Insights from Serbia - a buffer zone for the EU’s illegal pushback policy?


Is Serbia a transit country or slowly becoming a buffer zone for the EU’s illegal pushback policy and overall goal to reduce migration to its territory?

Teaser Image Caption
Croatia–Serbia Border, between Sid and Tovarnik

This commentary is part of our dossier on the New EU Pact on Migration and Asylum.

Insights from Serbia - a buffer zone for the EU’s illegal pushback policy?

To date, there has been very little reaction to the EU’s proposed Pact on Migration and Asylum in Serbia. Neither government, nor opposition reacted directly to the presentation, nor was it debated in the media. The attention in the EU candidate countries Serbia and Montenegro towards Brussels is dominated instead by the enlargement process. Only two weeks after the Pact on Migration, on 6 October, the 2020 progress reports on EU enlargement were published for each of the Western Balkan Six countries.

In the Serbia report for instance, the EU underlines Serbia’s “contribution as a transit country to managing migration flows” and “implementing the integrated border management strategy in cooperation with EU member states”. At the same time, UNHCR reports that “the number of persons pushed back from neighbouring countries to Serbia in September 2020 –3,115 persons – not only exceeds the number of arrivals in September but is also the highest monthly number of pushbacks recorded since UNHCR Serbia began monitoring pushbacks in spring 2016.”

So, is Serbia a transit country or slowly becoming a buffer zone for the EU’s illegal pushback policy and overall goal to reduce migration to its territory?

The latter according to Serbian NGOs “Grupa 484” and “Infopark”, which specialise in migration and refugee policy and have adopted a human rights approach since the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Both organisations assist and monitor the country’s approximately 16 asylum and transit centres that currently host around 5,000 people. Few apply for, or are granted, asylum. The NGOs in the field see the New Pact as building more barriers and pushing migrants out of the EU. For them, it is an administrative, management approach in stark contrast to the human realities on the ground. They wonder how it will be implemented in practice and fear that it will contribute to an even more nervous and aggressive atmosphere on the European doorstep.

The lack of prospects, legal avenues and a rule-based system that works pushes many youngsters into informal, criminal activity. According to the groups, there is much violence among migrants, between different age and ethnic groups, and more barriers will increase the criminal energy to find loopholes. Recently, six tunnels were discovered on the Serbian-Hungarian border, but there may be many more given that currently some 150 migrants from Serbia are intercepted in Hungary every day. An undignified situation for Europe.

Transit country for refugees, brain drain of own youth

The good news is: so far, Serbian authoritarian President Vucic has not politically instrumentalised questions around migration and refugees for political ends as is the case in the Višegrad states (plus Austria). The bad news: he may follow suit if it becomes politically opportune. The attempt to trade the Kosovo question for leniency in the democracy and rule of law chapters may well be repeated with migration.

Furthermore, in an unfree media environment, a poisonous atmosphere of division and racist hatred could be established very quickly. Even now, tabloids engage in fearmongering and equating migrants and refugees with radical Islam, mixing in racist stereotypes about citizens of Albanian origin. The charismatic leader of the far-right, Bosko Obradovic, launched an anti-immigration campaign in February 2020 as part of the election boycott campaign. Some speculate Vucic was in on it.

Until now, the deal with the EU has paid off for the government: Serbia created the narrative of being only a transit country, which it manages reasonably well (except for recent incidents with private security firms and the army guarding transit centres during COVID-19); in return, the EU pays large amounts of money for the centres. Therefore, Serbia has no real incentive to build a proper asylum system by investing in human and legal capacities to guarantee access to that system as well.

Although the vision of the current political majority in the EU is to establish registration and asylum assessment at the border but outside the EU, basically in buffer zones, Serbia would certainly be a candidate alongside Turkey and Tunisia for such facilities. And that would change the debate. Serbia would develop from a migration transit to a management country. Similar attempts were uncovered earlier this year when a parliamentary inquiry by NEOS in Austria showed that the former ÖVP-FPÖ government had signed a bilateral agreement with Serbia on returning unsuccessful asylum seekers, irrespective of nationality or where they had entered the EU. The general idea of a common European system based on the rule of law to prevent such practices is definitely both laudable and necessary.

The situation in the Western Balkans, moreover, must be seen against the background of the region’s massive brain drain, undermining its European prospects in terms of political reform and prosperity. Around 60,000 mostly young and educated people migrate from Serbia into the EU every year (in 2019: 15,000 to Germany). The German law on immigration of skilled labour (“Fachkräftezuwanderungsgesetz”) with an extra clause for the Western Balkans is a legal avenue with its own dynamics contributing to this trend. The point is that if the EU wants to stay a relevant actor and retain leverage on Serbia’s reform path towards the EU, it must avoid becoming dependent on Serbia’s government, or any Western Balkan government for that matter, over migration and refugees.

 A special place for the Western Balkans

In the forthcoming steps towards implementing the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, the EU integration process and legislative convergence in the Western Balkan countries should be used to increase the protection of migrants and refugees. The WB6 region and candidate countries should thus have a special place in the New Pact as is already foreseen under point 6.1. of the EU’s communication. Emphasis should be placed not only on returns, border protection and Frontex, but also on helping the region build an asylum and migration system to the highest European standards, as future EU members.

More resources should be directed to the European asylum support office EASO and UNHCR. They can operate, train, monitor registration and assess the need for protection based on international standards and the rule of law. Nobody knows yet how these procedures will look on the borders. As long as Europe has no harmonised system of granting protection, this responsibility should remain in the member states.

In the discussion about “push factors” or “combatting reasons for migration”, there should be zero tolerance to contributing to conditions that make people migrate. That includes climate change, aggressive fisheries and intensive agriculture, forms of economic exploitation and arms exports. The German, French and Serbian arms industries are push factors and should be discussed as such.

Finally, no discussion of new proposals and pacts should ignore the question of the societies we eventually want to live in., Smart management and shared administrative hurdles will fall short of the challenge of upholding the European values of open and tolerant societies and human equality enshrined in the ECHR. Further political persuasion and cohesion is needed. The rules and procedures we apply must be informed by the European values we have adopted. The vaguer the system and the rules, the more ad-hoc agreements (EU - Turkey deal 2016) will be struck mixing migration with other political interests. The same would certainly be true for the Balkans.

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