Tag Archives: Serbia

The hidden costs of closed borders for migrants stuck in Serbia


Originally published by The Conversation, 19 September 2016. 

Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik (Aston University) and Marta Stojic Mitrovic (Ethnography Institute, Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences)

In Spring 2016, Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia “closed” their borders to migrants who had been transiting these countries via the “Balkan route” on their way further into the European Union. The closures follow other attempts at shutting EU borders: Hungary built a fence along its border with Serbia, while the so-called “EU-Turkey” deal was intended to prevent people from reaching EU borders by sending those who had crossed the Mediterranean back to Turkey.

Despite the border closures, the Balkan route is still active – a problem recognised at an EU leaders’ meeting in July. Now those refugees not able to get any further are stuck in limbo. Non-governmental organisatons (NGOs) and the UNHCR estimate there are at least 200 arrivals per dayin Serbia, with around 5,000 people stuck in Serbia alone.

Even though the number of people stuck in Serbia is comparatively small, our interviews throughout the summer of 2016 showed that a lack of resources and attention is precipitating a secondary humanitarian crisis: a growing refugee population is living in increasingly precarious conditions and is almost wholly reliant on smugglers to leave. The UNHCR believes that border closures divert problems and aggravate living conditions, while Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) told us they see a correlation between the closures and increased levels of violence against refugees – both by smugglers and border authorities.

The situation in Serbia

Serbia became a focal point of the refugee crisis in the summer of 2015, when an unprecedented number of new arrivals crossed into the country on their way to Western Europe via Hungary and Croatia. Typically, most people stayed in Serbia for only a few days before moving towards the EU. In contrast to measures employed by its neighbours, the Serbian government adopted an official policy stating that it would not erect fences and would respect international laws on human rights by not restricting movement of people searching protection. This changed dramatically a year later, and although Serbia has not completed sealed its own borders, policy has shifted from protecting rights to protecting borders.

These attempts at sealing borders have been accompanied with a complex and fragmented regional regime of asylum registrations and so called “push backs”, where people crossing the border into Hungary, for instance, are intercepted and returned to Serbia. The official and “legal” way to cross into Hungary is via one of the waiting lists operated by local authorities. But one local NGO working with refugees in Serbia said the information about how these waiting lists operate is unclear and contradictory.

In a Belgrade park, fenced off so migrants can’t camp there, people wait for free meals provided by local NGO. Jelena Obradovic-WochnikAuthor provided

Only 30 people are admitted  into Hungary legally each day via two border points point with Serbia, but the number of people arriving in Serbia each day far exceeds the number “allowed” to leave, so people are staying for longer periods of time (in some cases, several months). Refugees are also reporting to aid workers that they are facing increasing violence against them by Hungarian border police. Similar reports are also being collated by activists working with refugees in Belgrade.

Crossing borders into Hungary or Croatia now takes several attempts, both for people attempting to cross legally and illegally. The prices paid to smugglers have, according to our informants, increased dramatically: crossing the Serbia-Croatia border with a smuggler, we were told, now costs €1,500 per person. Deaths have also occurred along the Bulgaria-Romania border, as refugees try to find alternative routes, following the “closure” of the Macedonian border.

Pressures on resources

The Serbian state is partly unwilling and partly unable to provide adequate support and welfare for the growing number of refugees. Politically, its policy has shifted away from supporting refugees towards controlling borders in an effort to appease voters who are no longer sympathetic to the refugees’ stay in the country. In practical terms, the state has a support system in place – a state-run Commissariat for Refugees and Asylum, which oversees distribution of aid and runs “asylum reception centres”. But the infrastructure in place is not wholly adequate in meeting the actual needs of the refugees.

UNHCR reports that 87% of refugees are housed in official centres. But the need for shelter far outstrips supply, and homelessness – particularly among single men – is growing. The state-run “asylum reception centres” are located near Belgrade, the Hungarian-Serbian border, the Croatian-Serbian border and in Presevo, near the Macedonian border. Information on the centres is contradictory.

An informal camp near the Hungarian border, June 2 2016. Marta Stojic MitrovicAuthor provided



The government claims that reception centres with a capacity for 2,000 people are not full. But during our visits to the centres between June and August 2016, it was clear that in at least four of them, people were being accommodated in tents pitched outside of the centres themselves, suggesting overcrowding.

It’s also possible that refugees are choosing not to go the official camps, as it is unclear to most people – including aid workers – whether refugees staying there would be allowed to leave Serbia later. Informal camps and settlements along the Hungarian border have also sprung up, and we saw families with small children living in these settlements.

Pushed out of public places

In places like Belgrade, people, mainly single men unable or unwilling to access official camps, are sleeping rough in parks and squats. Ever since the crisis unfolded, public parks have been important hubs for sharing information about the route, and establishing contacts with other refugees and activists. Parks have free public wifi, free meals distributed by the NGO Refugee Aid Serbia, and various activists – some who speak Arabic and Farsi – who help refugees access information, answer questions and provide free tea.

This summer the local authorities started to clear the city of refugees by discouraging people from sleeping in the two centrally located parks – the Luka Celovic Park and Bristol Park – both located near the central bus station, via which many refugees arrived into Belgrade. In July 2016, all the grass in the central parks populated by refugees was dug up, and the parks fenced off, which precipitated a hunger strike by them.

For a while, people sleeping rough in the park relocated to decrepit buildings in a nearby derelict storage yard, living in a squat with no facilities, except for a single hosepipe. But on September 16 2016, local authorities evicted refugees as some of the buildings were being demolished to make way for a controversial development scheme, Belgrade Waterfront.

Refugees living in squats and parks rely on food donations by Refugee Aid Serbia for survival, and wait for a chance to cross the borders. Longer stays mean that many are running out of money and must either wait for money to arrive from family abroad, or seek increasingly desperate means of procuring it.

The fencing off of the parks has led to vocal protests by activists who see this as an attempt to break up the refugee communities, push them to the margins of the city and disable them from contacting smugglers, who use the parks as places to establish contact with refugees.

The support networks to help refugees are continually under threat: all NGOs must register with the commissariat in order to operate, but the official policy towards them is becoming increasingly hostile. Volunteers are also starting to report police harassment of activists aiding refugees in the park, particularly those not officially affiliated to NGOs.

Local tensions

Another perceptible change has been the shift in public mood. While outright xenophobic attacks against refugees are rare in Serbia, there have been some local anti-refugee protests.

In the border town of Sid, residents are petitioning for the removal of the refugee camp, and in Belgrade, a group of residents carried out a daily protest throughout August 2016 against refugees living in the park. This marks a drastic departure from a broadly sympathetic public attitude in 2015 and the emergence of solidarity networks. The change in mood can partly be attributed to the population’s own economic woes, mass unemployment and generally poor welfare provision, and the feeling that refugees have now overstayed their welcome.

Our interviews this summer show how the border closures around transit countries come with hidden costs. Politicians are able to claim that specific routes are “closed”, so giving the impression that all problems pertaining to these routes have been dealt with. In reality, border closures simply mean that attention is diverted from the increasingly precarious living conditions in which refugees stuck in transit zones find themselves. The EU border closures have left a significant population reliant on volunteers, donations, aid organisations and smugglers.

In the wake of the EU brokered agreement, Serbs in Northern Kosovo are more likely to pursue pragmatic co-existence with Pristina

This article originally appeared at the LSE’s EUROPP blog, on 15 May 2013. 

Last month, Serbia and Kosovo reached an agreement on ‘normalisation’ of their relations, following protracted EU-led talks. No official version of the agreement appears to have been published yet – but most analysts have been referring to this leaked version. The highlights of this agreement include a provision for a ‘Community/Association of Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo’, created by statute, and which will have ‘full overview of the areas of economic development, education, health, urban and rural planning’ as well as ‘other powers’. Other important points include the agreement on one police force in Kosovo, as well as a promise to that neither side will block each other’s EU entry.

On the one hand, the agreement appears pretty comprehensive, but on the other hand, it has puzzled some observers: what, if anything, will actually change as a result of it? As many will point out, Serb majority municipalities, under Kosovo’s decentralization laws, already have significant powers to run their own affairs in e.g. education. However, as it is also evident, most of the Northern municipalities do not seem to be using these competencies as much as they rely on Serbian financing, Serbian laws and Serbian institutions to run their affairs. Being largely beyond the control of Kosovo and Serbia, the North, in many ways, already acts as an independent ‘Community/Association’ with no clear rules.

As a number of observers have already pointed out, the North Kosovo Serbs are a crucial factor in implementing the agreement. So far, the community leaders have opposed the agreement. Recently, they declared that the agreement is ‘unacceptable for Serbs in Kosovo’, and that it should not be implemented until the Serbian Constitutional Court weighs in.  But, according to the Serbian media, the agreement is endorsed by Serb community leaders South of the Ibar.

What emerges from the North is often alarming, or alarmist. As the Kosovo-Serbia negotiations unfolded earlier this year, there were a string of minor explosions throughout the North, followed by protests composed of the residents of the northern municipalities of Zvecan, Mitrovica, Zubin Potok and Leposavic, and the creation of a ‘Civilian Defence Corps’. These have also been accompanied with strong, nationalist rhetoric from the Mayor of Mitrovica, Krstimir Pantic, whose anti-EU narrative is strongly reminiscent of the Milosevic era. He has recently stated that “We are sending a message to the enemies of the Serbian people that we will not surrender and allow them to seize Kosovo’. Much of this rhethoric is directed at both the Kosovan state and authorities as well as Serbia and its participation in the EU-led talks.

But, as a recent article correctly points out, the Northern Kosovo population itself is far from their usualrepresentation as ‘extremists’ and ‘criminals’.  Yet, surprisingly little is known about the political loyalties of North Kosovo Serbs. Are they really likely to boycott implementation of the agreement? Whilst their leaders – whose legitimacy is disputed –  may push for this, it is far more likely that the population of the North will adapt to the new realities in order to facilitate a more pragmatic (co)existence with Pristina. This has been increasingly the case with Serbs south of the Ibar river, who are much more isolated from other Serb communities.

Some evidence of North Kosovo Serbs’ political loyalties can be seen in the votes they cast in the 2012 Serbian parliamentary and presidential elections (they generally do not vote in Kosovo elections). First, as the official results indicate, the participation levels of Kosovo Serbs in Serbian elections seem to be dropping.

Another key trend is the relatively improved performance of Boris Tadic’s Democratic Party (as part of the Choice for a better life coalition) and the almost complete lack of votes for non-mainstream and extremist parties (such as the cleric-nationalist ‘Dveri’) is interesting – it demonstrates that support is moving away slowly from parties which make strong claims about Kosovo and emotional appeals to Kosovo Serbs.  The political support of Kosovo Serbs voting in the Serbian elections is still concentrated amongst the conservative parties (Serbian Renewal Movement; Democratic Party of Serbia and Dacic’s Socialist party), but it is beginning to fragment. In short, Kosovo Serbs’ loyalties to Serbia’s nationalist parties, are not as strong as they may first appear.

What, then, does this mean for the Kosovo-Serbia agreement? The narrative in Serbia at least, has moved towards discussing implementation. This is a key puzzle in the agreement itself, as it is not clear how many of those points will work in practice. Clearly, much of the ground will have to be prepared by political elites in Belgrade and Pristina. Local elites such as the Northern mayors may block implementation in various ways. However, the local populations are those that stand to benefit from any agreement which unblocks Kosovo-Serbia relations. Northern Kosovo Serbs may, politically, prefer to be a part of Serbia, but this may change soon as the agreement is largely interpreted by Serbian critics as a ‘sell out’ and an abandonment of Kosovo Serbs.

Serbia does not have the financial means to keep supporting North Kosovo (perhaps one of the key reasons for its unexpected support of this agreement?). As it now hopes that the agreement will unlock EU membership – something on which the current government has suddenly made its priority, having been, in the past, somewhat more ambivalent about accession – it is likely that it will start to meet other demands, such as the dismantling of parallel institutions in the North. The absences of these – schools, hospitals, municipality offices – and the jobs and finances it provides, will also translate into Serbia’s lessening influence on the ground. Eventually, it is envisaged that Kosovo or ‘Community/Association’ institutions will replace these. Either way, the Serbian population of North Kosovo, is much more likely to approach the issue with pragmatism and look to the instructions providing them with jobs and real prospects, than follow any rhetoric of Northern mayors, for the sake of political loyalties.

Western Balkans in 2010: small improvements and big scandals

The Western Balkans, as a region in transition, are prone to bouts of activity, and are rarely out of the news. The past year was no exception. Several events stood out – the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled on Kosovo’s declaration of independence in July 2010, expressing its opinion that this move was not against international law; former Croatian president Ivo Sanader was accused of corruption; the current Prime Minister of Kosovo, Hasim Thaci, was implicated in an illegal organ smuggling racket in a Council of Europe report, whilst Kosovo held its first elections since independence; Schengen visas were waived for Bosnia and Albania and Montenegro’s Prime Minister, Milo Djukanovic, resigned.  Some minor but significant events also took place: Serbia and Turkey signed a visa waiver agreement and in Serbia itself, a spate of arrests and anti-corruption investigations against high profile public figures took place, and the government officially approached the INTERPOL to seek assistance with two remaining war crimes suspects, Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic. At the same time, the leading Serbian daily, Politika, opened up the debate on pros and cons of Serbia’s NATO membership.

With the exception of fraud and smuggling allegations, the developments in the region have been, on the whole, positive. Importantly, they indicate that important changes are taking place in the formerly war-torn and unstable region, and most of those are geared towards Euro-Atlantic integration. The prospect of EU membership particularly, has long been a catalyst for change in the Western Balkans, particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina where it is deemed to be the only common goal of a still ethnically divided population. But, as events of 2010 indicate, changes in the region are starting to take place much faster than they used to. Serbia, for example, has been criticised for its slow, reluctant and often non-existent cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), but in the space of two years, has achieved a much more positive progress report from chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz.  Serbia, for its part, has finally taken the process of EU integration seriously, complying with its war crimes conditionality in a much more serious (if not altogether productive) way.

Similarly, the commitment and readiness of Croatia and Serbia at tackling corruption is a strong indicator that politics in both countries are finally maturing and are approaching something that we may expect in a stable, European democracy.  For decades, corruption across the Balkans has been endemic, reaching the highest echelons of power. The sudden flurry of activity at tackling corruption amongst the business elite marks a very important change in the governance of the region. Thanks to a serious commitment a transparency and democracy, the region in general, but Serbia in particular, is finally demonstrating that it is starting to overcome its legacies of conflict and Communism.

Of course, not all developments in the past year have been positive as the case of Kosovo demonstrates. The elections of 12 December 2010 are still marred by accusation voting irregularities, and it is believed that only two Serbs out of an estimated 60,000 in Kosovo’s disputed northern territory, turned out to vote. Only days later, a Council of Europe report dealing with the grotesque case of organ smuggling (implicating Serbs from Kosovo), raised serious allegations against the current Prime Minister Hasim Thaci. The report raised tensions between Serbia and Kosovo – Thaci denied all allegations, whilst the Serbian leaders and media responded angrily to the report and threatened to suspend any future Kosovo-Serbia negotiations. However, only days later, the Serbian President Boris Tadic responded in  a much more measured way that the dialogue will continue. The report will be considered in detail by the Council of Europe in January 2011.

Despite this, the region has demonstrated that, it is perfectly capable of working together to solve its main obstacles of EU integration. Cooperation between states has certainly improved as has the political will to tackle corruption. This bodes well for 2011. Although the road to EU membership has been long and does not look like it will end any time soon, the prospect of candidacy has spurred on some real changes in the region this year, demonstrating that when the political elite is mature and understands the importance of change, huge leaps can be made in cooperation and improved relations in a relatively short time.

This trend of small improvements spurned on by prospect of Euro-Atlantic integration, looks set to continue in the next year. The case of Hasim Thaci will continue to mar regional politics until it is finally resolved,  but if Kosovo demonstrates real commitment to the case and takes it as seriously as Croatia has the Sanader case, then the prospects are positive, demonstrating that Kosovo is well on its way to becoming a serious player in regional politics. If, however, Kosovo authorities dispute the case before its ultimate conclusion, this will only agitate Serbia and Republika Srpska (Serb entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina), potentially also drawing in others into the argument and threatening to undo all the current progress on regional cooperation.

Student Guest Post: Balkan Times

This student guest post is from Luke John Davies, who just completed our MA EU and International Relations and has recently returned from Youth in Action, a European Commission funded programme.


Balkan times

I was recently privileged enough to spend two weeks in the Balkans on an EU programme called Youth In Action. YIA is a programme run by the European Commission to promote cooperation and friendships between different nationalities across Europe. It runs various programmes, reimburses 70% of your travel fees, and pays for all your food and accommodation and for the workshops on the programme. More information can be found here.  

The first week was in Avala, just outside Belgrade, Serbia. This was what is called a “Youth Exchange” where young people from across Europe (we had groups from the UK, Spain, Norway, Macedonia, Belarus and of course Serbia) meet up and discuss a topic of common interest, in this case we were discussing the concept of identity in Europe. The workshops allowed us to discuss our own identity and what we felt were common themes of European identity. The week wasn’t a holiday, there was a lot of work involved in the workshops, but it was a lot of fun. I met some incredible people and we spent some time in Belgrade, which is a wonderful city. The workshops were fun and imaginative and I can heartily recommend both Serbia and the YIA programme.

The second week was in Ponikva, in the Balkan mountains in the north of Macedonia. This was not a youth exchange, but a training course, on the subject of Gender Equality. The objective of TCs in the YIA programme is to equip young people with the skills to make a difference in their own countries; the objective of this programme was to train us to run workshops on women’s rights. This was even more hard work than the youth exchange in Serbia, but was incredibly thought-provoking and also goes on the CV as a qualification through the “Youth Pass” system. The Macedonian week was even more diverse, with participants from the UK, Macedonia, France, Sweden, Serbia, Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, Albania, Kosovo and Lithuania. Several of the participants are now organising women’s rights workshops, myself and four others are in the early stages of planning a Youth Exchange on women’s rights to be held in Kosovo next May.

Perhaps the most amazing part of these opportunities is the people you meet. You really get to realise that people are the same everywhere and that the problems we face in Europe are best solved by working across borders and cultures. The first week in Serbia was in early October, and 3 months later I still talk online with many of the participants on a daily basis. The Macedonian group were even closer and, as I say, some of us are now working together to organise other YIA projects. If you ever get the chance to do a YIA project, do it! If you don’t get the chance, go to the link above and make the chance!

Serbia, Croatia and the Question of Reconcilliation

On 4 November 2010, Serbian President Boris Tadic paid a historic visit to Croatia. More specifically, Tadic visited Vukovar, the infamous site of battle in the Croatian war of 1991-1995. During his visit, Tadic became the first Serbian leader to publicly and officially apologise for the murder of 260 Croats by Serb forces in 1991. Tadic stated he wished to ‘share words of apology, to express our sympathy, to create the possibility for Serbs and Croats…to turn a new page in history.;

Tadic’s visit was deemed to be so monumental that it was broadcast by all major news agencies, including the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Associated Press. European leaders heaped praise on Tadic’s apology, and observers commented that this could be the long-awaited start of a difficult reconciliation process between the two countries.

In Serbia however, Tadic’s apology has received a mixed reaction. Mainstream media outlets and internet commentators have been quick to point out that ‘other’ sides have not responded in a satisfactory manner to the war crimes committed against Serb civilians in 1991-1995, and as a result, Tadic should not extend any apologies in this regard.

Tadic’s apology follows the Serbian Parliament’s April 2010 ‘Declaration on Srebrenica’, a much discussed piece of legislature condemning the Srebrenica massacre – the first such act that Serbia has delivered unequivocally. Prior to this, official Serbia has been slow to recognize acts of war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia, save for visits to the Srebrenica commemoration and an apology to Bosnian Muslims by President Tadic (which had no parliamentary backing), and a handful of attempts by liberally minded MPs to push through legislation.  There have been suggestions that Serbia’s recent attempts at transitional justice, as well as the 2008 arrest of long time fugitive and Hague indictee Radovan Karadzic, have only been carried out as a result of international pressure and Serbia’s EU integration hopes. With this, there is also an implications that Serbia is a country ‘stuck in the past’ and unable to move on from its nationalist legacy, which may be true for some more extreme political parties, but applied to Serbia as a whole, this oversimplifies a very complex process of reconciliation.

Furthermore, as most scholars on reconciliation and transitional justice would point out, the process of understanding atrocities of the past and bringing the perpetrators to justice involves all sectors of the society. Hence, legislation and presidential apologies are not enough to kick-start a process of reconciliation, which must also take place within the civil society. However, considering Serbia’s difficulties with the question of war crimes and reconciliation in general, and its previous reluctance to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in particular, the recent declaration and apology do mean a lot.

Since the assassination of reform-oriented prime minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003, Serbia has lacked a leader with both vision and capability of taking forward the war crimes question. President Tadic, who has for a long time lacked influence and power needed to not only arrest fugitive war criminals but also to open the war crimes debate, has finally been able to use his position to influence the course of reconciliation.   Although all sectors of civil society do need to be in broad agreement about the aims of reconciliation for this to be a meaningful process, the Serbian civil society at last has a leading figure for this exercise.  This kind of reconciliation may at the moment be motivated by EU integration, but as long as political leaders in the country are keeping the war crimes question visible and active in Serbia, this is not an altogether detrimental process.