New report: Life in Limbo

A new report focuses on the consequences of thwarted mobility for refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants in Serbia.


As of August 2017, some 69,174 refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants were in situations of limbo across Greece and the Western Balkans.Their wait – for refugee status determination, relocation, family reunification or some other way to reach protection in their planned destinations across central and northern Europe – is characterised by limited information, uncertainty about the future and a growing sense of hopelessness.

The large majority of those stuck in limbo have been waiting for more than six months – some since before the implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement in March 2016. Most intended to seek asylum in countries such as Germany, Sweden and Austria, but successive border closures and tightening EU policies prevented them from reaching their planned destinations. While many of the 69,174 have applied for asylum – especially those in Greece – only a small proportion of those in Serbia have done so,hoping that they may still be able to access protection, reunite with family and friends and rebuild their lives in central and northern Europe.

Eighteen months on from the EU-Turkey Statement, people once described as ‘on the move’ across the Western Balkans are largely immobile. Many came to Europe having fled conflict and insecurity and feel unable to return. Unwilling to stay where they are, yet with limited options to continue their journeys, their wait is becoming intolerable.

Their thwarted mobility has consequences. The situation, needs and perspectives of refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants across the Western Balkans are changing. These changes have implications for providers of protection and assistance in both transit countries and countries of origin; for those responsible for integration and support in destination countries; and for EU actors and European states, who are responsible for imposing closed-border policies.

This report demonstrates how the Government of Serbia, with the support of the EU and other international donors, has invested considerable efforts to enhance migration management and tried to provide refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants with decent accommodation conditions and access to basic assistance.

This study examines the role of two important influences on mixed migration in this context.The first is the availability of support, a crucial factor encouraging and enabling people to make journeys to Europe in the first place. The second is the role of closed- border policies, which intended to prevent irregular migration, but in practice have succeeded in only slowing, rather than stopping irregular movement. The effects of closed-border policies on the vulnerability, needs and intentions of people who intended to seek protection in the EU but are stuck in limbo remain under-explored, as does their effect on integration in the longer term.

The research defines ‘support’ in broad terms, encompassing moral support, financial, and other kinds of assistance. We recognise that support comes with expectations and often conditions. The providers of such support are diverse, including networks of family members, friends, and multiple formal and informal structures encountered at different points along a journey.

Focusing on the situation in Serbia, where over 4,000 people were stranded en route to EU countries due to closed border policies at the time of data collection, this research places particular focus on the economic aspects of forced migration, the growing phenomenon of indebtedness, and the impacts of thwarted mobility on people’s mental health and ability to cope with daily life ‘in limbo’.

This research draws on 60 qualitative interviews with refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants, primarily from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, who came to Europe to seek protection, but remain ‘stuck in transit’ in Serbia.

Read the full report here.