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Why Would Anybody Come Here?
Serbia’s Migration Spike: Consequences for Policy and People

Oxana Vasilyeva and Jovana Mastilovic Pic1.png

Picture of graffiti saying "No to war" in Russian

© Jovana Mastilovic, Belgrade, Serbia

More than 100,000 Russians have arrived in Serbia since the escalation of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine in February 2022. Serbia and Turkey are the only European Union (EU) candidate countries that have not imposed sanctions against Russia, so Air Serbia and Turkish Airlines continue to fly in and out of Russian cities. At the same time, over 22,000 Ukrainians have also arrived. On 17 October 2022, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić compared Belgrade to that of Casablanca, likening the city depicted in the 1942 film as a place swarming with spies and war refugees. Statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) show that in September 2022, there were nearly 5000 people seeking asylum (predominantly from Afghanistan, Syria, Morocco, Burundi, and Pakistan) in Serbia’s EU-funded but government-run migration centres; thousands more in private and informal settings in towns close to the Hungarian and Croatian borders, attempting to cross into the EU with smugglers. As we will show, it can be argued that Serbia has established discriminative treatment and unequal access to migration and asylum procedures based on the ethnicity and national origin of people entering the country, partly due to EU influence.


While some EU member states have requested to suspend visa-free travel for Serbians owing to Serbia’s reluctance to introduce sanctions against Russia, it was actually Serbia’s visa-free policy with some countries in Asia and Africa that was singled out as the main reason for the rise of people entering EU via smuggling routes. The European border agency, Frontex, reported that more than 106,000 “migrants” entered “illegally” via the Western Balkans route in the first nine months of 2022. While most were from Syria, Afghanistan, and Turkey, Frontex also noted that there was an increase of arrivals from Cuba, India, Burundi, and Tunisia. In response, the Serbian government ended visa exemptions for nationals from Burundi and Tunisia and said it would ‘significantly align itself with EU visa policy until the end of the year’, stating visa requirements for Indian nationals would be next. Frontex has recommended that Serbia, as a matter of priority, further aligns its visa policy with the EU’s list of visa-required third countries, in particular ‘those third countries presenting irregular migration or security risks to the EU’. As of 6 December 2022, 20 nationals (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, Bolivia, China, Cuba, Guinea Bissau, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Suriname, and Turkey) are on the EU visa-required list but remain visa-exempt in Serbia


Russians have the right to stay in Serbia for 30 days without a visa; upon expiration, they may leave and return to Serbia and remain for another 30 days without a visa. Russians may remain as temporary residents in this manner or apply for residence and work permits if they choose to register their own business or pursue work. Since February 2022, Russian citizens have established 789 companies and 2,134 entrepreneurial shops in Serbia, predominantly specialising in the IT sector. Only Chinese citizens have more registered companies. The exodus of Russians fleeing the partial military conscription raised debates about whether Russians are also owed international protection. While some EU member states have said they will refuse refuge to Russians fleeing mobilisation, Associate Professor Daniel Ghezelbash points out that the principle of non-discrimination lies at the heart of the international refugee protection regime and that asylum seekers should not be discriminated against based on their country of origin or nationality. Every application needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis and if the type of military action Russians refuse to participate in is condemned by the international community, draft evaders would likely meet the refugee definition. 


The conditions under which different nationals are residing in Serbia largely impact on the negative or positive perception in the public, i.e. whether they are considered a “refugee” or an “(illegal) migrant.” Most refugees and migrants from Afghanistan, Syria, Morocco, Burundi, and Pakistan must wait in asylum and reception centres while their asylum applications are being processed, or before deciding on onward movement. The Ukrainian refugee flow shifted this trend however: a greater number of people fleeing Ukraine are staying in private accommodation rather than in government centres. On 17 March 2022, Serbia adopted The Decision on Temporary Protection, granting temporary protection to all persons fleeing from Ukraine, similar to EU’s Directive to offer quick and effective assistance. These decisions give Ukrainians the right to legally reside in the countries they enter, access the labour market, health care, education, free legal aid, and the right to submit an asylum claim if they decide to do so. Since February 2022, 1092 of over 22,000 Ukrainians in Serbia have registered for temporary protection or similar national protection schemes, suggesting that alternate migration pathways such as employment or residing as a temporary visitor (Ukrainians can stay in Serbia for 90 days without a visa) is preferred, similarly to Russians. 


Asylum seekers from other countries than Ukraine face challenges such as strict application of a “safe third country” and non-refoulement principles (see here too), meaning Serbia returns nationals to countries where they came from without considering the merits of the asylum application. In the first ten years of the establishment of the national asylum system in Serbia, only 72 people were granted refugee status and 92 people subsidiary protection; between January and August 2022, Serbia formally registered 107 asylum applications, granting refugee status to 3 and subsidiary protection to 6. According to empirical research conducted by one of the authors in 2017, the hardest challenge for people seeking asylum is integration. A Serbian representative pointed out that it is only natural that asylum seekers do not want to stay in a country which can provide them with so little, that does not have a history of integrating foreigners, and does not have an already established community from regions further away than neighbouring European countries.


While the asylum system in Serbia remains flawed, Serbia’s response to the influx of Russians and Ukrainians has shown a more tolerant and humane approach and that alternate types of residencies can be implemented, with the possibility to work and access to other relevant rights. The Decision on Temporary Protection adopted for Ukrainians and the ease at which Russian nationals can enter and exit Serbia extending their right to stay show evident discrimination in migration policies for Ukrainian and Russian nationals compared to those from Syria and Afghanistan and others from Asia and Africa. The reality of the situation is that some migrants are visible in the public sphere (Russians and Ukrainians) while others are forced to exist within the shadows (Syrians and Afghans), enforced by everyday bordering practices. Ultimately, they are all migrants deserving of the same access to an effective, fair, and just asylum procedure as guaranteed by international legal standards. 


Serbia relies on migration for numerous reasons, such as social and demographic diversity, entrepreneurship, and economic growth. However, unregulated migration brings with it problems too, such as a housing crisis and double standards in response to the needs of refugees coming from different countries, and exacerbates cracks in an already struggling system. As stated by human rights lawyer Nikola Kovačević, while the treatment of Ukrainians should be praised, the violent and discriminatory approach of border authorities towards other persons in need of international protection transparently embodies the widespread trend within European countries. Pushbacks at the EU borders in Serbia, abuse, and major discrimination of people from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and others need to be addressed through the implementation of legal standards, particularly upholding the right to asylum, educating civil society members including border force, police, government officials, the media, and the promotion of local anti-discrimination initiatives. Increasing the capacity of local authorities and organisations to address the housing crisis and ensuring more free and affordable housing would also minimise hostilities between locals, asylum seekers and refugees, and other migrants. The safety of people seeking asylum in Serbia is dependent on a chain of responsible persons starting with EU member states and officials upholding their obligations under international refugee law and access to a fair and just asylum process. Without it, smuggling activities rise, compromising the efficiency of local authorities, increasing corruption, and threatening the safety of those most vulnerable even within the Serbian government-run migrant reception centres.   

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Oxana Vasilyeva

Dr Oxana Vasilyeva is an adjunct researcher at Griffith School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences (Gold Coast, Australia). Her doctoral research examined independent art in Russia and Serbia. Oxana has worked for cultural institutions in Russia, Serbia, and Australia. Her recent publications focus on the significance of activist art in Russia as one of the most important instruments capable of influencing the current socio-political situation (Continuum, 2021).

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Jovana Mastilovic

Dr Jovana Mastilovic is an adjunct researcher at Griffith Law School (Brisbane, Australia). Her doctoral research examined the securitisation of asylum in the EU and the effects of EU policies in Turkey and the Balkans. She has worked in local government and for local and international non-governmental organisations in the Balkans and Australia. Her recent publications focus on (in)security and immigration to depopulating rural areas in south-eastern Europe (Brill Publishing, 2021) and the potential of the arts and literature to trigger ethical engagements in migration policies and practices (Berghahn Books, 2022).

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