European interior ministers secretly signed a statement to increase financial and material support for effective deportations from the Balkans. EU Commissioner for Home Affairs visited Serbia to strengthen partnership on migration and border management amid ongoing violence towards people on the move in the country. The EU Commission launches a new pilot project with Bulgaria to “address current migration challenges”.

A document accessed by Statewatch and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung reveals that European interior ministers signed a secret joint statement in February 2022 outlining EU and Schengen states commitment to increase financial and material support for deportations from the Balkans, enhancing the region’s role as a migration “buffer zone”. Ministers expressed commitment to “intensify cooperation” for “demand-oriented and targeted support in the field of return, in particular from the Western Balkans towards third countries” by ensuring the “rapid matching of needs and possible return assistance”. The statement also calls for “flexible Return Partnerships between Western Balkan partners, EU partners and/or Switzerland and/or on thematic areas of importance for returns,” such as “the exchange of best practices” and “better communication with specific countries of origin and transit”. These commitments are reflected in the Commission’s recent plan to address migration challenges in the Western Balkans, Statewatch explained. Meanwhile, Hungarian Chief Security Advisor, Gyorgy Bakondi is advocating for international cooperation on managing migration as it is according to him the only way for European law enforcement to be efficient in the combat of people smugglers. According to Bakondi, Frontex, the EU Border Agency and other EU law enforcement bodies would play a key role in coordinating the exchange of information as well as carrying out international operations that tackle people smuggling circles, as people smugglers operate within an international network. Bakondi also urged the EU to stop treating “migration as a positive phenomenon” as this increase “people smugglers” and “illegal migration” while noting that the Hungarian authorities have prevented thousands of people from crossing the EU border so far in 2023 without clarifying how. According to the organization 11.11.11 “Hungary communicates very openly and even proudly about pushbacks. They speak of about 160,000 pushbacks in 2022”.

The EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, visited Serbia on 16 March with the head of the European Border Agency, Frontex, Hans Leijtens to strengthen the EU’s partnership with the Serbian authorities on “migration and border management”. The Commissioner thanked Serbia for aligning the country’s visa policies with those of the EU and said that European Integrated Border Management (EIPM) “can only work well with our partners”. The EIPM framework , presented on the same day of the visit, outlines key priorities including strengthening border control through IT and inter-agency cooperation, enhancing efficient returns and cooperating with third countries. The Commissioner also announced a “very positive” step by signing an agreement with the Commission for Refugees of Serbia, making Serbia an Observer Country to the European Migration Network. “Both sides agreed to exchange up-to-date, objective, reliable and comparable information on asylum and migration in Serbia and the EU Member States”. Johansson also offered EU assistance and expertise in the field of returning irregular migrants to their countries of origin while proposing that the next step in the cooperation is “the revision of the agreement between Serbia and Frontex”. No Name Kitchen collective reported of evictions on the day of the visit, stating: “Evictions again in North Serbia. Yesterday 15/03 was the first time that so many squats got evicted simultaneously since the beginning of2023. People got evicted from many different areas along the North border between Serbia and Hungary. Even isolated places. Everyday torture”. According to the collective the Commissioner’s and Frontex’s visit aims to “fund torture”. NGO Asylum Protection in Serbia reported “bad conditions” in a local camp where hygiene is neglected, and staff are unfriendly. Furthermore, reports of increased repression including pushbacks conducted in cooperation with Hungarian police towards people in the move in Northern Serbia by both border and domestic authorities are intensively documented by multiple NGOs. A report by Klikactiv notes a trend of “violent pushbacks to Serbia from EU member states” accompanied by Hungarian police using brutal methods including physical violence towards women, children and elderly people. Meanwhile, ECRE member, Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, noted a slight progress regarding the exercise of the right to asylum in Serbia, underlining that the asylum system is “far away from being fully functional”. The organisation observed a lack of coordination between NGOs, international organisations and Serbian authorities which leads to difficulty in the implementation of the asylum procedure and to the impossibility of long-term refugee integration. Moreover, the organisation reports a visible increase in pushbacks from Hungary and Romania to Serbia and “concerning” treatment” by police authorities

Meanwhile, the European Commission launched a pilot project with Bulgaria on “preventing irregular arrivals, strengthening border and migration management” using a “multidisciplinary approach to strengthen border control, including deploying cameras, vehicle patrols and watchtowers”. “Strengthening the external borders with enhanced surveillance measures to be implemented at the Bulgaria-Turkey border is a key priority,” said the EU commission in a press release, adding that the project is “based on Bulgaria’s good practices and experience, including its excellent cooperation with Serbia, Türkiye and other neighbouring countries, as well as with the EU agencies active in Bulgaria”. In a letter obtained by Statewatch, the President of the European Commission Von Der Leyen states that EUR 600 million are “being made available shortly to substantially support Member States with border control and technological equipment” and a “first objective” for that money “would be the key border between Bulgaria and Turkiye. “The letter makes no mention of the human rights abuses that routinely take place in the implementation of EU migration policy”, says Statewatch.

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