Amid EU restrictions, Serbia saddled with trapped migrants

Since February 19, Serbia has been denying Afghan migrants and only accepting those from Syria and Iraq. The government believes having previous residence in another safe country removes people from the category of greatest need, Therefore migrants who had previously stayed in Turkey or Iran—most of whom are originally from Afghanistan—have been denied entry.

Guarded razor-wire fences span the Hungarian-Serbian border. Image courtesy of Wikipedia,
Guarded razor-wire fences span the Hungarian-Serbian border. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

This comes after a string of new restrictions enacted earlier in the year. Serbia, Slovenia, Austria, Croatia, Macedonia signed a joint agreement to restrict entry to migrants and refugees whose identity can be proven, present no security risk, and whose final destination is Germany or Austria. Of these countries, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia have been granted membership into the European Union (EU).  This set off a chain of border closings as Serbia decided to bar refugees not headed to Germany and Austria, and Macedonia then did the same, both countries having become increasingly unable to cope with the buildup up stuck refugees. The countries in the Balkan region are some of the poorest and most politically unstable in Europe, so are struggling to bear the brunt of the rest of the world’s refusal to help house refugees.

Since 2015, over a million refugees and migrants have come to Europe’s shores by boat, escaping violence and ethno-religious persecution in the wake of ISIS’s rise. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees estimates that around 27 percent of these people are Afghan. The problem with Serbia’s approach to controlling the number of migrants it takes on is, as it has been since the beginning, that though other countries may be willing to take in Afghan migrants they cannot get there if Serbia closes its borders to them. Most refugees take a land route consisting of buses, trains, and many, many miles on foot to reach their final destination so being able to cross borders is crucial. For many migrants, the end destination is Germany, and some have taken dangerous routes to get there across the hostile borders of the Balkans. You know the stories: smugglers charge exorbitant prices to sneak people across borders, only for them to drown in a poorly-constructed raft, suffocate in overcrowded trucks, or be used as sex slaves.

Meanwhile, EU leaders are trying to work out a deal with Turkish leadership where migrants travelling to Europe from Turkey would be sent right back. In return, the EU would offer financial support to Turkey to help cope with providing for hundreds of thousands of new residents (132,000 migrants have already arrived in Europe from Turkey in the first few months of 2016). Talks began on  March 18 in Brussels, but EU country presidents have had a hard time settling on a unified approach. Some find the approach unlawful, while others are concerned it resembles blackmail. The latter concerns arise amid Turkey’s continued attempts at becoming an EU member, with some politicians concerned that Turkey may accept an unfair deal so as to garner favor with current EU members.

Angela Merkel has said the EU’s key concern should be with improving the humanitarian conditions in its member state, Greece, where many migrants are living in unofficial camps that resemble shanty towns more than anything else. While the UN, the Greek government, and various international organizations have been maintaining refugee camps along Greece’s northern border with Macedonia, there are simply too many people to be provided for. Furthermore, Greece’s fragile financial situation means that refugees, let alone citizens, cannot rely on consistent support from government services in the future.

Though we may want to, it would be incorrect to paint Serbia as the bad guy in this scenario.  In September 2015 Hungary, the first EU country migrants reach, built a fence along its border with Serbia, trapping many people seeking asylum in the EU in the small, underdeveloped Balkan country. Flooding Syria with Muslim migrants may have dangerous consequences beyond resource and space concerns. Harkening back to the Yugoslav dissolution wars that took place throughout the 1990s, ultra-nationalist political factions are quick to assert that to be a Serbian citizen, you must be Orthodox. Beyond that, they are quick to blame Muslims for problems that may arise, and with a refugee crisis these ignorant claims start to appear more legitimate. While many refugees coming from Syria and Iraq are Yezidis or Christians, those coming from Afghanistan are largely Muslim. Of course, there are many people sympathetic to refugees because they remember first housing Croatian refugees and then themselves fleeing to Macedonia as violence erupted in Kosovo in 1999.  This population finds compassion in remembering that in another time they could have been, or were, the people stranded at a foreign border, desperately searching for a way to survive. European Members might want to consider doing the same.

Though frequently used interchangeably, the terms migrant and refugee do refer to two different classes of people. Migrants make a conscious choice to leave their homes and generally have time to find new work abroad, study a new language, and make living arrangements. They could return to their home country to visit or live. On the other hand, refugees leave suddenly to escape a dangerous living situation. They typically have a more difficult time crossing borders and rely on smugglers and other illegal methods to reach a safe destination.

The distinction is about more than semantics. Countries are legally obliged by the 1951 Refugee Convention to not send refugees back to their home country or anywhere else they would be in danger, and to allow them to apply for political asylum and other categories of protection. Because of this, European politicians prefer to refer to those coming to them from the Middle East as migrants, who can be deported.


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