As a partner for regulating global migration flows
01 — The key questions for the Partner-Atlas
RELEVANCE: What relevance does Serbia have for Germany with regard to "regulating global migration flows"?
Serbia is of central importance for Germany in terms of regulating global migration flows. Since the beginning of the refugee crisis in 2014, a large proportion of refugees from the Middle East, Central and South Asia have moved along the so-called “Balkan route”. The main route leads from Turkey and Greece via Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Serbia to Hungary and Croatia which form the border of the EU. Continuing on from there is difficult because especially the Hungarian government has implemented very tough border controls to prevent entry without valid travel documents.
In the first two years of the migration movement, Serbia received emphatic international praise for its humanitarian aid to refugees. Serbia provided shelter, medical care, food and assistance. However, this was considered to be just a temporary solution, because the majority of migrants view Germany, Austria and the Scandinavian countries as their real destination, rather than Serbia.
In October 2015, after a consultation between ten EU Member States and Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania, a decision was taken to reduce the number of refugees on the route based on an agreed plan. The reason for this move was that the countries of Southeast Europe felt overwhelmed by the large numbers of people who were passing through their territories every month. After Northern Macedonia closed its border with Greece, Serbia drastically tightened border controls with Bulgaria, an EU member state, which greatly reduced the number of illegal border crossings. Strengthening Greece’s capacities for accommodating and registering the refugees also played a major role in this.
Despite the drop in numbers compared to the peak year of 2015, Serbia remains one of the most important transit countries on the Balkan route due to its location and ease of passage. In 2020, 1,600 illegal border crossings and 144 asylum applications were registered on the Serbian side according to Frontex data (2019: 17,642 illegal border crossings and 173 asylum applications).[i] The alternative routes via Albania (2020: 1,429 illegal border crossings and 2,100 asylum applications – according to Frontex and UNHCR) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (2020: 12 illegal border crossings and 244 asylum applications) are much more difficult to navigate than the conventional route from Vranje or Pirot to the border camp at Šid, mainly due to geographical obstacles and poor infrastructure. There is also an established aid structure in Serbia, which the two above-mentioned countries lack.
WILLINGNESS: To what extent is Serbia willing to work with Germany in realising this interest?
Serbia is interested in working with the EU countries to further improve the capacity to control and distribute refugees. There is a great deal of empathy, among the Serbian population, for people who are escaping civil war in Syria and Iraq, which is partly due to their collective memory of the expulsion and flight of 120,000 Serbs from Croatia during the civil war in Yugoslavia. In view of Serbia’s socioeconomic situation, it is not in the country’s interest to have migrants stay permanently in the country. Since the cooperation between the German f government and Belgrade has been based on mutual trust (especially during 2014 and 2015), Serbia is prepared to continue cooperating on this issue.
STATUS QUO: How close is Germany and Serbia's current cooperation in this area?
There is very close cooperation between Germany and Serbia on the refugee question, and the ministries of the interior of both countries regularly exchange information. German Federal Police units support the Serbian border forces in controlling entry and exit. Germany has also provided extensive humanitarian aid. The visa waiver granted to travellers from Iran was revoked by Serbia.
POTENTIAL: What is the potential for strengthening the partnership between Germany and Serbia in this area?
There is potential for strengthening the partnership between Germany and Serbia, particularly on border security, for example, by improving the technical equipment and work practices of the Serbian police and customs. This would make migratory movements more manageable and enhance the quality of the fight against organised transnational crime which benefits from Serbia’s geographical location, because, apart from the migration route, the main heroin trafficking routes from Central Asia also pass through Serbia.
Serbia hopes that it will receive additional support for the distribution of migrants who are accomodated in the country, because its battered social security systems will not be able to provide care for these people in the long term. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that refugees who are accommodated in temporary shelters want to leave Serbia as soon as possible, because the country cannot offer them stable prospects.
POLICY RECOMMENDATION: What in German foreign policy has to change in order to fully exploit this potential?
German foreign policy needs to to dedicate itself more to the issue of migration flows in Serbia. Although the migration issue no longer receives as much media attention as in 2015, the number of illegal border crossings in the Western Balkans has gone up by 47 percent compared to 2020, according to Frontex data. Belgrade is looking particularly towards the EU on this issue, because the EU is perceived as the real pull factor, driving this migration movement. Serbia’s European integration can be promoted by a strengthened partnership on these matters, and, given the increased involvement of external players on the ground, it can lead to increased confidence vis-a-vis the EU.
This seems all the more necessary because the EU’s behaviour during the Covid crisis has been described as lacking in solidarity, and there has been a strong media focus on China. Although the facts and figures of EU aid tell a very different story, the damage to the EU’s (and Germany’s) image is still having an impact. Recently, the EU has increased its public presence and has demanded that Serbia acknowledges that the EU has indeed shown solidarity by providing aid. While individual political leaders in Serbia have responded positively more should be expected.
Apart from a normative framework, adapting the Serbian asylum and immigration policy to EU standards requires developing capacities for a lasting integration of those migrants who have stated their wish to stay in the country. Successful integration of migrants into the countries of the Western Balkans is directly linked to the possible involvement of the region in developing a joint strategy with the EU member states as well as credible prospects of membership in the family of European nations.
In addition to the alignment with the norms of the European Union, the right to asylum is also guaranteed by the constitutions of the Western Balkan countries. Also, these countries have been signatories of the Geneva Refugee Convention since 2001. Numerous agreements under international law that regulate asylum law issues have been signed. A number of national laws and implementing regulations have been adopted: strategies on integrated border management, on fighting people trafficking, on fighting illegal migration, on migration management, laws on asylum, foreign nationals, protection of national borders and employment of foreign nationals.
Although the Western Balkan countries are not the primary destination for migrants and migration policy is not a national priority in any of these countries, it is necessary to keep developing it, to structure it, and to create positive prospects for integrating migrants into the respective societies.
Technical, personnel and financial support are also in Serbia and Germany’s joint interests. The migration of skilled workers is viewed with particular sensitivity by Serbia, and the government has issued official statements on the German policy of labour poaching. An intensive dialogue on skilling programs involving the respective chambers of commerce can reduce these tensions and produce a win-win situation for the two countries.
Norbert Beckmann-Dierkes heads the KAS Office in Serbia / Montenegro.
[i] German Bundestag, printed matter 19/17003.
Last update: August 3rd, 2021
02 — Foreign Office
Foreign Office Serbia / Montenegro
11000 Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro
04 — The region
Europe and North America
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