past years, InfoPark has expanded its services beyond Belgrade, reaching into borderlands to assess living conditions in makeshift settlements and provide practical support such as non-food items and hygiene kits. Specialized programs for unaccompanied children and women offer life skills, recreational activities and empowerment workshops, fostering a sense of safety and community. InfoPark has also become a key organization in monitoring migration flows and documenting trends. For the past nine years, it has recorded daily statistics on new arrivals, categorizing them by age, gender, country of origin and migration route. These insights are shared in their monthly bulletin, summarizing trends and providing valuable information about the wider migration situation in the Balkans and across Europe.

Art created by InfoPark program participants is on display. (Photo courtesy of Church World Service)

The past year has brought new challenges to InfoPark. Serbia, once a sanctuary along the Balkan migration route, now faces a stark us-vs.-them divide. The formerly secure Balkan route has become perilous, contributing to tragic tales of loss and struggle. As Smith and Kovacs saw first-hand, the Balkan route now shares the same space as the Mediterranean route, which is considered one of the most treacherous routes to safety.

This increased danger is partly due to the record-breaking influx of more than 110,000 arrivals in 2023, a 170% surge from the previous year. This spike has complicated the delivery of services and has intensified protection risks, exposing individuals to increased vulnerability through incidents of pushbacks, deportations and human rights violations. Individuals on the move, especially children, also face threats of violence and aggressive police interventions. Essential protection measures, such as access to asylum, remain scarce and are sometimes actively discouraged, undermining the effectiveness of relief efforts.

As they reflected on InfoPark’s development and history, Smith and Kovacs observed a troubling trend: the transient nature of refugees and migrants is often used as an excuse to neglect their needs and restrict services. They recognized the importance of prioritizing immediate needs and safeguarding the rights and well-being of these individuals.

Amid these and many other pressures and shifting dynamics, InfoPark stands as the sole protection actor and service provider in central Belgrade as of last year. Despite facing challenges in funding, public scrutiny and pressure from authorities, they persist in navigating an increasingly challenging terrain. Regardless, they stand resilient and determined, and six years later, now more than ever, they need our unwavering support to continue their vital mission.

To learn more about the work of Church World Service in Eastern Europe, click here.

Jovana Savic is Church World Service’s Regional Coordinator for Europe. Stevan Tatalovic is a Migration Researcher at InfoPark.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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