There is growing alarm along the EU’s eastern border about a spike in migrants using the Western Balkans – and Serbia, in particular – as a gateway to enter the bloc.
The itinerary 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 has a visa-free travel agreement with the EU. This makes it easier for people to travel to Serbia and then continue to the EU.
Statistics show the growing attractiveness of the Western Balkan route.
In the first nine months of 2022, authorities detected more than 106,000 people entering the EU from the Western Balkans without official papers, more than three times as many as in 2021. The jump is about tenfold compared the same period in 2019, according to recent EU figures.
The increase caught the EU’s attention, with interior ministers making it a top priority at a meeting in Luxembourg on Friday.
On Thursday evening, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson summoned ministers from the worst-affected countries, including Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary, to discuss the issue. Then, in a formal meeting on Friday, interior ministers are expected to discuss the subject over lunch, hoping to exchange views freely, a diplomat said.
European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas is also expected to brief ministers on his recent tour of Western Balkan capitals, including Belgrade, where he leaned on officials to change their visa policies.
Although the issue has mostly simmered out of sight, it could become a bigger point of contention in the months to come. Already, eastern EU countries say, they are bearing an inordinate share of the bloc’s Ukrainian refugees – another route is just too much, and that’s exactly what Russia wants.
“Our capacities are at the limit,” Austrian Interior Minister Gerhard Karner said this week, saying that “the abuse of visa-free travel” in Serbia had fueled a rise in the number of 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 reluctance to turn away from Russia since it invaded Ukraine.
EU diplomats are already frustrated that Serbia, an aspiring EU member, has not followed Brussels in sanctioning Russia. And now there are also fears that Belgrade is indirectly helping the Kremlin sow dissension within the EU via a new influx of migrants – a tactic Russia is suspected of supporting elsewhere along the bloc’s borders.
During his visit to Belgrade, Schinas urged Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić to adopt EU visa policy, which Serbia has already pledged to do by the end of the year.
“It is not fair that the European Union granted visa-free travel to the Western Balkans and that Western Balkan countries grant visa-free agreements to third countries that are not visa-free with us,” Schinas said. after his meeting with Vučić.
Serbia, he noted, has responsibilities as part of the big European family.
A Serbian official rejected any accusation that he was facilitating Moscow’s tactics and defended the country’s visa policy.
The official pointed to the stricter conditions that Belgrade has already introduced for visa-free travelers to limit abuse, such as requiring such travelers to present proof of a paid return ticket with a fixed return date.
“We will do everything to reduce these figures,” said the official. “We don’t want to jeopardize our visa-free regime with the EU.”
Michael Spindelegger, director of the International Center for Migration Policy Development, said the migration route through Serbia is disruptive to countries in the region.
“In addition to the Ukrainian refugee crisis, the normal waves of migration have increased in number,” he said. “If the trend continues, Austria will see more asylum seekers arriving by the end of the year than in 2015 and 2016” — the peak of the EU’s migration crisis.
The smugglers have also spread to the road, diplomats said, expressing concerns about other new routes in the region, including some via Turkey.
“The smugglers always try to find the weak spots,” said Ilias Chatzis, chief of the Human Trafficking and Migration Smuggling Section at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “Smugglers follow opportunities, and they follow them very quickly when they open up.”