10th Jun 2023

Serbia set to "significantly align itself with EU visa policy"

  • Refugees in Serbia. Picture is from 2016. (Photo: Jan Kuntra)
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Serbia may end up cancelling more visa free regimes with countries to further stem migration towards the European Union.

The Western Balkan nation had last week ended visa exemptions with Tunisia and Burundi, following threats that its own visa-free travel to the EU would be scrapped.

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On Monday (24 October), its embassy to the EU said that Serbia "would significantly align itself with EU visa policy until the end of the year."

Although not explicitly stated, the comment suggests others aside from Tunisia and Burundi may also be on Belgrade's chopping block.

Nationalities from some 20 countries are still able to travel to Serbia without a visa, including Russians and Belarusians, which are themselves excluded from the EU's visa-free system.

But statistics suggests a spike in the number of Cuban (339 vs. 36), Indian (4,469 vs. 557) and Turkish (6,186 vs. 1,652) arrivals to Serbia, posing questions on whether Belgrade will next impose visas on them.

Although the vast majority of people using the Western Balkans route to reach the EU remain Syrians and Afghans, the EU says it had also registered a significant increase of irregular border crossings by nationals from Turkey, Tunisia, India and Cuba.

Last year, Turkey, Tunisia, India, Cuba and Burundi represented only 2.5 percent of irregular border crossings on the Western Balkan Route. This jumped to 20 percent so far this year.

An internal document from the Czech EU presidency, out earlier this month, also says member states north of the Western Balkan region have since seen an "increase in the number of asylum seekers by citizens of countries which are visa-exempt in Serbia."

Further afield, Belgium, for instance, reported a rise in Cuban and Burundian asylum seekers.

The pressure comes amid reports of illegal pushbacks in the Western Balkans.

A new report out by Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), a rights watchdog, registered an increase of violence against people at the shared land border between Serbia and Hungary.

"This month, the BVMN observed an increase in the number of pushbacks -and their level of violence- perpetrated by Hungarian authorities at the Serbian-Hungarian border, which currently constitutes the busiest route in the region," notes the report.

Injuries include fractures, dislocations, and laceration consistent with reports of physical assaults using boots, batons, belts, rubber bullets, and electric shocks, it says.

Von der Leyen in Balkan tour

Serbia's comment also comes ahead of a Western Balkan visit this week by European Commission president Von der Leyen.

Von der Leyen is set to visit Skopje on Wednesday, followed by Pristina and Tirana on Thursday and then Sarajevo and Belgrade on Friday.

Those visits align with previous announcements by Von der Leyen to include the Western Balkans in an EU joint gas procurement.

Asked if Von der Leyen also intends to discuss migration while in Belgrade, her chief spokesperson Eric Mamer gave a wide response.

"The message in general terms is that the EU has solidarity with the countries with the regions," he told reporters, citing investments and Russia's war in Ukraine.

"So I am sure that there will be several topics of discussion," he added.

Serbia's visa free list now includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, Bolivia, China, Cuba, Guinea Bissau, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Suriname, and Turkey.

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EU home affairs ministers are gathering in Luxembourg to thrash out an agreement on core asylum and migration reforms. But expectations of an agreement, following their meeting in Luxembourg on Thursday remained mixed.

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