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An interview with the occasion: Ms Biljana Brankovic on Istanbul Convention and the position of migrant women in the situation of long stay
On December 17, 2021, NGO Atina had the privilege to talk to Ms Biljana Branković, an independent expert and member of the GREVIO Committee of the Council of Europe on the topic of the Istanbul Convention and the position of migrant women in the situation of long stay. The interview was made ahead of International Migrants Day, which is marked on December 18, the day when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrants Workers and Members of Their Families in 1990.
In the same year when the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Istanbul Convention was marked the Serbian government changed certain laws, namely the Law on Asylum and Temporary Protection, and the Criminal Code. The GREVIO Committee prepared a country report in 2020, which was sent to the Serbian Government with all accompanying recommendations. Many civil society organisations had previously submitted their comments to the Committee for that report. All of these things were the preconditions, to open a discussion with Ms Brankovic about her work in this area.
During the years, she worked in eight countries from France and Belgium to Armenia and Kazakhstan, so she has an insight into everything that is happening on this issue in Europe and Central Asia. Branković said that she has seen a great change in these countries after they adopted the Istanbul Convention, that this is stated in the reports for 20 countries prepared by the GREVIO Committee, and that the changes are most obvious in the legislative framework. Namely, it was noted that state parties have significantly harmonized their legislation in this area with the provisions of the Convention, but there are still serious problems in its implementation. Regarding the trend related to the denial of the Convention, she stated that in Serbia there was no significant public refusal to accept the Conventions efforts, but referred to Turkey where paradoxically after the decision of the country to withdraw from the Convention, citizens became more aware of the importance of this document, as many women's civil society organisations launched activities aimed at promoting the Convention. Branković added that this Convention can change the lives of women and, if well implemented, it can save their lives as well. When asked if she could have guessed that some countries would withdraw in such a way as Turkey, Branković said it could not be predicted. She added that she also reported for Turkey and that it was one of the most difficult reports she ever wrote. She reminded that Turkey has a good law against domestic violence and that, until 2017, they wanted to show their commitment to the Convention, but that changed later on.
This was followed by the question on how GREVIO monitors the implementation of the Convention in the countries' signatories, to which Branković first said that GREVIO has no way to persuade the states to respect their recommendations, and it is voluntary for countries to fulfil them. In other words, when the state signed the Convention, at the same time it undertook to respect the recommendations of the Committee. As far as Serbia is concerned, it has an obligation to submit a report on the implementation of the recommendations three years after the GREVIO report, not to GREVIO but to the Committee of the States Parties, another body of the Council of Europe, and to show whether the recommendations have been implemented. The state report should refer to the recommendations of priority number one – urgent. In Part VII of the Istanbul Convention, which refers to migration and asylum, there are no urgent recommendations in the report for Serbia, but such recommendations are in other parts. After one state submits its report, the so-called peer evaluation takes place, i.e. one country evaluates another country, and if a member of GREVIO comes from that country, that person will be invited and will talk about whether the country has made the desired progress.
What problems do migrant women in Serbia face?
A significant part of the GREVIO report for Serbia is data on the position of migrant women and that it seems most of the problems are in the area of accessing services, that most of the work remains there. Asked how she sees the position of migrant women in Serbia, Branković said that it is not a special part of the Convention, but that Articles 59, 60 and 61 refer to it. She said that the legislation in Serbia in that area was adjusted to what the Convention requires, but that one of the aspects remains problematic, and that is the availability of services to refugee women who are accommodated in reception and asylum centres. Branković then referred to the experiences of other countries in this field and said that GREVIO made an analysis of the implementation of Article 59 of the Convention (residence status) and gave some examples of good practice. According to her, these examples cannot be directly transferred from one country to another, but must be carefully adapted to the local context; however, they can be an inspiration for some new solutions. Spain, for example, has ensured full compliance of its laws with Article 59 of the Convention, and similar steps have been taken by Italy, especially after the Bari court referred to the Convention in January 2021 in a decision on migrants and asylum seekers. As for Article 60 (gender-based asylum claims), the situation is quite good. An analysis based on 17 reports from countries that have acceded to the Convention shows that all of them have harmonized their laws with Article 60, with the exception of Albania. On this issue, GREVIO especially praised Spain, Serbia, Finland, the Netherlands, and Malta. As for Article 60, paragraph 2, there are some examples of good practice, such as Finland, which has established asylum management, while Spain has developed guidelines for checking and conducting asylum procedures, and organized seminars for professionals who deal with this issue, but it is not the case in Serbia. Furthermore, France has created thematic groups on gender-based violence and asylum, the Netherlands has introduced trained immigration staff, and Belgium has a specialized unit within the Asylum Office that deals with gender issues.
Branković also emphasized that the provision of access to services for refugee women is the key. In the report for Serbia, GREVIO pointed out there are problems in the access of CSOs to reception and asylum centres, and that this is a serious issue that needs to be resolved, as it is directly related to the access to services. Another thing that needs to be improved is the access to community-based (specialist) services provided by non-state-funded women's CSOs, and the Convention calls for this. These organisations are forced to work on a voluntary basis in some segments, and the development of specialised services requires serious dedication.
She added that many countries have problems in this area, and then cited the positive example of Denmark. According to her, Denmark has met the standards for the number of services available to women victims of sexual violence, which is one victim assistance centre per 200,000 citizens. Denmark is also a good example when it comes to helping victims of sexual violence, as it adequately applies the article of the Convention which cites that victims must be provided with equal services regardless of whether they are ready to report the perpetrator or testify against him in court. In other words, in Denmark, a victim can go to one of the centres where the examination and all forensic analyses are performed, and where she receives all the necessary help. These analyses will then be kept until the victim decides to report the case to the police (if she decides at all).
Branković cited another example from Spain, where there is a national SOS hotline of women who can help all victims of sexual violence, available in 52 languages. There is a good example of Sweden as well, with a national telephone line of experienced medical workers; 50% of women in Sweden, according to Branković, know about that SOS line. Yet, this is another recommendation for Serbia, to provide access to such services, especially for migrant women.
Asked whether the Convention applies to mental health at all and whether it is discussed in the reports prepared by GREVIO, Branković said that they could possibly deal with it in the provisions related to specialist services for victims of sexual violence, but added that women's organisations did not write about it in their alternative reports. However, they pointed to other problems, such as the funding system, tendering for projects won by the lowest bidder, and that in some countries, organisations that have been providing specialised services for 20 years do not pass the competition, as the funding is granted to those who make the lowest offer and don’t necessarily deal with the issue. Branković said that she knows from her own work on the ground, especially during the refugee crisis when she was in North Macedonia, how important it is to pay attention to mental health, and touched on specific work with sexual trauma as this topic should be seriously addressed in Serbia. Women's organisations that have been involved in the last 25-30 years in providing assistance to victims of violence, and have extensive expertise in this respect, do not have enough knowledge and experience when it comes to sexual trauma. There is a huge space for improvement there, especially in the context of the recent past of the Western Balkans, the experience of war rapes, and the expertise of some organisations that seems to have been forgotten. She added that in some countries there are one, two, or three centres that deal with this issue and that it must change, as it is not enough. She also mentioned the need to establish two types of centres, one for short-term help, which is now usually in hospitals, where a woman can receive psychological help for 2-3 days, and the other, for long-term support. Although the state often establishes short-term support centres to meet its obligations under the Convention, this does not solve the problem of long-term support, i.e. it still lacks long-term support for those women victims of sexual violence who almost without exception avoid reporting violence when it occurs, usually in childhood or adolescence, but report it 10-15 years later. Branković underlined that this is a problem that Serbia must pay more attention to in the future.
Biljana Branković stressed the fact that there are many more women victims of violence than anyone could assume, and that this must be taken into account - certainly every other, and perhaps every, migrant woman who arrived in Europe experienced some form of violence or sexual harassment during the journey. Biljana Branković said that her own belief is that urgent systemic solutions are needed more than ever. After these thoughts, Jelena Hrnjak emphasised that these final thoughts have shown there is quite a lot of space for all the interested actors to network more, and become united in resolving the issues and challenges that were brought to light. She thanked Ms Brankovic and expressed hope that this interview was a learning opportunity for all of us, but also motivation to fight even more strongly for a just society of equals.
The main intention of the interview was to tackle a specific moment we are in - all of the civil society organisations and state institutions from Serbia who are active in the thematic areas of migration, women’s, child and general human rights, preventing violence and trafficking, with a goal to share the significance of the Istanbul Convention, examples of good practice in European countries, and work of the GREVIO Committee.
The interview was led by Jelena Hrnjak, NGO Atina’s programme manager