While the Balkans Humanitarian Corridor was active, social work interventions were predominantly ad hoc in all countries involved. Apart from administrative procedures, state-paid social workers were not involved in direct work with refugees; in some cases, their activities amounted to what Bradol (2004) called “armed humanitarianism.” Some social work interventions took place at the national borders and in the refugee camps and hotspots during the periods of the heaviest influx of people on the move, while the integration programs were offered primarily by NGOs. In most Southeastern European countries, social workers helped people within the organized activities of the Red Cross, UNHCR, and other humanitarian organizations. Certain very basic social work methods, providing practical support, cultural translation, emotional comfort, and challenging people’s dehumanization were often perceived as adverse to the interests of the state. Thus, practicing social work at the borders, in the asylum camps, and in refugee centers became politicized and was considered subversive when social work activists disobeyed the orders of the security personnel regarding talking to the refugees and declined to wear gloves and protective masks (Zaviršek 2017).
Although social work with refugees is provided mostly by state-funded NGOs and volunteers, a broader picture of social work practice today includes several types. Administrative social work by the governmental centers of social work are primarily responsible for the childrenFootnote 17; finding the legal guardian for special circumstances (skrbnik za posebni primer) and a legal guardian (zakoniti zastopnik) of unaccompanied children and the accommodation for the minors. In cases of unaccompanied children, the police at the border have to inform the centers of social work, and a social worker is obliged to meet the child and to assign a legal guardian for special circumstances to the child. Due to other obligations, social workers sometimes refuse to come to see the child at the border, so that only the legal guardian for special circumstances meets the child. A more inclusive social work practice is provided by NGOs, such as establishing integration houses and day-to-day support for refugees, as well as doing advocacy and political social work with governmental organizations; person-centered social work is provided by social workers and other professionals primarily on behalf of unaccompanied children.
Adults alone and with children who cross the Slovenian border illegally are sent to the detention center called the Center for Foreigners (Center za tujce) located in the small town of Postojna. Unaccompanied children are placed either to the detention center or directly to the asylum home (especially if the child expresses the wish to continue the journey and refuses to apply for the international protection). The detention center lacks psychosocial support or other treatment for children, and sending the child to such a facility is against Article 37 of the UNCRC.Footnote 18 When the child is accommodated in one of the abovementioned facilities, the social worker appoints a legal guardian to the unaccompanied child; these are persons who get through a short-term training for unaccompanied minors and are from different backgrounds, rarely social workers.
Nevertheless, children who arrive with parents and relatives are not separated from them unlike the recent practice in some countries (Gessen 2018; Walsh 2018). The refugees receive emergency health care if wounded and are screened for infectious diseases. In the asylum home, social work activities are at a bare minimum and chiefly administrative in nature, such as providing information about rules and procedures, making sure the children are sent to appropriate accommodation as soon as possible, and providing referrals for psychiatric treatments.
The adults are transferred from the Center for Foreigners to the asylum home in a matter of days, weeks, or months; once there, they undergo a full medical checkup and are isolated from other residents until they have passed their first interview.Footnote 19 The government is obliged to provide an official interpreter during all formal procedures. Only after the completion of the first interview does the person obtain the right to live in the main building of the asylum home with other residents and await the second interview as part of the process of the application for international protection. Most people who wait to obtain asylum protection in Slovenia live in the asylum home because few possess sufficient economic means, and a local social network, to find housing outside it. Those who are waiting for international protection have the right to be fed (though they claim the portions are meager for adults); clothed using secondhand donated garments; and to receive 18 Euros of pocket money per month, which they use primarily for transportation. The asylum home is located at the outskirts of Ljubljana, and to stay out overnight, one needs a special permit.
According to social workers, obtaining international protection is time-consuming and tiresome; good treatment would entail more emotional support from social workers and a shorter waiting period because the people are exhausted and disoriented after a long journey and are not properly informed about the process of the interviews.Footnote 20 Refugees who came to asylum homes in Southeastern European countries were in despair because almost everyone wanted to continue the journey deeper into the West; when they were caught, they were filled with a sense of failure. The second interview is an in-depth inquiry conducted by the officers of the Ministry of the Interior, and it takes several hours to complete. The topics discussed are the histories of war, deaths, imprisonments, torture, destruction of the personal belongings, and other traumatic events as well as the person’s departure from his or her home country and the journey to Europe. The interview procedure for unaccompanied children is the same as for adults, which is alarming. This interview determines whether the person receives refugee status, limited time subsidiary protection, or a temporary suspension of deportation and the decision is due, according to Slovenian legislation, within 6 months of the second interview. If the person’s request is refused, deportation to his or her home country will follow. The different statuses fragment the people’s lives, expectations, and human dignity, and raise the question of the objectivity/arbitrariness of such decisions.
A closer look at the procedure regarding unaccompanied children in Slovenia offers yet another insight into a fragmented and bureaucratized process that is a far cry from meeting international principles on the rights of children. Within a short period, the child exchanges three different protectors of his or her rights, appointed by a state-run center of social work. After arrival into the country a legal guardian for specific circumstances is appointed; during the process of obtaining the international protection, a legal guardian is assigned to the child (Decree on the implementation of the statutory representation of unaccompanied minors and the method of ensuring adequate accommodation, care and treatment of unaccompanied minors outside the Asylum Centre or a branch thereof 2017); and finally, as the child receives asylum protection, a guardian (skrbnik) is assigned. Legal guardians (who are rarely social workers), are responsible for the protection of the child’s rights by organizing a basic institutional network for the child (e.g., school enrollment and additional learning help, doctor check-ups, and additional documents that are needed); at the same time, the developing of emotional relationships with the children or getting personally involved is undesirable.
Many social workers doubt that such a procedure is in the best interest of the child, considering the discontinuities and disruptions that occur during the processes of trust building, belonging, long-term support, and representation and advocacy. Apparently, the government officials do not share this concern.
Children who are granted international protection but have no relatives live in boarding schools in two smaller towns in the country in Postojna and Logatec (in 2015 and 2016, they were placed in the crisis centers for children and young people). Only a few are placed in foster care; although small in numbers, some foster parents are an example of an excellent welfare practice for children (engaged foster parents who find the way to manage the system, emotional support, educational achievements of the children, extended intercultural network of a child, extra support in the school, and everyday life). Several NGOs organize small-scale activities funded by the state such as information support, language skill training, women-only groups, support for mothers, and help for children with school activities. Most of these activities are short term because people go and new ones arrive. Frustration resulting from discontinuities, loss, and public xenophobia are experienced not only by the refugees but also by the social workers who support them. The accommodation for children is still unstable and in the previous years, one of the more problematic practices was re-placement of children who had already been enrolled in school and had formed a network in one part of the country, to another part of the country, severely affecting continuity and the already developed social network. Some social workers report also the issue of safety for girls and younger boys who live in the boarding schools together with older young people. The government still lacks a systematic approach to the accommodation of unaccompanied minors.
During the long wait for a status decision, many people disappear; social workers who do work as legal guardians of unaccompanied children report their own feelings of loss and frustration because they often see the child only once or twice before the child disappears. Children face the dangers of human trafficking and everyday abuse.
After the closure of the Balkan Humanitarian Corridor, several human rights initiatives which are carried out by different volunteers including social workers in different Southeast European countries support people on the move. In Croatia, an international NGO “Are you Syrious” partially funded by the local municipality and the Ministry of social policy and youth provide daily support and the integration center to refugees and asylum seekers; the organization facilitates access to education, housing, and employment and provide daily news from the field to the people to the refugees (Mindoljević Novak 2017, Voluntary Center Zagreb n.d.). In Serbia, the place called Miksalište (Refugee Aid MiksališčeFootnote 21) was opened in 2016 to collect food, sanitary equipment, and clothes for the people on the move (Kurjački 2016). Volunteers from all over the world work there. Social workers are not in the front line in any of the countries of Southeast Europe. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, similarly than in other countries, the representative of the Red Cross told the journalists that they await the instructions from the ministry of interior, and then they can act. The direct support on the streets is given by the volunteers and people who donate money, clothes, and other humanitarian aid (Hayat TV BIH News 2018).