international analysis and commentary

Serbia, the unexpected friend of Syrian refugees on their way to Central Europe


The “Balkan route” that Syrian refugees take to leave behind the overcrowded camps in Turkey and Jordan and look for sanctuary in Germany passes through Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary: three states that have recently been touted as having governments with authoritarian tendencies. Yet, these countries have taken completely opposite policy stances on the refugee crisis.

The tiny former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia used to be a very dangerous spot for migrants and refugees on their way to central Europe. Until June, asylum seekers were required to be detained and could not even buy public transport tickets. Many, on their way towards Serbia along train lines, fell victim to train accidents, while others were preyed on by mafia gangs. Finally, on June 18 the Parliament of Skopje amended its Asylum Law, allowing refugees to obtain a 72-hour permit to cross the country safely. The magnitude of the following influx, though, took the government of Nikola Gruevski by surprise: between June 22 and August 22, more than 41,000 people crossed the small Balkan nation. Three fourths (almost 33,500) were from Syria, and around 95% of the total were from countries at risk of war. In a tense weekend, the government declared a state of crisis and Macedonian forces tried to shut the border with Greece, also using tear gas and stun grenades. Faced with international reproach and the practical inability to seal the border, Macedonia finally let in all the 4,000 people a day crossing from Idomeni to Gevgelija.

At the other end of the Balkan route, in Hungary, the government of Viktor Orban chose to maintain its iron fist policy and complete the construction of a 175km border fence, notwithstanding the vocal reproaches from the highest European political figures, ranging from EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Hungarian effort to close the border to Syrian asylum seekers seems quite futile, as they are looking to travel towards Germany, where the Merkel executive announced that it would unilaterally renounce Dublin rules and process their applications instead of sending them back to the first EU country of arrival. Refugees who manage to slip through the barbed wire are thus compelled to remain in illegality and risk their lives once again – the tragic fate of the 71 persons who died of asphyxia while hidden in a truck traveling though Austria on August 27. Even the Keleti train station in Budapest was closed down, depriving families on the move of a roof under which they could spend the night.

Geographically squeezed in the middle, Serbia chose to go the opposite way. It did not react to Hungary’s wall by closing its borders to people in need of international protection. Instead, the government of Aleksandar Vučić prided itself on a compassionate and efficient treatment of refugees crossing the Balkan nation. Serbia copied the Macedonian system of 72-hour transit permits for refugees, opened its borders and organized four transit camps on its southern (Preševo and Miratovac) and northern (Kanjiža and Subotica) borders, while a fifth one is being set up in Belgrade. At the same time, the Serbian population demonstrated great solidarity with Syrians, providing them with aid, food and shelter. Vučić himself showed up among Syrian refugees in Belgrade’s park on August 19. “We treated refugees far better than some EU countries: we didn’t use tear gas and no one attacked them,” commented Serbia’s Prime Minister Vučić in Vienna on August 26. “We speak about desperate people, not about criminals or terrorists,” he continued, confirming that Serbia would never erect walls or fences against them. On September 1st, Vučić also announced in Bled that Serbia would accept a number of Syrian refugees as part of the EU-wide reallocation mechanism, as if it were an EU member state. “We are more European than some Europeans when it comes to migrants and some other issues,” he pointed out.

There are several reasons why Serbia approached the refugee crisis with a somewhat unexpected conciliatory approach. The first has to do with its still recent past. Serbian citizens still remember all too well what it means to seek refuge from war, as they experienced it just 15 years ago. To this day Serbia hosts around 220,000 displaced persons from Kosovo, and 44,000 from elsewhere in former Yugoslavia, who could not or did not want to move back to their pre-war places of residence. Religion or ethnicity did not constitute a barrier for solidarity in a country that already hosts sizeable communities of Albanians in Preševo, Bosniaks in Sandžak, and Hungarians in Vojvodina, and where the oldest mosque in Belgrade is right in the old city center. A permissive consensus from the public opinion thus allowed the government to take a positive stance.

An additional reason for the open attitude of Serbia to refugees and migrants has to do with the international standing of the country. Serbia is a candidate country for EU accession, and since the first agreement on the normalization of relations with Kosovo in 2013 it has been awaiting the actual start of accession negotiations with the EU. Things have not progressed smoothly: Belgrade kept a neutral profile during the Ukraine crisis in 2014, not joining the Western sanctions on Russia, and its relations with Brussels had reached a low point in July 2015, when the Serbian government effectively asked Moscow to veto a British draft resolution at the UN Security Council on the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide.

However, since having had to rush out of the ceremony in Srebrenica on July 11 after objects were thrown at him, the Serbian Prime Minister seems to have realized that things were going too far, and immediately adopted the most conciliatory approach possible: he invited the Bosnian presidents to Belgrade, denied the autonomist Bosnian Serb government of support, and recently spoke for all governments of the region at an official conference in Vienna on August 27. Meanwhile, negotiations with Kosovo have continued, and may have achieved a breakthrough with an agreement on August 26 to finally clear the way for the establishment of an association of Serb municipalities, as foreseen already in 2013. The Association would include all Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo, managing autonomously education, healthcare, economic development and territorial planning with financial assistance from Belgrade, while remaining in the legal framework of the Republic of Kosovo, and not benefiting from executive powers.

In this context, the refugee crisis is one more occasion for Serbia to demonstrate its goodwill and its commitment to those very values that are now under critical scrutiny in other EU member states. “We share European values and for us the EU is not an ATM,” Vučić said. With this, the Serbian Prime Minister expects the European Commission to establish a date to start negotiating on the first acquis chapters. The reward could come very soon, as confirmed by EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn – possibly by the end of the year.