BLOGS

Serbia:

Chloe Marshall-Denton, PhD, Humanitarian Advisor, Medecins sans frontieres (MSF) Belgium; and Andrea Panico, Humanitarian Affairs Officer, MSF North Balkans mission / November 2023

On 16 March 2023, EU Commissioner Ylva Johanson and European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) Director Hans Leijtens were pictured at the Serbian-Hungarian border with Frontex officers and Serbian authorities. The high-profile visit to Serbia, a non-EU country neighbouring Hungary, Croatia, and Romania, marked an important shift: Frontex, which had previously withdrawn from the Hungarian side of the border, is rapidly expanding its presence across non-EU Balkan states, including Serbia. By April 2023, 140 Frontex officers had reportedly been deployed to Serbia; their presence shared between the southern border with Bulgaria and the northern border with Hungary. The growing presence of Frontex was also accompanied by other foreign police presence in Serbia, facilitated by bilateral and tri-lateral arrangements with EU member states such as Austria and Germany.

The picture of Johansson and Leijtens, captured against the backdrop of police vehicles at the border, became a symbol of renewed and deepened European interest in halting irregular migration from Serbia into the EU via countries such as Hungary and Croatia. Renewed scrutiny on the Balkans was at least in part driven by 2022’s rise in migration along the so-called Western Balkan route. While the Balkans have long been known as a place of passage for people seeking safety and protection in the EU – most famously with the 2015 ‘transit corridor’ – registered arrivals in countries of the Balkans increased by almost 60% in 2022 compared to the previous year, with Serbia recording the highest number of entries that year.

In response, the European Commission and individual EU member states turned their political attention, which had marginally dwindled since the 2016 ‘closure’ of the Balkan route, again to the region, leveraging the prospect of EU accession to incite non-EU Balkan states into adopting increasingly stringent migration management measures. Symbolic of these efforts were the 2022 EU Action Plan on the Western Balkans, which established externalised border management and the bolstering non-EU reception and asylum systems as top priorities, and arrangements such as the 2022 Hungary-Austria-Serbia Memorandum of Understanding. While the presence of foreign police and border guards at Serbian borders remain the most visible manifestation of this renewed interest, it has also been matched by increased funding to strengthen Serbian institutional capacity for migration management, including border management and bolstering the asylum/reception systems.

Recent EU and Serbian developments have contributed to a heavily securitised turn in Serbia’s response to refugees and migrants, with harmful impacts on the health and wellbeing of people migrating across the country, as observed by Medecins sans frontieres (MSF) through its mobile medical activities in northern and southern Serbia. With this shift, MSF has documented a recent and worrying increase of violence towards migrants within Serbia.

Obstructed journeys

Since 2022, MSF medical mobile teams present in northern Serbia along the Hungarian border have observed a notable increase in securitised measures aiming to prevent individuals from reaching the Hungarian border in the first place. Since December 2022, MSF field teams delivering essential medical and humanitarian assistance to people in informal settlements in northern Serbia were interrupted ten times by local and foreign law enforcement personnel, on one occasion during a raid conducted on the site, which resulted in the eviction of migrants. According to general MSF monitoring data, at least 50 evictions took place in informal settlements along the Serbo-Hungarian border region between December 2022 and June 2023.

MSF patients seen in northern Serbia report that evictions take place randomly, and often involve the demolition of makeshift camps, destruction of personal property, and the use of violence, harassment, and verbal humiliation. MSF patients seen after evictions describe having been beaten with batons, kicked, as well as children having been beaten – practices that have also been reported by other civil society actors on the ground.[1]  On one occasion, MSF mobile teams witnessed a mass eviction that resulted in a child spraining their arm and several others being beaten by law enforcement personnel in the same location where MSF was delivering essential medical and humanitarian assistance.[2]

The securitisation-‘protection’ nexus

Serbia operates a network of state-run reception centres meant to accommodate people seeking asylum, as well as individuals who have not yet applied for asylum.  It is through this network of 19 EU-funded, state-run ‘open’ centres that individuals can access services such as referrals to hospital. The possibility to access accommodation, care, and services in government-run centres in Serbia certainly comes as a welcome respite for some.[3] This is especially the case after the difficult journey across Bulgaria, where MSF patients report having had to hide to avoid detection and violent pushbacks, and/or following multiple, often exhausting crossing attempts and pushbacks from Hungary. 

Yet, MSF has observed increasingly coercive means deployed to forcibly relocate individuals passing through Serbia to state-run government camps, which risks undermining the well-being and safety of people on the move. Across the 50 eviction incidents reported above, MSF estimates that thousands of people were forcibly round up from informal settlements and relocated to governmental reception facilities, often to the southern part of the country including as far as the border area with North Macedonia in some cases.[4] Migrants who are taken to the south of the country and who wish to move onwards are forced to resume their journey by crossing the entire country again to reach the Hungarian border. Further, based on MSF patient accounts, movement from southern Serbia to the North is often obstructed by bans on public transportation and penalties applied to taxi drivers found transporting migrants.

Increased precarity, invisibility, and hardship

The constant cycle of evictions and forced relocations to southern Serbia has only increased the cost and difficulty of onward movement for refugees and migrants. Forced relocations to southern Serbia, for instance, consumes migrants’ financial capacity to continue their journey onwards, while the risk of apprehension along the journey north has pushed individuals into greater forms of invisibility as they move onwards to the Hungarian border.

Fear of apprehension has also made reaching individuals with medical needs, as well as vulnerable individuals such as children, increasingly challenging as individuals are reportedly forced to remain hidden in more remote and less visible locations in northern Serbia before continuing their journey onwards, increasing, at the same time, reliance on smuggling networks. Further, across the informal settlements in northern Serbia which MSF continues to access, MSF teams regularly meet individuals who are pushed into a constant state of alertness, out of fear of being exposed to further violence and/or confiscation of personal belongings, such as mobile phones and money, which are essential to continuing their journey and maintaining contact with support networks.

Despite efforts to contain individuals in non-EU countries, such as Serbia, and obstruct their movement onwards into the EU, people continue with their search for safety and protection. At EU external borders such as Hungary, the attempted crossing of individuals is still met with violence and repeated pushbacks, however.[5] MSF continues to treat injuries resulting from physical violence reportedly committed by authorities, including Hungarian border forces. Between January 2022 to the end of August 2023 MSF responded to 169 cases of violence allegedly committed at the Serbian-Hungarian border.

The EU’s efforts to strengthen border management, on the one hand, and reception capacities in non-EU states, on the other, have converged into a dangerous cycle of evictions and forced relocations to government-run centres which undermines the wellbeing of people on the move. Against this landscape of changing mobility control, what remains clear is that the increasingly securitised response enacted towards individuals seeking safety and protection within the EU continues to push refugees and migrants into greater invisibility, causing increasingly precarious, insecure, and dangerous journeys.[6]

 

[1]  https://medical-volunteers.org/Advocacy-Report-February-March-Serbia-komprimiert.pdf;

[2] https://twitter.com/MSF_Sea/status/1679741178776809472.

[3] Although some MSF patients highlight that access to medical care in government-run centres is uneven, availability of assistance limited, while access to asylum procedures is sometimes obstructed, as reported by Klikaktive https://asylumineurope.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/AIDA-SR_2022update.pdf.

[4] Data from official sources on total number of persons evicted from informal settlements during this period vary widely with Subotica police chief stating that 1600 people were relocated in the first 6 months of 2023, while the Minister of Interior stated on 14th of July that between the months of June, May and April, 6287 people were relocated from the northern area.

[5] See for example, Protecting Rights at Borders, September 2023 Report https://pro.drc.ngo/media/zprpb3cq/prab-report-may-to-august-2023-_-final.pdf and Collective Aid and Medical Volunteers International, Northern Serbia Advocacy Report, April-May 2023, https://medical-volunteers.org/advocacy-report-april-may-subotica-pdf_compressed.pdf.

[6] In line with this, see also findings from ASILE Serbia Country Report, https://www.asileproject.eu/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/D5.2_WP5-Serbia-Country-Report-Final.pdf, and ASILE ‘Asylum for Containment:

EU arrangements with Niger, Serbia, Tunisia and Turkey’ report https://www.asileproject.eu/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/Asylum-for-containment-DEF-ENG-1.pdf.