Belgrade, Serbia — Serbia is experiencing a sudden tourism boom from countries whose citizens have never had its sightseeing and shopping opportunities on their radar. This is largely due to the Balkan country’s generous entry rules, which have made it a key stopover for migrants seeking to reach Europe without risking a perilous sea crossing.
A recent flight from Turkey to Belgrade – one of half a dozen scheduled daily – was packed with people from African and Asian countries who do not need visas to enter the European country.
But that is changing as Serbia faces pressure from the European Union, which it wants to join, to introduce visas for countries that have become a source of migration to the 27-nation bloc.
EU officials said thousands of travelers who entered Serbia and other Western Balkan countries as tourists in recent months have ended up seeking asylum in EU member countries.
The bloc is concerned as the Balkan region was already seeing an increase in the number of people from the Middle East, Asia and Africa heading to the prosperous heartland of Europe where they hope to find a better life. The EU welcomes millions of Ukrainian refugees and fights against the soaring prices and the energy crisis caused by the invasion of its neighbor by Russia.
Hoping to ease some of the pressure, the EU has urged Serbia – as well as other Western Balkan countries wishing to join the EU such as Albania, Bosnia and Montenegro – to align their entry rules for travelers on those of the block.
“We have seen a significant increase in the number of migrants using the Western Balkan route and, not least, we are seeing those traveling visa-free via Western Balkan partners who are also coming to the European Union” , said Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, said this month.
The Balkan route leads from Turkey and Greece through North Macedonia and Bulgaria to Serbia and towards the borders of EU members Hungary, Romania and Croatia. Balkan crossings normally intensify in autumn and winter, when bad weather adds to the dangers of an already perilous journey over the Aegean Sea.
Serbia’s visa-free travel policy with countries such as India, Cuba, Tunisia and Burundi has made Belgrade airport an alternative entry point for migrants from these countries, who then head north and west towards the EU. In July, Indians entered the top 10 groups of asylum-seeking nationalities for the first time, according to the EU Asylum Office.
“Now when we see these Cubans, Indians, Burundians entering the European Union in large numbers, of course we have to tackle this problem,” Johansson said.
Serbia this month introduced visas for Burundian nationals and said it would do the same for Tunisians next month, while other countries will follow by the end of the year.
Human rights lawyer Nikola Kovacevic, who deals with migration, said Serbia had a similar problem in 2016-18, when it was forced to introduce visas for Iranians.
But he added that bogus tourists make up a small fraction of migrants crossing the Balkans.
“In terms of numbers, (they) can’t even be compared to the number of people who still use irregular land routes,” Kovacevic said.
He said the reasons for the increase in migration to Europe are many: the end of travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, global uncertainty fueled by the war in Ukraine, food shortages and impending energy and climate change.
“This trend will increase until the root causes of forced migration are properly addressed,” Kovacevic added.
The surge is visible everywhere in Serbia: reception camps are crowded, migrants can be seen walking along highways and railways, camping along borders with EU countries or sleeping rough in cities.
They often spend weeks or even months in the Balkans before entering the EU’s passport-free travel zone, often facing abuse by smugglers and pushbacks at borders.
At a Serbian reception center near the southern border with North Macedonia, several dozen people sat lined up on a long wooden bench in a sports hall, patiently waiting to be registered. They had just arrived that morning from North Macedonia.
“It’s a huge increase from last year…every day we have 100, 300, 400 new migrants (in the camp),” said Slobodan Savovic, a camp coordinator. “They come at any time of the day.”
Savovic said the strong upward trend started about two months ago, when most arrivals from the south are still from Syria or Afghanistan. Few remain in Serbia and seek asylum there.
Mohammad Mohammadi, an 18-year-old Afghan, said he wanted to go to Germany. He said he traveled from Turkey to Greece, where he was stopped by police who ordered him to strip and took pictures.
“In my country, it’s the fight,” he said. “I saw fight.”
Follow AP’s coverage of global migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration