Serbia receives assistance to stem illegal migrant flows

Migrants crossing Serbia. Location unknown, 2015. [GN/YouTube]

Police chiefs from Germany, Austria and Hungary have agreed to help Serbia crack down on waves of illegal migrants transiting its territory heading for the European Union. Meanwhile, Budapest said it will forge ahead with plans to erect a fence at its border with Serbia.

Tens of thousands of migrants from the Middle East and Africa are using the Balkan route to enter the EU, passing from Greece into Macedonia and then Serbia on their way to Hungary, which is in the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone.

Once there, they can move freely across most internal EU borders.

Hungary, which has registered more than 67,000 illegal immigrants so far this year, announced last month it would build a four-metre-high fence along a 175-km stretch of its border with Serbia. The U.N. refugee agency condemned the plan.

After meeting his counterparts from Hungary, Austria and Germany in Belgrade, Milorad Veljovic, the director of Serbian police, said German and Austrian officers would inspect Serbia’s border with its southern neighbour Macedonia to determine the manpower and equipment needs to stem the flow of migrants.

“Colleagues from Hungary … and vehicles with thermal vision equipment are already on Serbia’s border with Macedonia … and a joint database of migrants will be formed,” the Belgrade-based Beta news agency quoted Veljovic as saying.

Serbia is not a member of the EU, but more than 34,000 migrants have sought asylum in the former Yugoslav republic so far this year, most of them having crossed from Macedonia and Bulgaria. It is not known how many people in total have entered Serbia illegally.

“Joint patrols with Hungarian policemen that started on Tuesday are yielding results as hundreds of migrants have been stopped (at the border with Macedonia),” Beta quoted Hungarian police chief Karoly Papp as saying after the meeting.

Veljovic said Austria would deploy 80 policemen to take part in joint border patrols along Serbia’s border with Macedonia. The comments could not be immediately confirmed.

The meeting came a day after Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban said they had agreed to step up efforts to curb the influx of illegal migrants.

Fence to be built within weeks

Meanwhile, Hungary announced it would building a four-metre fence along its border with Serbia within weeks to stem the flow of illegal migrants, Orban’s chief of staff said on Thursday (2 July).

Janos Lazar said the 175 km Cold War-style fence, plans for which were first announced last month, would be a temporary measure and was not directed in any way against Hungary’s southern neighbour.

“Hungary needs Serbia as an ally, we want to keep this alliance and strengthen it,” Lazar told a news conference.

“We will raise this barrier on the border on a temporary basis in the hope that Europe manages to find a definitive solution to this issue soon,” he said.

Critics say erecting a fence at the border will only shift the problem from Hungary to Macedonia, where growing numbers of migrants are now being stationed.

The European Commission said it was aware of the problem. On Tuesday (30 June), it offered to help set up temporary centres for the Hungarian government to process asylum requests and the return of illegal immigrants.

Hungary announced plans in June to build a fence at the border with Serbia, angering Belgrade and drawing criticism from the European Union and the United Nations' refugee agency.

The fence is estimated to cost 5 to 10 billion forints (€16-€32 million).

>> Read: Hungary to build fence at Serbian border

The EU has seen a sharp rise in the number of Kosovo citizens smuggling themselves into the bloc via Serbia to Hungary. So far this year, almost 70,000 migrants have crossed into Hungary illegally, mostly over the border with Serbia.

Orban, under pressure to stem a loss of public support to the far-right Jobbik party, has said Hungary's borders should be defended by all means. His government has put up billboards telling migrants to respect the country's laws.

Hungary has also said it could suspend the application of EU asylym rules in order to protect its interests. The Hungarian Parliament plans to vote on Friday whether a planned tightening of asylum rules can be decided on a fast-track basis, before the summer recess.

>> Read: Hungary suspends EU asylum rules

The EU faces an acute migrant crisis, highlighted by the drowning of hundreds of people trying to reach its shores by crossing the Mediterranean, and is struggling to find ways of shouldering the burden between its 28 member states.

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