Iranians use visa-free travel to Serbia to flee to EU
Until six months ago, the Lovimi family from Iran had never heard of Serbia.
But here they are, currently in Belgrade, after arriving without visas last August, waiting to continue on to Germany, where they plan to build a new and better life in the future.
The family of four comes from the town of Ahvaz in the province of Khuzestan in Iran's south west, where the majority of the population is Arabic.
They complain that, as Arabs, they have few rights in Iran, their children are forced to learn Farsi and not Arabic in school, and they are treated as second-class citizens, with little hope of finding a job.
So, when Belgrade and Tehran abolished reciprocal tourist visas last August, the Lovimis decided to take their chance and come to Belgrade. And from there, they hoped to continue on to the EU and a better future.
The Lovimis are not the only ones.
According to official statistics, around 7,000 fellow Iranians have arrived in Serbia since August, intially as tourists, but some of them with no intention of returning home.
Shahla Lovimi, a 40-year-old housewife, says she and her family had originally gone to Turkey with the intention of carrying on from there to Germany via Italy.
"We have never had the intention to go through Belgrade. We have never heard about Belgrade. We went to Turkey and the smuggler took us here," she tells AFP.
She and her car mechanic husband and their two children, aged 11 and 17, paid the smuggler 22,000 euros ($27,000).
- Left on their own -
For two months, they lived in various Belgrade apartments and hostels, waiting for the smuggler to pick them up and take them to the EU by car.
But when the smuggler vanished four months ago, leaving them on their own, the Lovimis turned to Info Park, a local non-governmental group helping refugees.
According to Info Park's communication officer Stevan Tatalovic, a number of Iranians are using the visa liberalisation agreement to come to Europe and stay there illegally as migrants.
"These are often people who are persecuted for political reasons, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) people, or people whose religion was not Islam," Tatalovic told AFP.
Their intention is not to seek asylum in Serbia, but to continue on, often to Britain or other EU countries, he said.
Serbia argues that visa liberalisation will help develop tourism between the two countries and attract business investment in the longer term.
Nevertheless, Serbian Trade Minister Rasim Ljajic said the two countries are aware of, and will clamp down on any possible abuses of the visa-free scheme.
However, Info Park's Tatalovic said that with direct flights between Tehran and Belgrade resuming after 27 years, up to 600 Iranians could soon be arriving in Serbia every week.
Two airlines are already offering flights and a third will follow in April and most of the flights are already fully booked until the end of summer.
"The migration systems in Europe must recalibrate for this new route," Info Park warned in a recent statement.
While the numbers cannot be compared with hundreds of thousands who passed through Serbia in 2015 and 2016, EU officials are nevertheless concerned.
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said recently that the EU and Germany were already asking why the country had abolished the visa regime.
Hundreds of thousands of migrants travelling to western and northern Europe passed through Belgrade along the so-called Balkan route until it was shut down in 2016.
- Trying their luck on foot -
Several thousands of them got stuck in Serbia, but every day dozens try to continue their journey.
Shahla Lovimi says her family will try to reach the EU on foot.
"The smuggler has disappeared and we have no money to pay another one. We will maybe try our luck walking," she says.
The family was intercepted by police when they tried to enter EU member Croatia earlier this month, and they were sent back to Serbia.
But Lovimi insists they will try again as going back to Iran is not an option for them.
"There is no other way than to go through Croatia because all other borders are closed," she says.
© 2018 AFP