Fighting for Migrants in Serbia

April 13, 2023
Antonio Prokscha
5 min read

Serbia is struggling to manage a surge in migration and ensure arrivals receive humane treatment. Grupa 484, an NGO focusing on migration, is helping to meet those challenges. 

On a cold day in late autumn, about 50 men sit huddled together in a park in central Belgrade. About two dozen baton-wielding police officers in black suits watch over the men, who appear to be from the Middle East. The scene is part of a large-scale police effort to track irregular migrants and counter human smuggling in Serbia. More than 600 migrants are arrested on this day, with law enforcement employing helicopters and drones. The operation reportedly followed a shooting that occurred a few days earlier between irregular migrants and smugglers in the town of Horgos on the Serbian border with Hungary. The police are trying to address long-term domestic migration challenges, explains Miroslava Jelačić Kojić of Grupa 484, while warning that the situation is more complicated than it seems at first glance.  

Migrants and refugees often transit Serbia to reach Western Europe, but as they do they seek to evade official reception centers and, consequently, registration with the Serbian government, which would negatively affect their ability to apply for asylum in the EU. This leaves them unprotected and vulnerable to organized criminal groups that promise to take them across the border and into the EU. Serbian police seek to disrupt these activities by moving the migrants to reception centers.  

Such measures are “ad hoc responses” to the situation and offer no solution to the overall problem, argues Jelačić Kojić. Even if migrants are registered, government authorities cannot detain them for long. They are likely to return to the border in days or “even a couple of hours”.  

“These kinds of operations are not long-term effective. If you want to have a functional migration system in Serbia, you need to take a different approach when it comes to accommodation and registration of people,” Jelačić Kojić says. She wants processes for regulating migration into Serbia, which would include registering and keeping every person entering the country safe. 

Unfortunately, Jelačić Kojić acknowledges, it is nearly impossible to eliminate all irregular migration. “There will always be a certain percentage of people who will try to cross the border. There will always be smugglers who will try to smuggle people and make money from it. This is not a problem that is unique to the Western Balkans. It is a global problem. 

“On the other hand, the risk for people is lower if they are housed in the centers—if they are controlled and given the opportunity to regularize their status in Serbia, to stay or to try to come to Europe in some legal way.” 

Serbia’s handling of migration has consequences for the EU since those on the run often aspire to enter the bloc via the Balkan nation.  

Many migrants, such as Syrians and Afghans, reach Serbia through neighboring North Macedonia and Bulgaria (an EU member state in which most migrants do not wish to stay). But nationals of about 20 non-European countries, including Tunisia, India, Cuba, and Burundi, can enter Serbia visa-free, perhaps due to their governments’ support for Belgrade's opposition to Kosovo's 2008 secession from Serbia and declaration of independence. Many from these countries need not undertake arduous land and sea routes to Serbia. They can simply fly in, en route to their desired EU destination. This has led, since 2021, to a significant increase in irregular border crossings into EU countries by individuals who traveled to Serbia visa-free. Those who attempted this include Turks (6,186 in 2022 vs. 1,652 in 2021), Tunisians (5,777 vs. 842), and Indians (4,469 vs. 557).  

“I think that the [Serbian] government is … satisfied with the fact that people are only seeing Serbia as a transit country for now,” Jelačić Kojić says. The EU, however, is unhappy with the situation. The bloc does not want to accept the migrants that Serbia allows through. 

The increased number of migrants and refugees even just transiting Serbia is straining the country's resources. Grupa 484 is stepping up, as it has for more than 25 years, to push for well-regulated, viable, and safe migration in the Western Balkans.  

The NGO advocates for stricter measures against human smuggling, and it protects migrant victims of smugglers by training and cooperating with key law enforcement agencies, prosecutors' offices, reception centers, and civil society throughout the region. Grupa 484, for example, brings in international experts in migration law to advise representatives of the Serbian judiciary and offer instruction that includes examining cases involving systemic flaws.   

“When it comes to the judiciary, I don't think they are aware of the negative impact of [migrant smuggling]. The penalties [for smugglers] are often quite low, like a few months in prison,” Jelačić Kojić explains. “You have to understand that migrants who are smuggled are exploited [by] the smugglers and [can] find themselves in a really life-threatening situation.” 

Grupa 484’s effort has been successful. “[Members of the Serbian judiciary] are really willing to join civil society organizations to participate in different trainings and understand why these criminal acts are so dangerous for people and why it's important to have high sanctions when it comes to criminal act of smuggling,” Jelačić Kojić gushes. 

The Serbian government’s willingness to cooperate with civil society groups to address migration is also critical. Grupa 484 can work freely in the migration centers and become part of the system. “We have a really constructive approach and an ongoing dialogue with key decision-makers, even with changes in government,” Jelačić Kojić says. 

Through past experiences with refugee movements in the former Yugoslavia, Serbian government and civil society know how to work together in this area. The state recognizes that it is unable to provide sufficient support for migrants. It is, therefore, in constant dialogue with Grupa 484. “They need us, and we need them,” Jelačić Kojić recognizes.  

She believes the governmental cooperation may become even more crucial. “The challenges of migration will not stop. The irregular movements will not stop. The need for international protection will not stop, considering the situation in certain countries. I think the whole system in this part of Europe needs to be reformed at some level.”  

Jelačić Kojić also sees a positive side to migration that others often do not perceive. For her, migrants can offer widespread benefits. “Migration needs to be seen as something that has an economic potential, as well as a social potential for the Western Balkans.” If she can win that argument, migrants could well face the more promising future they seek.