New EU-Document: Operationalization of the Pact – Migratory Relations with Serbia

Migration Control Project Editorial Office

We have received an EU internal document, dated March 17, 2022. The document titled „Operationalization of the Pact – Migratory relations with Serbia“ is to be considered within the discussion of the Council of the European Union on the „improvement“ of the cooperation between the EU and the Serbian state in the field of migration. In the document, the Presidency of the Council proposes to draw up priorities for the elaboration of an action plan. In addition to that, the Presidency proposes to identify Serbia as an additional priority country for the developing New Pact’s action plan. In the following, we contextualize this document in the ongoing externalization of the European migration and border regime to Serbia. Please find the document here.

Serbia, a transit state?

It was not only with the March of Hope in 2015 that Serbia has gained importance for the European Union in terms of migration policy, but already in the early 2000s.1 During this period, Serbia was in transition from a federal unit to an independent republic and many refugees and internally displaced persons were staying in the country. At the time, the EU called upon Serbia to „contain the number of Serbian residents seeking asylum in the EU member states and control the movement of third country nationals towards the EU.“2 This demand has remained in place to this date. After 2011, more and more people on the move traveled through Serbia on their way to the European Union and the Schengen Area. Many of them were held up in Serbia.3see By 2014, the lack of state infrastructure in Serbia to support people on the move became increasingly apparent. Humanitarian support structures tried to counteract this lack. The Serbian state made use of these emerging humanitarian structures for its own interests as it did once again in 2015 when a corridor for people on the move was formalized: Serbia „regarded the increasing numbers of migrants entering their territory during the year 2015 as a window of opportunity for showing their ‚good face‘ to the European Union by adopting ‚European values‘.“4,hess,stojic-mitrovic,speer–the-forging-of-the-balkan-route.html Serbia therewith positioned itself with regard to its aim of becoming a member state of the European Union. However, the corridor that allowed thousands of people to reach the Schengen Area via the so-called Balkanroute did not stay open for long. With each step to close this corridor again, more and more people on the move were and still are held up in Serbia for a long time.5 Simultaneously, fewer people reach Serbia, given the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal and the fortification of the borders south of Serbia.6 Nevertheless, Serbia remains important for the European Union in terms of migration policy, since, as the Presidency of the Council of the European Union states: “Serbia is still a transit country.“7 Operationalization of the Pact – Migratory relations with Serbia, 4

This focus on Serbia as a transit state obscures the fact that people not only travel through Serbia, but also travel from Serbia.  In 2015 large groups of Roma people joined the great migration movement, and 90% of the people fleeing from Serbia were Roma.8 Many of the Roma living in Serbia had fled the war in Kosovo in 1990 and lost their identification documents during this time. Since then, they have been living as stateless people in precarious situations in Serbia, facing discrimination and exclusion in various societal realms.9 This makes Serbia by no means a safe country of return. Despite this fact, many European member states have signed readmission agreements with Serbia and have classified it as a safe third country. This makes it almost impossible for Serbian citizens to be granted asylum in these member states. It is clear, that the readmission agreements are not only about so-called third-state nationals, but also about Roma who have been living in Serbia for decades, as summarized by the following paragraph:

“when this process [of signing readmission agreements] commenced, Serbian citizens comprised a large portion of asylum seekers in EU member states. The provisions were therefore directed primarily towards the movement of Serbian citizens and, in particular, the return of the Roma population through newly established readmission agreements. Even though the focus of movement control was redirected towards third country nationals in recent years, in 2019 not a single third-country national was sent back to Serbia through the readmission agreement. Only Serbian citizens were.”10

In 2021, 612 persons were deported from Germany to Serbia, all of them Serbian citizens.11 The attempts of the European Union in recent years to outsource migration control to the Serbian state, therefore, have not been solely about preventing people from transiting Serbia, but have always also aimed to prevent Roma from leaving a country where they face severe discrimination.

Outsourcing migration control to Serbia

These attempts to outsource migration control to the Serbian state have been in place for a long time. Serbia’s candidacy for membership in 2012 is being used by the European Union to further increase this outsourcing. This is also reflected in the internal document: „Accession issues related to asylum and migration are dealt with in the framework of the Fundamentals block in which Chapter 24 ‚Justice, Freedom, Security‘ is included. According to the new methodology adopted in March 2020 and implemented for Serbia since 2021, the overall pace of accession negotiations depends on the reforms and progress made in the building block.“12Operationalization of the Pact – Migratory relations with Serbia, 5 Serbia’s migration policy is thus fundamental to Serbia’s accession to the European Union. However, even before Serbia’s candidacy for EU membership, the European Union exerted pressure for Serbia to act along the interests of the European Union in terms of migration policy. A brief, selective outline:

In 2007, the European Union and the Serbian state signed a readmission agreement, in return for which Serbian citizens received visa facilitation. In addition to the readmission agreement, further steps in the visa liberalization process included Serbia’s adoption of national laws such as the Asylum Law in 2007, the Law on State Border Protection in 2008, and the Law on Migration Management in 2012.13 Furthermore, Serbia signed several bilateral readmission agreements with various European Member States and neighboring countries and is in the process of negotiating with more countries, among them Belarus and the United Arab Emirates. The Serbian government is also planning on readmission agreements with countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Morocco, making chain deportations a growing threat. Serbia also implemented a so-called Assisted Voluntary Return Program for the period 2019-2021, funding the „information and identification of potential returnees.“ This program was implemented by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), „with the support of the EU and Member States.“14Operationalization of the Pact – Migratory relations with Serbia, 7

In 2014, the Serbian state signed „an agreement on operational and strategic cooperation with Europol.“15Operationalization of the Pact – Migratory relations with Serbia, 6 The cooperation with the Anti-Migrant Smuggling Center of Europol, according to the internal document, takes place on a daily basis and on several levels. With Frontex, Serbia has already entered into a „working arrangement“ in 2009. In 2019, a status agreement was concluded that gives Frontex operational and executive powers in Serbia.16 Frontex has further been endowed with the competence to assist Serbia in border management and to conduct joint operations – deploying its own troops, and through technical and operational assistance.17 The agreement entered into force in 2021. According to the internal document, the first joint operation on the Serbian-Bulgarian border took place in 2021. It is further stated that in 2021 „the EAS established an office within the EU delegation in Belgrade resulting in an increased presence of the agency in the region.“18Operationalization of the Pact – Migratory relations with Serbia, 6 Further, a „joint roadmap with the European Asylum Agency (EUAA) for the period 2020-2022 to develop a national asylum and reception system in line with EU standards“19Operationalization of the Pact – Migratory relations with Serbia, 6 has been established.

As the authors of a publication on the European Border Regime in the Balkans aptly put it: „In pursuit of their goal to become EU member states, Serbia…agreed to facilitate the transformation of [its] national legislation concerning migration in accordance with the demands of the EU, which primarily focus on the externalization of its border regime to so called third countries and the containment of illegalized migration on its periphery.“20

However, it has to be stated that the asylum system is rudimentary at best. People on the move for the most part stay informally and look for an opportunity to continue their journey. „Since the establishment of the national asylum system in 2008, until the end of March 2020, 647,512 persons have expressed their intention to apply for asylum in Serbia. The number of persons granted international protection status remains low at 173.“21 Also, Serbia is planning to conclude readmission-Agreements with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Irak and Morocco.22 would mean that Serbia cannot be regarded to be a safe third country – neither for Roma nor for third country nationals.

Operationalizing the Pact – turning Serbia into a priority country

The internal EU document “Operationalization of the Pact – Migratory relations with Serbia” indicates that this transformation of national legislation and the cooperation with Serbia is considered mostly satisfactory by the Presidency of the Council. Nevertheless, the Council Presidency proposes Serbia as a priority country for the action plan and imagines the intensification of cooperation at the following levels:

1. The strengthening of Serbian capacities in migration management

The Presidency of the Council of the European Union calls for a „strengthening of capacities in migration management.“23Operationalization of the Pact – Migratory relations with Serbia, 10 In this context, this term seems mostly to denote the facilitation of access to the Serbian asylum process. This access is to be facilitated by the support of the European Asylum Agency, possibly through a dedicated liaison officer. The concern about access to the asylum process must be placed in the context of the „low number of applications in the asylum procedure compared to the declarations of intent.“24Operationalization of the Pact – Migratory relations with Serbia, 4 By facilitating access to the asylum process, the European Union wants to ensure that fewer people leave Serbia for the north – Serbia is envisaged to no longer be a transit state, but to become a so-called destination country.

2. The alignment with the common EU visa policy

Serbia is criticized for not aligning its visa policy with that of the European Union. Nationals of some states can enter Serbia without visas, who would need a visa for the European Union. For the Presidency of the Council this means „irregular migration and security risks to the EU.“25Operationalization of the Pact – Migratory relations with Serbia, 10 This is not the first time the European Union has influenced Serbia’s visa policy. In 2018, it threatened to exclude Serbian nationals from visa-free access to the Schengen area if Serbia continued to grant Iranian nationals visa-free access to Serbia, thereby facilitating access to the European Union.26 In 2018, the visa requirement for Iranian citizens was reintroduced. In an attempt to expand the territory to which fewer and fewer people have legal access, the Presidency of the Council of the European Union is demanding the Serbian state to align its visa policy to the European Union’s policy.

3. Support for readmission with third countries

The implementation of the readmission agreement between the European Union and the Serbian state is considered by the Council to be satisfactory, „with Serbia having improved the implementation of the provisions on third country nationals since 2018.“27Operationalization of the Pact – Migratory relations with Serbia, 7 Although Serbia has concluded readmission agreements with numerous so-called third countries, is in negotiations, or has sent proposals, this seems to be too little for the EU. Thus, it proposes to support the Serbian state in managing returns, „where appropriate with the support of Frontex, the absence of which is a significant obstacle for Serbia in managing return.“28Operationalization of the Pact – Migratory relations with Serbia, 11 The proposed involvement of Frontex in this support is in line with the massive expansion of Frontex’s capacity in the area of return.29

The funding instrument for the EU-Serbian cooperation on migration mentioned in the document is the „Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA)“, a funding instrument that is allocated for EU candidate countries. According to the internal document, since 2015 around €230 million have flown in „emergency migration assistance in the region“, and €95 million in „capacity building of border authorities and monitoring mechanisms.“ Furthermore, €260 million were deployed „to ensure an improvement of the asylum procedure and reception while strengthening the fight against human trafficking and the system of returns to the country of origin.“ In the internal document is mentioned that at the end of March this year, a „new cross-cutting measure“ is to be presented in order to define the funding framework for migration-related projects in the Western Balkans in the coming years.30Operationalization of the Pact – Migratory relations with Serbia, 9

Exclusion and containment in Serbia

If the Presidency of the Council has its way, Serbia would take a priority role in the Action Plan yet to be elaborated within the framework of the New Pact. In particular, it envisages intensifying cooperation with Serbia at the levels of migration management, visa policies and return. The main purpose of the cooperation seems to be to reduce the number of people on the move reaching the European Union. The Presidency proposes to develop measures to further restrict the possibilities of people on the move to travel to Serbia, and if they still succeed, to take measures so that they remain in Serbia or be deported. From transit country to so-called destination country – this seems to be the thrust of European cooperation with Serbia. This implies that the Presidency wants to ensure that also Serbian citizens cannot leave the country in order to apply for asylum in European member states. This is reflected in the classification of Serbia as a safe third country, a classification that does not correspond to reality, especially for Roma living in Serbia. Nor does it correspond to that of the people who want to cross Serbia and are now being held in the country. With the increasing outsourcing of migration control to Serbia, the European Union is deliberately accepting further exposure of people on the move to the violence and unbearable conditions to which they are subjected in Serbia. These have been documented in great numbers: „State authorities in Serbia regularly abuse their power, with people-on-the-move reporting multiple types of violence at the hands of the Serbian police,“31 and camp officials.32 People on the move in Serbia also encounter a lack of infrastructure. The fact that people on the move are being held up in Serbia has been further exacerbated as a result of the expansion of the border infrastructure, the creation of transit zones at the Serbian-Hungarian border, which for a large part of the people are accessible only after months of waiting.33, the normalization of pushbacks, which people experience both to Serbia and pushbacks at the hands of Serbian officials, worsen the situation.34 The attempt to increase returns both to and from Serbia is further creating the danger of chain deportations, given the readmission agreements with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Irak and Morocco that Serbia is planning on.35

The document once again demonstrates that the European Union attempts to outsource its migration and border politics, in this case to Serbia – regardless of the destabilizing effect on the region,36 and the dramatic consequences for people on the move.

Please find the document here.


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