Serbia faces surge in asylum seekers

AP News
Posted: Oct 21, 2011 7:55 AM
Serbia faces surge in asylum seekers

They roam the streets or sit in cafes, rent space in cellars and garages, even sleep in abandoned train cars parked outside town.

Asylum seekers are everywhere in this town of 7,000 people that sits on Serbia's western border with Bosnia. Serbia, still scarred from the Balkan wars and battling widespread poverty and unemployment, has become an unlikely magnet for people claiming to flee upheaval in Africa and the Middle East.

Serbia's authorities say that most of the over 2,500 people who have asked for asylum in the country this year _ a tenfold increase from two years ago _ are simply illegal migrants who will vanish before their requests are processed, heading to more prosperous economies in western Europe.

"Serbia has become a stopover for migrants," said Miljan Vuckovic, police official who runs the office for asylum seekers. "Almost none of them really want to stay."

In fact, the U.N. refugee agency said this week that Serbia's own citizens, if counted together with those in Kosovo, are ranked third in the world after Afghans and Chinese in the number of those seeking asylum in rich countries, followed by Iraqis and Iranians.

Serbia and other Balkan states are one of the main transit routes for illegal migrants hoping to reach western Europe. Migrants coming from Turkey and Greece are trafficked through Serbia and further north to Hungary, or west to Croatia.

Once people cross into the European Union's borderless Schengen zone, they can travel to any of the 25 countries in the area without showing documents.

Robert Letmajster manages Banja Koviljaca's asylum center _ one of two in the nation. He said the center has only about 80 beds, not nearly enough to accommodate the hundreds of asylum seekers in the town.

Their increased presence has triggered unease among residents. Zivana Cvejic complains that "it is unpleasant to move around in the dark here."

Serbian officials say that almost none of the migrants have documents, and when stopped by police they claim to seek asylum to avoid immediate deportation or detention.

Once the asylum procedure starts, they are granted freedom of movement, as well as free health care and temporary identification documents.

"They stay here for a while to recover, wash, rest, get medical aid," Letmajster said. "Then one day, they just disappear."