SOMBOR, Serbia -- For providing migrants with a place to sleep at his hostel in Sombor in northwestern Serbia, Sinisa Sevo has been labeled a traitor by Serbian right-wing extremists and targeted with death threats on social media.
His photo and those of five others, plus personal data, were included on posters that were plastered across the city of some 80,000 by the far-right group People’s Patrol, which accused the six of profiting by illegally providing accommodation to migrants.
“This is a small town. And when someone labels you like that, it matters,” Sevo told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.
Police say they are investigating, but in the meantime, Sevo has been forced to shut down his hostel.
Serbia currently accommodates some 5,000 refugees and migrants, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. The country is on the so-called Balkan route that is used by migrants and refugees escaping conflict, hardship, and persecution.
The number of migrants illegally entering the European Union by crossing the Western Balkans has almost doubled this year, EU border agency Frontex said in August, with the majority coming from Syria and Afghanistan.
In Sombor, not far from the border with EU members Croatia and Hungary, refugees and migrants are housed in a state-run center that is unable to cope with the numbers. Private hostels, like those run by Sevo, have stepped up to fill the gap, something right-wing extremists don’t like. They have marched in Sombor and other Serbian cities over the past year and carried out other actions, including confronting and threatening migrants, fueling fears and prejudices amid an already tense situation, observers say.
People mostly from the Middle East and Asia have stayed at his hostel over the last year, Sino said.
Onslaught Of Hatred
On October 9, posters including the photos and data of those accused by People’s Patrol of profiting from the migrant crisis appeared across Sombor. On social media, the right-wing extremist group spread the same accusations.
"Sombor citizens, these are your neighbors who illegally rent out accommodation to migrants,” the group wrote on its Facebook page, which has more than 43,000 followers.
That triggered an onslaught of hatred, says Sevo.
“There have been comments like, ‘Hang them from trees,’” Sevo recounted.
Others called those targeted “traitors” who "should be expelled from the country with the migrants.”
Sevo said his concerns grew after his wife began to receive threatening messages on social media as well.
“At first, I didn’t take it seriously, but after a while I began to worry, especially about my family,” he said.
On October 12, those singled out on the posters filed a report --including details of the threats they had received on social media -- with police, who said their complaint would be forwarded to local prosecutors.
“Now we are waiting to see whether the prosecutors will take action,” Sevo said.
The Serbian Interior Ministry confirmed to RFE/RL that such a report had been received by police in Sombor and that it would be forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for “further proceedings.”
A day after the posters appeared, People’s Patrol organized a demonstration, with chants of “We don’t want migrants” heard as a few dozen protesters marched through the streets of Sombor.
The right-wing activists are escalating an already tense situation in the city, where many migrants are forced to sleep in parks and elsewhere because of the shortage of accommodations.
"They are literally harassing them (refugees)… They are literally looking for a reason to attack them," says Sevo.
His hostel and others providing shelter to migrants have been closed by police amid the pressure from the right-wing activists, and for violating Serbian law.
‘Fertile Ground’ For Extremists
Under Serbian legislation, only migrants who have formally applied for asylum can legally be provided with private accommodation. Hoping to reach the EU, most migrants do not apply in Serbia.
The authorities needed to take firm action to counter the campaign launched in Sombor by People’s Patrol, opined Rados Djurovic, a member of the Belgrade-based NGO Center for Protection and Assistance to Asylum Seekers.
"Such expressions of prejudice, even hatred, are illegal and must be prosecuted," Djurovic said.
Poor communication between officials running migrant centers and the local populations where such facilities are located has fueled fears and prejudices, ratcheting up tensions, Djurovic said.
Serbia has 20 refugee centers – including the one in Sombor – that are managed by the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration.
That agency’s mismanagement of those centers, according to Djurovic, has created “a critical mass of problems that are fertile ground for extremist parties and movements that operate by stoking fear and prejudice.”
Djurovic said the refugee agency's mismanagement has meant that as many as 1,000 migrants mill about the refugee center, unable to find shelter. In turn, Djurovic continues, they are preyed on by those offering to smuggle them out of Serbia at exorbitant prices.
The Commissariat for Refugees and Migration did not immediately respond to RFE/RL's request for comment on the situation in Sombor.
The so-called People’s Patrols date back to 2020, when they first appeared in several Serbian cities, organizing anti-migrant protests and other actions, some of which they have shared on social media networks.
Damjan Knezevic, who identifies himself as a leader of the group, posted a video to social media in February 2020 showing a group of hooded men confronting what appears to be a group of migrants and refugees in downtown Belgrade, telling them they would "have a problem" if “Serb women and men” were attacked.
Although the Serbian Interior Ministry later confirmed to RFE/RL that police had forwarded details of the incident to prosecutors, the Prosecutor’s Office of Serbia did not respond to requests for comment from RFE/RL.