The European Migration Crisis Up Close

I am conducting research in Serbia for a few weeks on post-conflict return migration.  While I interview people impacted by a war nearly twenty years ago, another migration crisis is playing out in front of me.

Serbia is part of the ‘Balkans Route’ of migration to Europe.  It was a real hotspot in 2015 when tens of thousands of Syrian refugees surged into Europe through Serbia and into Hungary, the first EU country where they could declare asylum.  That changed with the agreement between Turkey and the EU in March of 2016 that stemmed the flow of refugees out of Turkey.

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However, Syrian refugees were not the only ones who were trying to get into the EU.  Migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq are also on the move and have made it to Serbia. Some are fleeing war and others looking for better economic opportunity in the EU.

In the wake of an anti-immigration vote in Hungary last week, those migrants in Serbia hoping for passage to an EU country are likely to be disappointed.   They seem to be aware of this fact.  Earlier this week after the Hungarian referendum hundreds of migrants left Belgrade to walk to the Hungarian border,.  They demanded that the border be opened for people fleeing war and poverty.  The peaceful demonstration ended after a day and the protesters were bussed back to Belgrade.

In Serbia several thousand migrants wait in camps and reception centers.  Around 700 are staying in two parks in the center of Belgrade, the capital city.

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Migrants in Belgrade Park

The presence of migrants in the parks is both glaringly obvious and completely normalized.  Most of the migrants are young, brown-skinned men in a city filled with Slavs.  The parks – indecisively cordoned off with orange plastic fencing – are open and residents pass through normally, as do students attending classes at the adjacent Economics Faculty building (visible in the background of the photo below).

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Economics Faculty Building

The migrants are not interested in staying in Serbia.  Only a small percentage has filled out asylum applications.  They aspire to make it to the better economic environment of the European Union countries.

To date the Serbian community has been remarkably hospitable.  Humanitarian organizations distribute blankets and food and provide mobile clinics for healthcare.   This would look much different in America, where no illegal migrant could be so public about their status and the migrants would most likely be treated as a threat.  Perhaps the suffering of Serbs during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s has made them compassionate regarding the situations of others touched by war.  Or they are simply not a threat because they have no desire to stay in Serbia.  Recent statements from the Serb president call the continuation of this hospitality into question.  Meanwhile, life carries on around the migrants – students attend their classes and Serbs come and go to the bus and train stations across the street.

These young men will not have an easy time.  Those that can qualify as refugees have some hope, but those who came in search of better economic opportunities are unlikely to find willing host countries in the EU.  EU countries balk at the demands on them to take in Syrian refugees.  Compassion will be in short supply for economic migrants.