Serbia and the EU have well advanced cooperation when it comes to migration management and asylum. Right now, it is important that Serbia further aligns with the EU’s visa policy. In addition, there is a need for accelerated reforms in the fight against corruption and organised crime, counter-terrorism and anti-money laundering.
Humane and effective migration management along the Western Balkan route is our joint responsibility – this message was a leitmotif of the visit to the region of European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson. During her first two-day visit to Serbia, Commissioner Johansson, together with Serbian President Aleksander Vučić, attended the signing of the contract with which the EU allocated €2.5 million to support reception capacity, protection services and access to education for migrants in Serbia.
With Serbian Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin, she also witnessed the launch of the first Frontex joint operation at the Serbian border with Bulgaria, where Frontex officers from 14 EU member states will work side-byside with Serbian police officers to conduct surveillance and protect the border, and to combat smuggling and organised crime. Finally, she visited the Migrant Reception Centre in Obrenovac, which was recently renovated using EU financial support, to talk with several users of this centre.
In this interview for CorD, she summarises her visit and addresses further steps to be taken in strengthening cooperation with Serbia – on border control, smuggling prevention, migration management and other areas of the rule of law.
The EU has been supporting migration management in Serbia since 2015, by providing humanitarian assistance and protection to migrants through reception and care at centres for reception and asylum, including the provision of food, health and education, and by providing assistance to the local communities where migrants reside in an effort to strengthen social cohesion. The EU has to date contributed a total of €158 million to Serbia for these purposes.
How does the New Pact on Migration and Asylum translate into cooperation with the Western Balkan countries, and Serbia in particular?
The Pact presented in September last year included a significant focus on cooperation with partner countries outside the EU. There are special ties with the Western Balkans, and of course Serbia, as a future EU member. Migration is by definition cross-border; it is natural and will always exist. So, we need to work together, with Serbia and other countries situated along migration routes. The EU is there to support and strengthen cooperation when it comes to asylum and the reception of migrants, border management, stepping up returns of those migrants who don’t have the right to stay and combating migrant smuggling. Serbia is a reliable partner when it comes to migration. I had open and good discussions with both President Vučić and Interior Minister Vulin when I visited Serbia last week.
Combating smuggling is one of the priorities of migration cooperation between the EU and the Western Balkans. How would you assess Serbia’s efforts in this regard and what next steps are needed?
Cooperation between Europol and the Serbian police is already well advanced and positive, but organised crime is more cross-border, more violent and better organised than ever before. I had the pleasure of taking part in the launch of the joint operation with Frontex and Serbian border guards at the border between Serbia and Bulgaria on my visit. I met officers of the Serbian border police and the European Border and Coast Guard who will work together in the common interest of Serbia and the EU. This operation is a very concrete part of our common work to protect borders and fight organised crime and smuggling. It is also an important step forward in paving the way for similar operations at other borders.
In this regard, what are the major objectives that you intend to achieve during your visits to the Western Balkan countries, and Serbia in particular?
First of all, this was my first visit to Serbia, following my visit to other countries (Bosnia- Herzegovina and Albania) in the region in February. I was pleased to meet the president and ministers of the interior and EU integration, and to discuss migration and security-related matters, also in relation to the enlargement process. When it comes to migration management and asylum, our cooperation is well advanced. However, in order to manage migration effectively, it is important for Serbia to further align itself with the EU’s visa policy. In addition, accelerated reforms in the fight against corruption and organised crime, counter-terrorism and anti-money laundering are needed, as well as tangible and sustained progress on the rule of law.
Serbia and Europol can further step up their cooperation in addressing terrorist content online, right wing violent extremism and Serbia’s inclusion in Europol operational activities
What do you see as the major tasks of the Serbian authorities and nongovernmental organisations that are included in the process of voluntarily returning victims to their home countries?
A sound and humane return policy and procedures should ensure the respect of the fundamental rights of individuals, notably in the context of the European Convention on Human Rights. In particular, return must always respect the principle of non-refoulement. Return procedures should be carried out through a fair and transparent procedure. Decisions taken should be adopted on a case-by-case basis, based on objective criteria, and legal aid should be made available to those who lack sufficient resources. When implementing return procedures, special attention should be paid to the needs of vulnerable persons. For example, unaccompanied minors, disabled people, pregnant women, persons who have been subjected to torture, rape or other serious forms of violence. In these cases, in particular, it is important to provide as much support as possible for voluntary return and reintegration into the country of origin. Specifically for victims of human trafficking, structures should be in place to swiftly identify and address vulnerabilities. The Commission, together with EU member states and Frontex, are supporting Serbia in this regard.
How does the European Multidisciplinary Platform against Criminal Threats (“EMPACT”) concern the countries of our region?
The Western Balkan countries are key partners in EMPACT’s operations, as we have seen in multiple EMPACT joint actions against organised crime and drug trafficking. At the annual EU-Western Balkans Ministerial Forum on Justice and Home Affairs, the EU highlighted the importance of enhancing the participation of the Western Balkans in EMPACT’s operational actions.
How would you assess Serbia’s involvement in Europol’s ongoing counter- terrorism cooperation in the region?
Cooperation between Serbia and Europol is positive. For instance, Serbia proactively updates Europol on their foreign terrorist fighters’ list, as well as on terrorism related incidents. Serbia also contributed to the recently published Europol Terrorism Situation and Trend report 2021. There are still areas where we could further step up that cooperation, such as terrorist content online, right wing violent extremism and Serbia’s inclusion in Europol operational activities.
Southeast Europe is one of the most strategically important areas for the fight against firearms trafficking, and we will ensure that Serbia and all Western Balkan partners are fully equipped with EU-compliant legislation in this field
What do you perceive as the major threats related to terrorism and violent extremism? To what extent has the Joint Action Plan on Counter-terrorism for the Western Balkans proved successful?
Terrorism and violent extremism are threats to all of us, as reported by the Europol Terrorism Situation and Trend report. A number of individuals left the region bound for Syria and Iraq, and they are now coming back and have to be managed properly. The Joint Action Plan on Counter Terrorism for the Western Balkans created a framework of cooperation to make progress on all aspects related to countering and preventing terrorism and violent extremism. Examples of this cooperation include the regular exchange of information with Europol on foreign terrorist fighters. The EU is supporting the Western Balkans in this sensitive area, including through the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), and commitment in addressing terrorism and violent extremism in line with the EU policy is essential.
The EU has its new Action Plan on firearms trafficking and the Action Plan on drugs. How do you see the current situation in the region, considering that the armed conflicts of the recent past led to the huge proliferation of illegal firearms?
Southeast Europe is one of the most strategically important areas for the fight against firearms trafficking. We now have a unified continental action plan, underlining the joint challenges and solutions between the EU and Southeast Europe, for instance on the smuggling of alarm and signal weapons that can be illicitly converted to lethal firearms. The Western Balkan partners are exerting huge efforts to modernise their laws and their law-enforcement structures to better combat the trafficking of weapons. There is a lot that remains to be achieved, notably to properly incriminate firearms trafficking, because today smugglers are often only prosecuted for mere illicit possession. All this is essential, and we will support Serbia in the accession process to ensure that Serbia and all Western Balkan partners are fully equipped with EU-compliant legislation in this field (e.g., appropriate controls on the non-convertibility of alarm and signal weapons, proper security measures for the storage of weapons etc).
In light of Slovenia’s Presidency of the Council of the EU for the second half of 2021, which topics related to the Western Balkans do you see as being the most relevant?
I am pleased that the Slovenian Presidency has indicated that the Western Balkans will be their priority. During the upcoming Presidency, we want to encourage the Western Balkan countries to continue working on strengthening their migration management and asylum systems.
We will continue supporting the setting up of systems for the identification and registration of migrants and exchanges of information among Western Balkan partners and the EU. We intend to continue supporting initiatives to counter migrant smuggling and will establish a network of experts from the EU and the Western Balkans to prevent internet-facilitated sexual abuse and exploitation of children. A Western Balkans Summit on the wider relations is expected to be organised on 6th October.
During the upcoming Slovenian Presidency, we want to encourage the Western Balkan countries to continue working on strengthening their migration management and asylum systems.
The joint operation of Frontex officers and Serbian border guards at the border with Bulgaria is an important step forward in paving the way for similar operations at other borders.
The European Commission, together with EU member states and Frontex, are supporting Serbia in efforts to counter and prevent terrorism and violent extremism.