HomeEuropeEU fumes that Serbia is fanning new migrant route

EU fumes that Serbia is fanning new migrant route

There is growing alarm along the EU’s eastern edge about a spike in migrants using the Western Balkans — and Serbia, specifically — as a gateway to enter the bloc. 

The route is, in part, the result of Serbia’s friendly visa policies. The country allows visa-free travel from places like India, Tunisia and Burundi, but it also enjoys a visa-free travel arrangement with the EU. That makes it easier for people to travel to Serbia and then continue on to the EU. 

The statistics show the increasing attractiveness of the Western Balkans route. 

In the first nine months of 2022, officials detected over 106,000 people entering the EU from the Western Balkans without official documentation — more than three times as many as they did in 2021. The jump is roughly tenfold when compared to the same period in 2019, according to recent EU figures.

The rise has caught the EU’s attention, with home affairs ministers making it a top priority on Friday during a meeting in Luxembourg. 

On Thursday night, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson convened ministers from the most affected countries, including Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary, to discuss the issue. Then, at a formal meeting on Friday, interior ministers are expected to address the topic over lunch, hoping to freely exchange views, one diplomat said.

European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas is also expected to debrief ministers about his recent tour of Western Balkan capitals, including Belgrade, where he leaned on officials to change their visa policies.

While the issue has mostly simmered out of sight, it could become a greater point of contention in the coming months. Already, the EU’s eastern countries say, they are shouldering an outsized share of the bloc’s Ukrainian refugees — another route is simply too much, and exactly what Russia wants.

“Our capacities are at a limit,” Austrian Interior Minister Gerhard Karner said this week, arguing that “the abuse of visa-free travel” in Serbia had fueled a rise in asylum seekers. Austria, he said, received 56,000 such requests between January and August.

Spotlight on Serbia

Serbia has been increasingly at odds with the EU over its unwillingness to turn away from Russia since it invaded Ukraine.

EU diplomats are already frustrated that Serbia, an aspiring EU member, hasn’t followed Brussels in sanctioning Russia. And now there are also fears Belgrade is actually indirectly helping the Kremlin sow EU dissension via a fresh migrant influx — a tactic Russia is suspected of backing elsewhere along the bloc’s borders. 

During his visit to Belgrade, Schinas urged Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić to adopt the EU’s visa policies — something Serbia has already committed to doing by the year’s end. 

“It is not fair that the European Union has granted visa-free travel to the Western Balkans and the Western Balkans countries grant visa-free agreements to third countries which are not visa-free with us,” Schinas said following his meeting with Vučić. 

Serbia, he noted, has responsibilities as part of the broader European family.

A Serbian official rejected any accusations that it was facilitating Moscow’s tactics and defended the country’s visa policies. 

The official pointed to stricter conditions Belgrade has already introduced for visa-free travelers to curb abuses, like requiring these travelers to show proof of a paid return ticket with a fixed return date. 

“We’ll do everything to decrease these numbers,” the official stressed. “We don’t want to endanger our visa-free regime with the EU.”

Michael Spindelegger, head of the International Centre of Migration Policy Development, said the migration route through Serbia is roiling countries in the region.  

“In addition to the Ukrainian refugee crisis, the normal waves of migration have increased in numbers,” he said. “If the trend is ongoing, Austria will see more asylum seekers arriving by the end of the year than in 2015 and 2016” — the height of the EU’s migration crisis. 

Smugglers have also caught on to the route, diplomats said, expressing worries about other fresh routes in the region, including some through Turkey. 

“Smugglers always try to find the weak spots,” said Ilias Chatzis, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Human trafficking and Migration Smuggling Section. “The smugglers follow the opportunities, and they follow them very quickly when they open up.”



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