|Group of migrants and refugees in Sarajevo Photo:EPA|
Serbia has reintroduced visas for Iranians, scrapped only just over a year ago, saying the system had been abused by asylum seekers hoping to get into the EU.
Neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina has warned that Iranians were using legal travel to Serbia to then enter neighbouring Bosnia on their way to the EU.
The decision was published in Serbia’s Official Gazette on Wednesday and will take effect eight days after this.
Serbia’s Internal Affairs Minister, Nebojsa Stefanovic, told parliament on Wednesday that visas would be re-introduced because a number of Iranian nationals had abused the privilege.
In August 2017, Serbia abolished visas for Iranians in a move to boost tourism, improve growth and reach out to non-European markets.
But the Serbian authorities say the number of travellers from Iran who reach Serbia and then cross into EU countries had since risen significantly.
“The move is a response to the problem that many people [from Iran] enter Serbia and either attempt to travel to the West or to seek asylum,” Djurovic Rados Djurovic, from the Belgrade-based Asylum Protection Centre, told Reuters news agency.
Bosnia’s security minister, Dragan Mektic, said on May 30 that the number of migrants from Iran was rising, and that Bosnia was experiencing a “serious problem” because Serbia had abolished visas for Iranians.
“We are facing a serious problem because Serbia abolished visas for Iranian citizens. They legally come to Serbia, and they pass us [in Bosnia] illegally and go to the EU,” Mektic said.
Media reports have said that more than 15,000 Iranians have visited Serbia since visas were abolished last August – and that direct flights connecting Belgrade and Tehran have been coming in full but returning empty.
Media have also carried warnings that the EU was mulling abolishing its visa-free regime with Serbia owing to concerns about the number of Iranians coming to Serbia and not going home.
Official data shows that 1,100 Iranians have officially claimed asylum in Serbia to secure access to refugee centres, where they can get shelter and food alongside 4,000 other registered migrants from Asia and the Middle East and elsewhere, Radio Free Europe reported.
A report in the UK Guardian newspaper in late September said many of the Iranian refugees arriving in Serbia “first cross into Bosnia and Herzegovina, as the longer border gives them a better chance”.
It cited Bosnian media reports as saying that the number of Iranians seeking asylum in Bosnia until September this year stood at 1,647 compared to 16 in the whole of last year.
The same report cited Goran Puanovic from the NGO INFO Park as saying that the Iranian migrants passing through Serbia were usually gay, or Christian, or politically oppressed.
It cited one migrant in Serbia as saying: “In Iran, my biggest threat was my own family, not the government. Family is the biggest problem when it comes to LGBT.”
Both Serbia and Bosnia have become increasingly nervous about being used as jumping off points for migrants hoping to enter Western Europe.
More than 650,000 people passed through in Serbia in 2015 on their way to the EU, though this route was largely shut down in March 2016.
These days migrants are using new routes to reach the West via Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and sometimes Serbia, experts say.
Bosnian media have reported that chair of Bosnia’s Council of Ministers, Denis Zvizdic, informed EU officials about the growing problem of migrants using Bosnia, seeking a solution for some 10,000 migrants and refugees registered this year in Bosnia.