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Humanitarian responses by local actors : Lessons learned from managing the transit of migrants and refugees through Croatia

The protracted conflict in Syria has resulted in massive population displacement since the outbreak of violence in 2011.

During the summer of 2015, a migration route opened up through southeastern Europe for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from Syria and other countries. This created challenges for civil  protection and asylum systems in the region and had a wide range of impacts on the affected countries.

The Croatian Government managed the transit of 650,000 migrants and refugees by coordinating the activities of an extensive number of international, national and local stakeholders from governmental and nongovernmental organisations. This ensured quick and appropriate responses to migrant and refugee needs over a period of about seven months. The levels to which small local governments and communities were affected by the crisis and able to respond effectively were influenced by several factors. These included the rapid mobility of people in need of humanitarian assistance, the competency of local organisations that responded and the central government’s decisions about how to coordinate assistance.

The involvement of local authorities and communities has also been coloured by Croatia’s history of natural disasters and humanitarian crises, which have created unique precedents for collaboration among stakeholders and local communities.Local authorities worldwide are increasingly on the frontline of crisis response, though their role in coordination and cooperation with central and humanitarian agencies is often unclear.

As a result researchers and practitioners are interested in promoting mutual understanding between the urban/ local sector and the humanitarian sector. But in Croatia the delocalisation and deterritorialisation of the response and the establishment of a centrally managed transit reception centre raises important issues around the roles and capacities of local authorities within national response frameworks. Delocalisation shifts decision-making powers away from local authorities and moves the response to a more urbanised area to achieve economies of scale, while deterritorialisation alters various migration and entry procedures normally enforced on Croatian territory. More broadly, the Croatian response demonstrated institutional capacity to manage large-scale humanitarian crises and exhibited solidarity and humanitarianism with the migrant and refugee populations. The response relied on local resources and communities in a major way but it spared local governments from bearing significant direct costs.

However, because migrants and refugees were passing through quickly, many of their basic needs, as
determined by humanitarian actors, could be met only partially. Typical ways of ensuring rights, protection and offering aid to meet basic needs had to be adjusted on the ground, paying attention to cultural norms.

The Croatian experience raises several questions about how to address resource efficiency of aid and the timeframe during which rights and needs should be met in transit situations. It also demonstrates interesting interactions between approaches that prioritise security in transit and rights-based humanitarian relief and protection.

The Croatian response to the migrant and refugee crisis relied heavily on local resources such as land, buildingsand other critical infrastructure (in particular railways,roads, electricity, water, sewage systems and garbage disposal). Local authorities, while not directly involved in the coordination mechanism established to manage the crisis, are members of the National Protection and Rescue Directorate’s vertical command structure. This decentralised framework of civil protection enabled reliable information to be shared after the first migrants arrived, but it failed to warn the municipalities near the Croatia-Serbia border that would be directly affected.

This resulted in confusion and uncoordinated delivery of services during the first few days, though this was quickly remedied through central coordination mechanisms and a deterritorialisation of the crisis response to established transit centres. A key feature of these centres was the ability to transport people across Croatian territory with little interference to local services and communities. At the same time, Croatian civil society and individual citizens demonstrated solidarity and humanitarianism, at times concretised in new grassroots initiatives and organisations. Croatia now faces a new phase in the European migrant and refugee crisis with the prospect of refugee integration and resettlement. As the challenges and needs of these populations change the longer they stay in Croatia, the role of local authorities will likely shift as more of their decentralised competencies can be used to help refugees integrate.

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