Migrants in Serbia face winter chill, EU barriers

Migrants in Serbia face winter chill, EU barriers

Around a dozen young migrants sat waiting on a patch of grass hours after crossing the eastern border into Serbia, adding to a rise in new arrivals that is testing Belgrade’s relations with its neighbors in the European Union.

After a while some of the young men slipped away from the group to the bus station in the town of Pirot and got onto coaches taking them northwest, towards the frontiers with EU members Hungary and Croatia.

Others lined up patiently when police arrived to take them to a migrant camp – one of a network of centers that aid groups say are growing increasingly crowded and targeted by people smugglers.

EU officials say they have recorded a sharp increase in migrants feeing poverty and conflict and trying to get into the bloc via the so-called Balkan route – mainly via Turkey, Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Serbia – as security tightens at other entry points.

Brussels says some prospective migrants are also arriving in Serbia using a visa-free entry scheme that Belgrade has agreed with a diverse group of countries – from India and Tunisia to Burundi and Cuba – in return for them not recognizing the independence of its former province Kosovo.

The visas are meant for short holiday breaks. But some stay and join the others trying to move deeper into Europe.

“Some people with money go by cars, … others without money use GPS maps [to cross borders],” said Hasim Kisham, a migrant in a camp near the Hungarian border who declined to give his nationality.

The situation has created a dilemma for Belgrade, keen to use whatever diplomatic tools it has to pursue its claims on Kosovo, while also chasing its dream of one day joining the European Union.

On Friday, Germany’s interior minister, Nancy Faeser, told Serbia to speed up the alignment of its visa policies with those of the EU if it ever wanted to join the bloc.

“There are criteria for being a member of the EU, and part of that is a common visa policy,” she said in Luxembourg.

Earlier this month, Serbia agreed plans with Hungary and Austria to reduce the number of migrants coming in, and Belgrade promised it would fix its visa policies.

But for now, the visa-free schemes still stand and the migrants keep coming across the border in increasing numbers as the winter approaches.

The Western Balkan route remains the most active migratory route into the EU with 19,160 crossings recorded in September, twice as many as a year ago, the European border agency Frontex said on Thursday.

Rados Djurovic, executive director of the Belgrade-based Asylum Protection Centre, estimates there are more than 10,000 migrants in Serbia – more than the government-operated camps can accommodate.

Many resort to setting up them own makeshift camps near the borders with Hungary and Croatia.

“[There] are hundreds of people including women and children … sleeping in the open and very often they are becoming victims of smugglers,” said Djurovic. [Reuters]

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