The Serbian government on Saturday announced it is deploying troops to the country's border with Croatia in order to "secure" and "protect" citizens and the residents of three migrant camps situated there.
"Serbian Armed Forces are providing peace and security to all residents of Sid and are protecting migrants," reads the title of a press statement from the Serbian Ministry of Defence on Sunday, May 17.
Serbia over the weekend announced its decision to deploy troops from the army to the Croatian border in order to maintain order for those resident in the area. The minister of defence, Aleksandar Vulin, said that the order had come from the commander in chief of the armed forces, President Aleksandar Vucic.
Minister Vulin said that the troops would be "taking responsibility for the external security of migrant camps in the Municipality of Sid." The minister and the armed forces chief of staff visited the troops deployed there on Sunday.
Three reception centers guarded by troops
The three reception centers now being guarded by armed troops are Principovac, Sid-Stanica and Adasevci. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the migrants in the three centers number about 1,500 and come mostly from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria.
The press release stated that the minister did "not expect big problems." He continued: "We do not expect that anyone here will have to use force, but we want to help our citizens feel better, calmer, and safer, and we especially want to prevent migrants who are possibly out of camps to cause any problems." The minister emphasized that "all the needs of migrants who are in the reception centers will be met."
'Protecting' migrants and the local population
The soldiers, all wearing black masks to protect against the transmission of the novel coronavirus, were lined up alongside what looked like employees at the camps, also wearing masks. Minister Vulin claimed that, since the soldiers had been "protecting" the camps throughout the state of emergency declared in Serbia to fight the pandemic, all migrants had remained free of any infection and had been "taken care of."
The news agency AP however reported that the deployment was also there to "protect the local population from alleged harassment and robberies committed by the migrants." Vucic reportedly told local TV Prva that as Serbia began to lift the coronavirus lockdown, "the migrants started venturing outside the camps, committing petty crimes and illegal entries into houses." Because of that, Vucic continued, "people are feeling unsafe."
'A preventative measure'
In the press release from the ministry, the Commissioner for Refugees and Migration Vladimir Cucic said that the deployment of troops was seen as a preventative measure rather than a reaction to something that was already happening.
Cucic said he was "grateful" to the armed forces for carrying out this protection in the last few months and that the next steps were to work out "how to enable the migrants to do what they want most – to continue their journey peacefully and safely in both security and epidemiological terms."
According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, there were 9,429 migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Serbia and Kosovo at the end of April 2020. The majority of those on the so-called Balkan Route now come from Afghanistan (about 26.4%) and Pakistan (about 18.9%). Syrians account for just under 10% of those in the region, although not all are in Serbia.
At the end of April this year, only 2,981 had actually applied for asylum in Serbia and Kosovo. Most hope to continue their journey on to richer countries
within the EU bloc rather than stay in Serbia.
Migrants in Sid
Back in November 2019, Cucic was quoted in an article about migrants in the area of Sid in north-western Serbia on the website Azilsrbija.rs. Cucic said at the time that there was "enough room in the reception centers" to house all migrants who needed a place. He added that most of the reported trouble was not coming from migrants who were resident inside the centers, but rather from those waiting outside, hoping to be illegally trafficked by smugglers who "tell them where to sit and wait for several days [before being told] when they will cross [the border]."
Cucic said that the authorities had tried to put the migrants living outside the centers into a center but that "after a few days they escape and try to find help on the other side."
In response, the director of the Asylum Protect Center, Rados Djurovic, said that Cucic had partially misrepresented the situation and that it was not always easy to get a place in the center. He claimed that families and unaccompanied children also ended up sleeping rough, unable to find accommodation in one of the government centers.
Djurovic said that sometimes the authorities tried to take people to other centers in other parts of the country. He confirmed that migrants would often then find ways of escaping those centers and return to the Sid area searching for smugglers who would take them over the border.
warned that the numbers of those sleeping rough would create problems for the local population and in the long term, this would have "far-reaching"
consequences creating "health, social and security problems."