Construction workers work on a fence on the Serbian side at the border with North Macedonia near the northern village of Tabanovce on Saturday.—AFP
Construction workers work on a fence on the Serbian side at the border with North Macedonia near the northern village of Tabanovce on Saturday.—AFP

BELGRADE: Serbia’s government has declined to comment on the construction of a fence that was ongoing on Saturday near its border with North Macedonia, a common crossing point for migrants traversing the Balkan region.

The barrier is being erected on the southern frontier, close to an official border crossing and the Tabanovce transit camp for migrants on North Macedonia’s side, according to a photographer. Images of the fence were initially published by Radio Free Europe earlier in the week, while North Macedonia’s interior ministry told state media that it was set up on Serbian territory.

Belgrade has, however, has remained silent, with the interior and foreign ministries, as well as the Prime Minister’s office, not responding to requests for comment.

According to an order published on the finance ministry’s website, which laid out conditions for crossing private property for the fence, the barrier was commissioned to “block the state border” to “prevent the spread of novel coronavirus” in case of “mass and unauthorised” crossings. Serbia, a key transit country on the so-called Balkan route, has recently seen a fresh tide of refugees and migrants hoping to reach Western and Northern Europe. Some 30,000 migrants and refugees registered in the country during the first half of 2020, almost three times the number during the same period last year, according to official data.

Several countries from the region, including Hungary, North Macedonia and Slovenia, built border barriers during the 2015 migrant crisis, when hundreds of thousands of people flowed through the Balkans fleeing war and poverty at home. That route was officially shuttered in 2016, but traffic has continued — at lower levels — through the region.

When asked to comment, European Commission spokesperson Ana Pisonero-Hernandez noted that EU funding to help Serbia manage migration, which has amounted to 100 million euros ($118 million) since 2015, does “not include the construction of fences.”

Published in Dawn, August 23rd, 2020