Ivana Jovanovic in Belgrade -
Serbia and Croatia are now in the front line of Europe's refugee crisis after Hungary completed its fence along the entire Serbian border and imposed fast-track checks
on on all those entering the country from there.
Hundreds of refugees remain on the Serbian side of the border, wondering where to go next, while Croatia braces for an expected influx of migrants using the country as an alternative route northwards. Croatia said scores of asylum seekers were caught trying to cross the border with Serbia over the night of September 15.
Croatia is likely to face a large influx of migrants after Hungary sealed its border with Serbia, said Zlatko Sokolar, head of the interior ministry's border administration. Croatia has prepared an emergency plan that it is ready to quickly activate should refugees start arriving in large numbers, Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic said following a cabinet meeting.
The Hungarian stance is already sparking tensions with Serbia. Hungary is is insisting on registering all aslyum seekers who try to enter the country, and is refusing to allow entry to any refugee who has already been registered in Serbia, which it classes as a safe country and therefore the proper place for the aslyum seeker's claim to be processed. Any rejected asylum seekers into Hungary are also sent speedily back to Serbia. The first group of refugees were returned to Serbia on the evening of September 15, Serbia's Tanjug news agency reported.
Serbian officials have reacted strongly after the Horgos1 border crossing between Hungary and Serbia was closed on September 15. Labour minister Aleksandar Vulin said that Serbia would only accept the return of refugees that haven’t tried to enter Hungary, potentially leaving some in no-man's land.
Foreign minister Ivica Dacic called on the EU to find a joint solution as Serbia is not a collection centre and shouldn’t ruin its relation with neighboring countries because of the refugee crisis.
Serbia needs the international community's help – both in terms of financial support but also human resources and organisational assistance – to respond to the largest refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War, Nikola Kovacevic, a lawyer at Belgrade’s Centre for Human Rights, told bne IntelliNews. There is no single state that can deal on its own with the rivers of people that are constantly arriving, he added.
Since the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have escalated, thousands of people have been entering Serbia
on a daily basis, heading to Western Europe. The country has improved its capacities – by establishing additional registration points in refugee camps in Kanjiza and Presevo, close to the borders with Hungary and Macedonia, where refugees enter and leave the country, and by using students from the police academy – but significant numbers of refugees remain unregistered. According to Kovacevic, Serbia barely succeeds in registering half of the 2,000-3,000 people who enter the country from Bulgaria and Macedonia.
Refugees in Belgrade’s city parks are waiting to move towards Hungary, saying that one of their main concerns is that if they get registered in Hungary they would have to stay there in accordance with the EU's Dublin Regulation. Refugees are also scared of the way the Hungarian government and police could treat them.
Hungary's tightening of its stance towards migrants is expected to push those seeking asylum towards other routes, most likely Romania or Croatia. While Romania looks like a dead-end – Hungary has already announced plans for a fence on the border with Romania – Croatia appears a more feasible option. In Presevo in Serbia, where more than 1,300 refugees were registered on September 15, bus companies now offer transport to Sid, a city on the border with Croatia, in expectation that refugees will choose to go there.
Croatia has a 325km border with Serbia, more than half of which is along the Danube River. The border is around 100km from Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, across flat land. However, local media has warned of the dangers from leftover land mines remaining in the region from the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Morever, traveling via Croatia is more complicated as the country is still not in the Schengen zone, which means that refugees will have to pass one more border control in Slovenia before they reach Austria.
Milan Antonijevic, director at Belgrade-based YUCOM, a committee of human rights lawyers, told bne IntelliNews that Serbia was dealing correctly with the ongoing refugee crisis prior to the latest changes from Hungary. However, Antonijevic warned that capacities have to be extended and new refugee camps opened, which includes the preparation of citizens for acceptance of refugees in order to avoid any kind of conflicts or riots.
“This should be a kind of introduction to a future improvement of the asylum system of Serbia that should have much better attention paid to social inclusion of refugees that might want to stay in Serbia,” Antonijevic said.
Kovacevic said the best way for Serbia to help refugees is to try to find a way to attract some of them to stay, and the first step should be shortening the process of obtaining asylum, which can last a couple of years.
Since the beginning of the year, some 160,000 people have passed through Serbia, but only 500 have requested asylum.