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Serbian Lawyer Becomes Balkans' First Winner Of UNHCR Refugee Award

Nikola Kovacevic (file photo)
Nikola Kovacevic (file photo)

A 32-year-old Serbian lawyer who has spent a decade helping asylum seekers and refugees fleeing hardship around the world find new lives in his Balkan country has received the UN refugee agency's prestigious award for Europe in a ceremony in Belgrade.

Nikola Kovacevic offers free legal advice and helps refugees apply for asylum and find shelter, work, and access to education and medical assistance.

The UNHCR said Kovacevic has represented nearly one-third of all of the asylum seekers granted protection in Serbia since he began refugee protection work in 2012.

“If you get this personal connection with the people who lost everything, who speak to you...[the] exchange of something, of energy, or gratitude, of this feeling of humanity, that’s an unbelievable feeling," Kovacevic told AP ahead of becoming the Balkans' first recipient of the UNHCR's regional Nansen Refugee Award.

Many have come from war zones like Syria or Afghanistan, but he credits an encounter with an Iranian family with inspiring him to enter the field.

“If we lose the fight for the legacy of the refugee convention, which was designed for us -- Europeans -- in the Second World War, what’s going to happen next?” Kovacevic said. “Because, you know, there is this old saying: ‘Everybody can come in[to] a situation to become a refugee."

He cited migrants from Iraq and Afghanistan that Belarus has been accused of "weaponizing" to manufacture a refugee crisis on its borders with EU members Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.

“Today, as we speak, dozens and dozens of Afghans are stuck in a no-man’s-land between Poland and Belarus,” Kovacevic said.

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A UNHCR representative in Serbia, Francesca Bonelli, said Kovacevic's efforts had contributed to improving the asylum procedure in Serbia.

Southeastern Europe has been a major transit route or destination for migrants escaping conflict, oppression, and persecution, including during the massive inflow of at least 1.3 million arrivals in 2015-16 that sparked a political backlash in some parts of Europe.

"His devotion to the refugee cause in Serbia showcases the importance of everyone’s involvement and contribution to protection of the people forced to flee their homes," Bonelli said when Kovacevic's selection for the prize was announced late last month. "Nikola’s example serves as an inspiration to all those, especially the young, who are ready to go the extra mile in providing support to refugees in need."

With reporting by AP
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