Marta Stojić Mitrović, speaker at this year’s Summer University of EL and transform! europe on the transit migration in Serbia, the Serbian migration politics and the connection to the EU migration regime.
Migrants and asylum seekers seek shelter in this abandoned brick factory
in Subotica, Serbia / Photo: Emina Ćerimović, Human Rights Watch, 2015
The situation concerning the stay of migrants in Serbia is constantly changing. It is very difficult to keep track on statistics, since different actors offer different information regarding the number of people and manner of their stay in Serbia. In October 2017, there have been around 4,000 persons staying in Serbia, according to NGOs. For example, a year before there had been 10,000 migrants estimated in Serbia, a year and a half – 2,000.1
The majority of them is accommodated in 18 admission camps.2 Since the closure of the corridor in March 2016, there has been a clear trend to reduce the number of people staying outside the state run camps. The camps are officially classified as asylum, reception or transit centres, but in practice they all accommodate people irrespective of their administrative status (whether they logged the asylum claim or not). In the beginning of 2015, there were 5 centres, the new centres have been opened to accommodate increasing number of people forced to stay in Serbia following the closure of the corridor. The conditions in the centres vary a lot regarding sanitation, heating, food, access to different services. Camps can also be closed, as the last example concerning the centre in Sid, a town near the Croatian border, shows: after the protests of the local residents against the presence of migrants, the reception centre was closed.
As the permeability of the borders is changing, the length of stay as well as the routes are varying. In 2015, Serbia was clearly a transit country, in 2016 it became a country of forced stay, and in 2017, the situation is mixed, as some routes are becoming closed and the new ones are being found. In 2015 and 2016, the main entrance into Serbia was from the direction of Macedonia and Bulgaria, and exit was to Croatia and Hungary, now people are also taking route to Romania, or going to the south, including going back to Greece. In addition, a lot of persons are being forced back to Serbia from all the neighbouring states. This complex situation concerning physical aspects of the migration movements is accompanied with perplexed and always changing relations of various actors of the migration processes: the EU, the state, large international organizations, local NGOs, informal organizations, migrants, residents, activists, independent volunteers.
Serbia gradually became an active part of the EU migration control area (the European border regime) following the overturn of the regime related to Slobodan Milosevic. It adopted several legal and institutional changes, including the Law on Asylum and Alien Law, biometric travel documents, migration management strategies, readmission agreements during the visa facilitation, visa liberalization and negotiation process with the EU. In other words, to get an easier access to the EU member states and a promise of a possibility to become a member of the EU some day, Serbia had to improve control of movement of its own as well as of third country nationals across its borders and to follow legislation altered according the specific demands from the EU. The increase of the number of people transiting through Serbia met its institutions unprepared. The lack of human and financial capacities led to slow registration process, extremely small number of granted asylums, and insufficient accommodation capacities in centres, resulting in critical reports by local and international NGOs of concerning migration management in Serbia.3The relationships between almost all the actors of migration processes in Serbia are coloured by distrust: the local residents doubt the capability of the state to control migration movements (as highlighted in numerous protests), some political actors on national and local level speak of NGOs as following hidden agendas propagated by their financial donors, independent activists distrust NGOs for their cooperation with the state actors, etc. The majority of organizations, being national, international or local, do, indeed compete for the same funds, with the same projects or same ideas, resulting in increased rivalry. Consequently, the solidarity is often volatile.
The trend to put all the migrants under state control from 2016, exemplified by the attempts to remove migrants from their improvised settlements and demolition of the buildings which were used for that purpose, as well as an open letter sent by a state servant to all major NGOs saying that any provision of food or non-food items outside the state run camps would not be accepted, led civil sector into a challenging situation: as almost all the migrants are in the state run centres, in order to reach their beneficiaries, the NGOs must get official permissions to access centres. In other words, their work became dependent on their relationship with the state institutions. This certainly silenced a lot of critique and reaffirmed the state as a subject who is holding a structural position to establish itself as an interpretative authority concerning the migration situation in Serbia. It is likely that the increased control of the access to the camps for monitoring reduces possibilities to get other than superimposed information of what is happening which, as result, not only hinders possibilities to take legal actions against eventual perpetuators of offences and criminal acts, but it also creates and reproduces distrust and fear between the state, civil sector, local residents and migrants.
The discursive and practical turn of the state migration policy from protecting humans (as declared in 2015) to protecting state borders and citizens (as declared in 2016) is in line with the changes in the EU in this matter as well as with the continuation of the negotiation process of Serbia with the EU: Serbia is to show that it is a reliable partner of the EU, that it does not only protect human rights (“follows highest European values and standards”), but that is also functionally protecting borders of Europe. The relation between Serbia as a candidate state and the EU and its institutions is highlighted, for example, in the demand of Frontex (European Border and Coast Guard Agency) to be granted impunity for its employees on the territory of Serbia and Macedonia (what was, fortunately, not achieved).4
Current migration situation in Europe is complex and rather grim: securitarian trend is getting its momentum, resulting in stricter movement control and leaving more and more categories of people without chances to cross borders, what is accompanied by their stigmatization. Therefore, one of the steps to change this would be to break crime-migration nexus, through increased studies of the processes of criminalization, which could result in de-criminalization of migration while elucidating background motifs of the initial criminalization. On the other side, new mechanisms of building solidarity could be researched. In practice, international solidarity is lagging, and actions launched on local level could get more and more timely international support. Similarly, securitarian actions, such as further deteriorating of respect of human rights of migrants, physical abuse, and overall maltreatment, could get immediate and more decisive response. Collecting testimonies and the direct evidence of these abuses, which could be used in court trials, represents one of the possibilities for concrete steps to be taken. One of the most important things is change of current administrative system, which is leaving increasing numbers of people outside of not only legally approved but also administratively visible mobility. Moreover, besides foreigners, internal deprived groups, such as Roma, are remaining in circulus vitiosus of debilitating life conditions, structural lack of means and opportunities to change them and discursive spin that is making them responsible not only for the situation in which they are put, but also for all the past and future problems of the society out of which they are pushed.