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Refugees in Serbia and The Balkan Route. Letter from the Field.

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

Written by Zubia Willmann-Robleda (Ph.D), Researcher at the Centre for Intercultural Communication (SIK), VID Specialized University (Stavanger) Norway.

(Picture Zubia Willmann-Robleda)

14th of March 2022

Greetings from Belgrade, Serbia.

I have been here for a little over two weeks now and it already feels like I have been here a month. A lot has happened in the short time I have been here. I have come to Belgrade to conduct fieldwork for a small project (funded by VIDs Talentstipend) on the experiences of migrant women travelling alone in the Balkans, in particular, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Just for a little bit of context, these two countries are not in the EU and they are known for being transit countries for refugees trying to reach countries in the EU often on foot.

The Balkan Route

The interest in this research topic came from my PhD project, where I interviewed women seeking asylum in Norway, some of whom had taken the route through the Balkans to Norway alone. The Balkan route refers usually to the route that many migrants take often on land all the way from the Middle-East (Syria and Afghanistan most commonly) to Turkey, Greece and then the Balkan countries to make their way to popular destination countries in the EU such as Germany, Austria, Sweden, etc.

The route has changed since 2016 due to an agreement between the EU and Turkey to hold back refugees together with the building of high-tech border fences along Hungary, Croatia and other countries in the region.

A more dangerous route

The building of fences has not resulted in a halt to migration, but instead in making the route even more dangerous, putting refugees at the risk of being exploited and abused by smugglers and traffickers, whose activity has increased in the last years. This in addition to its rough terrain has led to the Balkan route to be called “one of the most perilous journeys for migrants”.

In light of this, I have become interested in knowing what it is like for refugee women in particular to take this particular route alone. Most focus in research and in the media has been on men, as they are the majority, nevertheless, there are also women taking this perilous route, but less attention has been placed on them. Women and girls, in general, are usually at a higher risk of gender-based violence on migratory routes around the world.

(Picture freepik)

NGOs versus the government’s approach

During my first two weeks in Belgrade, Serbia, I have gone to meet with the various NGOs (Non-Profit Organizations) that I have been in contact with. I have conducted interviews with experts working there as well as with some refugee women.These organisations provide various kinds of services to refugees such as psychological aid, safe housing, protection from gender-based violence and human trafficking, legal aid for their asylum application, etc.

When it comes to the Serbian government’s approach to refugees I have been told by people in the NGOs that it is one of humanitarian assistance, that is providing the basic services, that is, housing and food in refugee camps. This may be primarily because they expect most refugees to just transit through Serbia and not stay for long as that has been the trend in recent years. However, according to several NGO workers, by covering the mere basic needs of refugees, they also send out a message to anyone wanting to stay, that they are not really welcomed to do so. Of course, the situation is much more complex than that, and I shall explore its many nuances in a full-length academic article once I finish analysing the data collected in Serbia.

Few Ukrainian refugees

The demographics of migrants arriving in Serbia are changing constantly. Before and during COVID the majority seem to be from Afghanistan, Syria and Iran. More recently the country is seeing larger numbers of Africans arriving, in particular from Burundi as well as Indians and Pakistanis. According to the NGOs I spoke with there seem to be few Ukrainians coming to Serbia at the moment, the few that have come are not staying in camps nor have they sought asylum as they do not need a visa to enter the country and they can stay in Serbia for up to three months without registration.

The reason why there may be few Ukrainians fleeing to Serbia may be not only that it is not a country bordering Ukraine but also that Serbia is known for being rather pro-Russia due to historical reasons.

Working with the data

It is the end of June of 2022 as this blog post is getting published and I have been back home in Norway for two months now. Since returning I have started transcribing and slowly analysing the data that I collected in the Balkans (in the form of interviews with refugee women and NGO employees as well as observations). The goal is to write an article to be published in an academic journal.

This small project with its field visit to the Balkans has sparked my interest in developing a larger research project with multiple partners (universities and NGOs) in the Balkan and possibly the Mediterranean region to look into migration routes, border control and their effects on migrants in further detail. If you are interested in the topic and would like to discuss the possibility of collaboration, do not hesitate to get in touch.

Also, feel free to share this blog post with anyone that you think may be interested in it.


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