Published:17 June 2011
Region: Serbia & EU
'Stricter border control' has become a buzz-phrase in Serbia. It used to mean the EU practising a tough regime; these days it’s the Serbian government against Serbian citizens, using border controls introduced without the benefit of Parliamentary debate by administrative fiat from the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Brussels had warned Belgrade that the future of visa-free travel in the EU region might be at risk, since when the Serbian government has launched a war against ‘bogus asylum seekers’ - not entering but leaving the country. And it's full steam ahead, with support from all the mainstream media.
Here are a few headlines from Serbian press by way of illustration:
· "Ministry of internal affairs: Numbers of bogus asylum seekers still high" (Blic, Politika newspapers).
· "Family stopped while trying to board an airplane to Stockholm" (Press newspapers)
· "Increase in number of bogus asylum seekers from Serbia" (Blic newspapers)
· "Decrease in number of bogus asylum seekers from Serbia" (Blic newspapers)
· "Taking away passports as possible answer to influx of bogus asylum seekers" (Politika newspapers)
From 1995 - when the first international sanctions were raised against Serbia and the Balkans - to 2009, citizens from Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro were unable to travel to the EU without visas, detailed explanations of whom they were going to visit and why, and a guarantee from an EU citizen to demonstrate that they were not seeking asylum.
In the long run-up towards membership of the union, EU visa requirements for Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro were lifted in December 2009. In the twelve months that followed, 17,000 Serbians set out on buses with one-way tickets to Luxemburg, Sweden, Norway, Belgium or Germany, where they applied for asylum instead of enjoying the restaurants and museums.
Overall, 98% of these asylum seekers were refused and were returned to their countries of origin or stayed as illegal migrants in the EU. Out of 17,000 people, a mere 340 were granted asylum by the authorities.
This didn't look good for the Balkan countries still aspiring to EU membership, so theSerbian government introduced checks on everyone wishing to travel within the EU, to make sure that they were not intending to seek asylum. On May 14 this year, for example, one family attempting to board a plane to Sweden with only 100 euros on them were turned back. They had said that friends in Sweden would give them money and support during their visit. To the authorities, they looked like asylum seekers in the making. According to media reports, the Serbian government is now pushing for even tighter control of the country's borders to meet the EU's conditions for candidacy for membership of the union. The government proposes to withdraw passports from their own people "if there is a possibility that they will apply for asylum".
Putting this sort of policy into practice, which introduces punishment based on the unproven suspicion that someone will try to do something that is not actually against the law, ought to do nothing for Serbia's desire to be welcomed into the family of democratic nations. It is, after all, an idea worthy of North Korea.
But the usual game of tit-for-tat is being played. The Serbian government tries overzealously to accept all criticism in order to acquire the status of EU candidate member and, in return, the EU bureaucracy is willing to close one eye, or both, to the deteriorating state of human rights when it comes to potential asylum seekers from the Balkans.
These are difficult times, and it's easy to understand why Brussels might feel relaxed about such a situation. Austerity measures are widespread and the EU struggles with an ‘influx’ of asylum seekers from the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region. If Serbia can help by controlling its own population, so much the better. But can there ever be an excuse for breaching international law and human rights, especially when it comes to such a basic one: the right of asylum?
Presumably, Belgrade's view is that Serbian citizens are abusing that right by seeking asylum without due cause - they are, in other words, 'bogus asylum seekers'. The UK-based Refugee Council has this to say about the idea of 'bogus aslym seekers': “There is no such thing as an 'illegal’ or ‘bogus’ asylum seeker. Under international law, anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country that has signed the 1951 Convention and to remain there until the authorities have assessed their claim”.
And this view comes as a guideline from a country which is destination for asylum seekers: No ‘bogus asylum seekers’.
When an official representative of a country, or - as happened in Serbia - the Minister for Internal Affairs, calls people ‘bogus asylum seekers’ when they are actually trying to leave the country, it should offend the common sense of journalists and readers alike. No-one in the Serbian media seems to be bothered about it.
It's like an alleged rapist describing his accuser as a ‘bogus rape victim’ in newspapers before trial. Someone is an asylum seeker by virtue of seeking asylum. If the application fails, he or she becomes an illegal immigrant.
Serbia’s position is complex, being both a source of asylum seekers to EU countries, and a target destination for a few thousand people from Afghanistan, Iraq and the Kurdish territories who apply for asylum in Serbia on their way to the EU, because they fear arrest or because they were misinformed and think they are already in the EU after crossing the Bulgarian border.
Bearing in mind how much the Serbian government could lose if the EU reinstates visa requirements for Serbian citizens - or rather, how much Serbian citizens could lose - it’s understandable that the government is doing its best. But in this case, its ‘best’ is in breach of international law, even though it is warmly supported by EU officials, whose only interest is stopping the torrent of asylum seekers into the union.
The media in Serbia fails to give the other side of the story. By emphasising that “most asylum seekers from Serbia who arrive in EU countries are non-Serbs” (Roma Gypsies, Albanians, or Bosniaks from Serbia) they push the government message that it's acceptable to remove someone's right to hold a passport when they're not ethnic Serbs and therefore might easily go to a different country and apply for asylum.
The official line is that the non-Serbs might undermine the image that Serbia, as a newly born democracy, has in the eyes of the EU public.
Therefore, no passports for ‘them’.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this story is that, after a thorough analysis of the media coverage in Serbia surrounding the issue, it’s obvious that the 'bogus asylum seekers' label isn't just tabloid-speak, as it was in the UK when the Daily Mail jumped on the anti-immigration bandwagon some years ago.
In Serbia, the media are united; it is as if all the press and TV stations in the UK were to say with one voice: "Taking away passports could solve the problem of British bogus asylum seekers fleeing to the US".
The unexpected rush of asylum seekers from the MENA region, people dying in boats in the Mediterranean and the dire economic problems of the Eurozone are real and urgent issues for the EU; but they must not be used even remotely to justify the infringement of human rights by another state in its quest for access to the EU club.
And in case anyone in Britain is concerned, they can relax. A horde of Serbian asylum seekers isn't about to descend on the UK, since that country never lifted visa requirements for Serbians in the first place.
Pedja Urosevic for Media Diversity Institute