In 2020–2022, Tunisian illegal migrants traveled through Serbia to reach Western Europe, as an alternative to the hazardous, more monitored Mediterranean route. This was driven by push factors in Tunisia, including deteriorating economic conditions and government acquiescence, and pull factors in Europe, namely smuggling networks and Serbian authorities looking the other way. While the route was sealed for Tunisians in November 2022, as long as transit states can use illegal migration to secure geopolitical leverage, such actions will continue.
- The deterioration of economic conditions in Tunisia following the COVID-19 pandemic and President Kais Saied’s effective coup of July 2021, which isolated the country from international donors and investors, helped drive illegal migration.
- The Serbia route provided a safer, less monitored passage to Western Europe than the Mediterranean route.
- Migrants from the marginalized region of Tataouine favored the Serbia passage especially and were helped financially by a regional diaspora living in Europe.
- The Tunisian state also welcomed the Serbia route. More migrants ensured higher remittances, while the government maintained deniability because Tunisians at the time required no visas for Serbia and Türkiye.
- Among the pull factors in Europe were smuggling networks, many from North Africa, who organized passage from Serbia to Hungary and beyond.
- Serbia’s ambivalence toward illegal migration was another pull factor. Serbia used migrants as political leverage, until termination of the visa-free regime closed the route to Tunisians.
Findings / Recommendations
- Smuggling networks in Serbia, divided by ethnic affiliation, were highly adaptable, allowing them to satisfy the sudden increase in demand for their services in 2021 and 2022.
- Competition among smuggling networks produced a rationalization of migrant flows using social media platforms, financial transfer procedures, and systems of transportation and accommodation.
- In allowing migrants to cross its territory, Serbia secured advantage over the EU in a context of vanishing hopes of accession to the union, border disputes with Kosovo, and pressure to align with EU sanctions against Russia.
- Though the route was closed to Tunisians in November 2022, Serbian actions sent a message to the EU that only Serbia’s accession would decisively resolve the migrant issue.
- Transit countries will continue to look the other way on illegal migration if it helps them to achieve political, financial, or geopolitical aims that are otherwise difficult to secure.
- The EU needs to offer a strategic horizon to countries in its neighborhood, one based on shared prosperity aimed at reducing illegal migration. Without an effective common system for dealing with illegal migrants, the EU will remain vulnerable to pressure.