Serbia and the “refugee crisis”
From good Samaritan to guard of Fortress Europe
by Anja Ilic
In 2015, the European Union began rapidly erecting razor-wire fences on the foreign borders of its member states in response to the exodus of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, an exodus for which the EU too has infamous credit. The Serbian government’s response was surprisingly humane, in words at least, compared to the policies of “Fortress Europe”. In the manner of a great admirer of the EU and its so-called European values, Aleksandar Vučić, then still Prime Minister, claimed that barbed wire borders “shamed everyone”; and that while he was Prime Minister, “you won’t see any barbed wire on our borders, because we’ve fought hard against that”.
And indeed, this firm word of his was kept till now. He is a converted Šešelj radical, who fought against wires and fences during the 1990s and early 2000s by calling for the establishment of a Greater Serbia and the deployment of a Serbian army on the borders of that chauvinist project of Serbian nationalism. He also in a much-quoted statement said “If you kill one Serb, we’ll kill a hundred Muslims”. But now, Vučić is no longer the Prime Minister but the President... and a wire fence that isn’t the least bit shameful... has now sprouted on the Serbia–Macedonia border.
Although the circumstances surrounding the erection of this fence are still shrouded in mystery, the role of Serbia in the security architecture of “Fortress Europe” should not be. In 2015, the EU allocated at least €17 million to help Serbia “solve the crisis”. In plain language, this was to hold back refugees and migrants at the EU’s external borders. Just as then, Serbia must also now play the role of the loyal guard on the ramparts of “Fortress Europe”. The more loyal the guard, the greater Vučić’s hopes that Europe’s hard heart will soften in order to quicken as much as possible Serbia’s reception into the European family. The only difference from 2015 is that the once categorical Serbian “hospitality and warmth” towards refugees, has meanwhile become a worn-out and even politically unpopular phrase.
The mysterious (non) existence of fences and agreements
At the end of August the first photographs and testimonies appeared of the erection of a razor-wire fence near the village of Miratovac in the extreme south of Serbia. This serves as the first station for refugees and migrants entering Serbia from the village of Lojane in northern Macedonia. The silence of the state leadership might well have led you to the conclusion that the fence didn’t even exist. Except that Shqiprim Arifi, the mayor of Preševo, on whose territory Miratovac is located, said that the erection of the fence on the Serbia–Macedonia border was part of the agreement with the European Union. Ana Pisonero, the European Commission spokeswoman denied Arifi’s claim. No-one else has anything to say about the mysterious fence.
This is not the first mystery surrounding Serbia’s role in regulating the so-called refugee crisis. At the end of last year, Boško Obradović, the leader of the right-populist, conservative Dveri party, eagerly raised a moral panic over the alleged agreement between Serbia and Austria, regarding the readmission of refugees and migrants whose asylum applications were rejected in Austria. The existence of the secret agreement, one which the former Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl had previously speculated about, was confirmed in April this year by the Ministry of the Interior in Vienna. Although a Serbian Interior Ministry official later denied the agreement existed. On the basis of these contradictory claims, it can be concluded that some sort of working agreement exists, but the principle of “mutual silence” which the Austrian Ministry of the Interior mentioned in connection with the agreement, is obviously inviolable.
One agreement that has at least been unequivocally signed (at the end of November last year) is the so-called status agreement between the EU and the Serbian Ministry of the Interior. This agreement – already in force in Albania and Montenegro, and under negotiation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia – envisages the deployment of Frontex units, or the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. It is meant for so-called third countries (those not yet members of the EU or whose citizens do not enjoy freedom of movement within the EU), as well as joint Frontex operations with local security services. Although the agreement has not yet come into force in Serbia, it is clear that the European Union is trying to externalise its borders by anchoring Frontex in all countries that (might) form part of the “Balkan route”.
EU enlargement: upgrading “Fortress Europe”
In the eyes of many, the European Union remains a privileged area of freedom and democracy. However, the combined crises of the last decade and a half include the economic crisis of 2007/8; through a series of political crises; the humanitarian crisis of 2015 which the media presented as a “refugee” or “migrant crisis”; all the way to the health crisis of 2020 which has deepened and intensified all of the aforementioned. These showed that the EU and the Balkan elites, without exception pursue a policy of Euro-Atlantic integration, but do not actually care about democracy and freedom as much as the survival of the power structure of European capital.
Billions of euros are squeezed by the deadly grip of the “austerity” measures imposed on the working classes of the Balkans and Europe. Moreover billions are invested in the war industry and in improving its security architecture against refugees and migrants. The EU and its member-states are committed to military conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. These all have produced an incentive for the Balkan ruling classes to promptly integrate into the EU - if not as formal members, then as extensions of the ramparts of “Fortress Europe”.
There are countless reports of brutal border police violence along the “Balkan route”, the enclosure of the entire Balkans (outside and inside) by wires and fences. Coupled with the signing of bilateral and multilateral agreements on detaining refugees and migrants in the Balkans (including readmission agreements, reception centres on its external borders to tighten up the procedure for obtaining asylum in the EU, etc) are signs of the obedience of the countries in the entrance lobby of the EU to the policies dictated by its centre.
It’s not only obedience to European diktat that has helped to harden policy towards refugees and migrants, but also fierce competition in national politics. In the run-up to this year’s elections – held on June 21 due to the coronavirus epidemic – Vučić stated that Serbia would not be a “parking lot for migrants”. That changed the hitherto rhetoric about a Serbia in solidarity with refugees and migrants from which Europe could learn. Vučić was evidently seeking to secure his right-wing electorate by responding to hard-right political parties , who charged that he intended to populate deserted Serb villages with migrants and gift them apartments - while “his people” lived on the brink of poverty, and such like.
Moreover, anti-immigrant rhetoric and practice – represented the common ground of the opposition and quasi-opposition to Vučić in the run-up to the elections. Of course, the goal of both was to mobilise support, at the polls and to increase its membership, by incendiary rhetoric to encourage conspiracy theories on the “migrant crisis”. The only difference is that the quasi-opposition played the role of the right-hand of Vučić’s regime, by satisfying the more nationalistic, Islamophobic and racist section of his Serbian Progressive Party voters.
The hard right in Serbia has taken to playing the anti-immigrant card from already established European rightists. That includes invoking the “migrant crisis”, “invasion”, the threat of being “overrun”. And this when the exodus of refugees and migrants from Asia and Africa is far less pronounced than in 2015. Allegations of “settling Serbia with migrants” are nothing but a malicious fabrication of reality, as evidenced by any report on the asylum applications submitted and approved in Serbia. For example, the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights states in its annual report for 2019 that, out of a total of 12,937 people who expressed an intention to apply for asylum in Serbia, only 252 actually applied, of which 35 were approved. European statistics do not deviate from the general pattern of a significantly lower number of people granted asylum seeker status than the number of submitted applications or expressed intentions to submit applications.
Despite the pre-election outcry by Serbian right-wingers against migrants, an easy target for scoring political points, their opportunistic efforts did not bear fruit. The right – the one that stands to the right of Vučić and the Serbian Progressive Party – achieved negligible results in the elections, failing even to pass the 3% threshold.
Solidarity is not for sale
However, the fact that the hard right did not achieve the election results it desired does not mean that it will be discouraged from continuing to stir up chauvinistic sentiments in society. Moreover, it is likely that the right-wing regime of Aleksandar Vučić will compete with the non-regime right, when the refugee and migrant exodus from the east and south to the west and north intensifies again, via the “Balkan route”.
The coronavirus pandemic has temporarily slowed - but not completely stopped the flow of forced migration. With the easing of bans and restrictions on movement, by April 1 the number of people on migrant routes has begun again to grow. Thus, in Serbia, after the fall in the number of asylum seekers in the period from March to May (for instance, no-one applied for asylum in April), there was again a slight increase in June.
However, one consequence of the pandemic of particular concern, is that in many ways it puts refugees and migrants in a risky and dangerous position. Migrant workers are, as a rule, the first to lose their jobs under lockdown conditions. For them protective equipment against potential coronavirus infection, even more than for others, is an abstract idea. Refugees and migrants who were literally crammed into reception centres did not have access to even the most basic means of hygiene, and restrictions on their movement were even more severe than for the “domestic” population. In the city of Šid, in Vojvodina, for example, the Serbian Army continued its patrols in front of a reception centre even after the state of emergency was lifted, so that, in the words of the Defence Minister, the local population might feel “calmer and safer”. Racism has escalated during the pandemic, with refugees and migrants labelled as carriers. But above all, the “smart technologies” used to trace the contacts and movements of coronavirus sufferers are likely to be built into the surveillance machinery of both “Fortress Europe” and other regulatory bodies and mechanisms in order to “monitor”, and effectively to prevent migration.
According to the conclusions of the European Council, less billions of euros will be allocated to financing European defence structures than initial proposals foresaw. But the general direction of the EU, embodied in the six-month programme drafted by Germany (currently chairing the EU Council of Ministers), remains the same. In other words, the process of externalising the Union’s borders continues. There will be a tightening of the (already too strict) asylum procedure. “Cooperation” with the countries of origin of refugees and migrants will mean nothing more than pumping huge sums of money to keep them away from the EU, in the war-torn, economically devastated and politically extremely unstable zones from which they flee. In April alone, €15 million was diverted to the notorious Libyan Coast Guard (as part of a broader €100 million package of “aid” to Libya), known for its brutally inhumane treatment of refugees and migrants.
This is why it’s extremely urgent that we show people who are fleeing war and destruction what solidarity means in practice. Vučić’s “solidarity”, is nothing but an opportunistic calculation based on satisfying European diktat and competing with the right-wing of the right locally. True solidarity is built between the exploited and oppressed of all nationalities, religions, languages and ages. It is not bought with European billions. It is built from below, between people who share the experiences of the regime of “austerity”, forced relocation, destruction of working and living conditions. It is reflected not in the externalisation of borders, but in their opening and overcoming. This is the alternative to the kind of “democracy and freedom” offered by the EU and its Balkan lackeys.
This article first appeared in Serbo-Croat in Prometej.ba. Translation by Dragan Plavšić. Reproduced with the author's permission