Serbia ends visa-free entry for Burundians – DW – 03/11/2022

Assu is 16 years old. The young Burundian lives in the Brussels transit center for migrants. Like many of his compatriots, he took advantage of Serbia’s visa-free travel policy to reach Europe – in hopes of a better life.

“I arrived in Serbia at night and the next morning I went to a place where there were smugglers,” Assu said, recalling the perilous journey that eventually took him to Belgium.

“They helped us get from there to Bosnia. Everyone had to pay €250 ($247) if they wanted to get from one country to another.”

Escape: Dangerous Balkan Road

The Balkan route is risky and expensive: refugees have to pay up to $3,000 to reach their final destination, DW has learned from migrants, many of whom have passed through Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, then Germany or France before arriving in Belgium.

Syrian migrants sneak under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia
Many migrants pass through Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and France before reaching Belgium Image: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

Assu chose to travel to Brussels, which is home to a large community of Burundian migrants and asylum seekers. His trip to the Belgian capital was traumatic, he said.

He was on the road for weeks with a group of young people, walking through forests and over rough terrain, sleeping in abandoned buildings, while enduring freezing cold. “When you’re left behind on the track, you’re left behind,” Assu told DW.

“When we arrived in Croatia, we were beaten up by the Croatian police before they allowed us to enter their country,” he said.

“We persevered. When we arrived in Slovenia, we were walking on the train tracks and I saw the bodies of several people who had been abandoned there. I just moved away. It was scary.”

Asylum application: Awaiting hearing

Assu is still awaiting a hearing. Belgium has been overwhelmed with the processing of asylum applications since the increasing arrival of Syrian, Afghan and, more recently, Ukrainian refugees.

There is a shortage of housing, food and legal aid, refugees told DW.

The Belgian Federal Agency for the reception of asylum seekers has recognized these shortcomings. Despite the establishment of thousands of transit centers, their capacity is insufficient. Thus, women, children and unaccompanied minors have priority.

As a result, many asylum seekers cannot find shelter and have no choice but to sleep on the streets in the heart of the European capital.

Tony, who has been living in the park near Brussels-North station for two months, is no exception. Now he worries about the coming winter cold.

“I am here because I have many problems in my country, including fear for my safety. I want to continue my professional career in Brussels,” Tony told DW.

He has not yet been invited to any hearings and is only allowed to stay in the park, Tony said. From time to time aid workers come by. He continues to hope for a place at the reception centre.

A bigger push in the EU

Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world. UN agencies have also reported human rights violations and violence against civilians. The population is facing a humanitarian crisis marked by economic collapse, extreme food shortages and epidemics.

A migrant in the 'Krnjaca' refugee center near Belgrade, Serbia
Migrants say there is a shortage of housing, food and legal aid in BelgiumImage: Darko Vojinovic/AP/picture alliance

More than 228,000 “irregular” migrants entered the EU in the first nine months of 2022, according to the European border agency Frontex. This is a jump of 70% compared to the same period last year.

The Balkan route accounted for the largest share, with over 106,000 entries. Most migrants come from Syria, Afghanistan, Turkey, India, Cuba and Burundi.

Swedish politician Ylva Johansson, who is European Commissioner for Home Affairs, laments the situation.

“We have seen a significant increase in the number of migrants on the Balkan route, and we also see especially those who travel visa-free to Western Balkan countries, including to the European Union area. And that, of course , is something that worries us,” she said.

Criticism of the visa-free regime

Serbia is one of these gateways for migrants. German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser has made it clear that she does not attach much importance to Serbia’s visa policy. This, she said, is based on states not recognizing Kosovo. She finds this “unacceptable”.

In fact, Serbia’s visa policy is closely tied to its claim to Kosovo, which is almost exclusively inhabited by Albanians.

Belgrade retaliates against countries that do not recognize or have withdrawn their recognition from this former Serbian province, independent since 2008.

Burundi withdrew its recognition of Kosovo in 2018. In response, Serbia abolished its visa requirements for Burundians.

Serbia-based political analyst Jaksa Scekic sees the country’s visa exemption for some African countries as a reward for their political stance as problematic.

“When the EU realized this, it threatened Serbia that it would reintroduce visa requirements for its citizens if the refugees continued to arrive,” Skekic said.

Serbia bows to EU pressure

On October 21, the Serbian Foreign Ministry announced that travelers from Burundi and Tunisia should now apply for a visa to enter the country.

Migrants detained by Serbian gendarmes put their hands on their heads
Under pressure from the EU, Serbia decided to drop its visa exemption for certain African countriesImage: Serbian Interior Ministry/AP/picture alliance

“All these poor people are going to try to migrate to the EU,” Scekic told DW.

“Serbia is a transit country. These people don’t want to stay here. They don’t want to work here for €500 a month, they want to work in the EU for €2,000.”

Nikola Kovacevic, a Serbian lawyer and refugee activist, pointed out that “on the one hand, Serbia has the sovereign right to conclude visa agreements with any country according to its own interest. But Serbia is not able to control the migratory flow that accompanies it”. .”

The consequences, he said, are now visible, not only in Serbia, but in many EU member states.

Eric Topona, Ubena Bakari and Idro Seferi contributed to this article.

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