VIENNA – Serbia will never close its borders to migrants, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told Reuters on Wednesday, but he said EU leaders must help frame a plan on how to cope with the tens of thousands pouring into the Balkan region.
About 100,000 migrants, many of them from Syria and other conflict zones in the Middle East, have entered Serbia this year on their way north to Hungary and Europe’s Schengen zone of passport-free travel. Hungary is building a 3.5-meter high fence along its 175-km (110-mile) border with Serbia seeking to keep the migrants out.
“We will never erect any fences, any walls,” Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said in an interview ahead of the Western Balkans Summit in Vienna.
“We speak about desperate people, we don’t speak about criminals and terrorists,” Vucic said. “They are just on their way to find better lives for themselves and their kids: they need help, they don’t need condemnation and punishment.”
He added: “You cannot stop the flow of life with fences.”
Refugees would simply find other routes to get to Western Europe, he said. “They can go through Bulgaria and Romania, they can go through Croatia.”
A parliament-appointed rights official in Serbia has suggested asking migrants to settle in hundreds of villages left empty by depopulation, particularly since the wars that broke up Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
“We should consider offering (migrants) to stay in the parts of Serbia that are empty,” Brankica Jankovic, Serbia’s commissioner for protection of equality, told B92 TV on Tuesday.
Jankovic was chosen to run Serbia’s human rights watchdog in May, proposed by the ruling coalition led by the conservative Progressive Party. Her suggestion drew some criticism.
“How would (migrants) integrate into society living in the parts of the country with no economy and no people?” asked Jelena Milic, director of the Belgrade-based Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies.
Serbia said around 10,000 migrants were passing through the country at any time, many of them heading for Hungary.
Serbia, which aims to start negotiations on European Union membership this year, has received several hundreds of thousands euros from the 28 nation-bloc in aid to help refugees, but Vucic said this did not cover the costs of taking care of them.
Another €3 million had been earmarked, he said, and Serbia was building three reception centers as winter nears.
Vucic also said his government would make a decision on whether to call early elections by end-September.