Serbia appeals for border aid as region awaits migrant flows

September 8, 2016 9:48 AM EDT

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By Aleksandar Vasovic and Igor Ilic

BELGRADE/ZAGREB (Reuters) - Serbia has appealed to Austria and France for help controlling its southern and eastern borders, the country's interior minister said on Thursday, as countries across the region braced for a possible surge in migrant flows as winter approaches.

The country was at the center of last year's migrant influx into Europe, when hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war in the Middle East journeyed up through the Balkans to reach sanctuary in the continent's heart.

Over the summer, many migrants have attempted the sea crossing from North Africa to countries such as Italy. But as autumn brings more unsettled seas, the land route through the Balkans may see a revival of activity.

Many fear that the European Union's deal to pay Turkey to harbor more refugees will collapse amid frosty relations between Brussels and Ankara, triggering a repeat of last year's flood, which gave a boost to far-right and anti-immigration parties across Europe.

Serbia's request for technical assistance mirrors an earlier request to Hungary, which has agreed to send police officers with thermal imaging equipment to help patrol Serbia's border with Bulgaria and Macedonia.

In July, Serbia formed a joint military and police task force to tighten its control over its southern and eastern borders.

"Our task is to prevent illegal border crossings," Serbian interior minister Nebojsa Stefanovic told Tanjug news agency. "To control borders we need more technical assets."

More than 103,000 migrants have passed through Serbia so far in 2016, with most heading north toward Hungary. Over the past six weeks, the task force has foiled over 5,600 illegal crossing attempts, authorities said. Croatia has also seen the pace of illegal border crossings pick up over the past two months.

Most of the 5,000 asylum seekers already in Serbia at present want to carry on to Germany or Sweden, where they expect a warmer reception, after crossing the Hungarian border into the EU's passport-free Schengen zone.

Prompted by such concerns, Hungary has announced plans to build a second, more impenetrable fence along its border with Serbia to prevent "illegal" crossings, some 20,000 of which have taken place so far this year.

(Writing by Thomas Escritt)

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