They’re known as the “geese” — a long line of Chinese in their 20s, mostly men, all wearing cheap casual clothes and carrying small knapsacks as they pass through customs at Belgrade’s Surcin International Airport.
The passengers arriving on a plane from Beijing on a recent afternoon include a five-member Chinese delegation, which leaves the airport in an official car with Yugoslav army plates, and a dozen or so Serbs, all carrying huge air-conditioner boxes labeled Mitsubishi. But the majority are geese.
“It’s like that all the time, my child,” says pilot Uca Prokopijevic, coming through customs with his own Mitsubishi air conditioner. “A flight to Beijing is empty, but the flight [back] to Belgrade is completely packed. Try booking yourself. It will be impossible to find a seat from Beijing.”
The immigrants are met by a local Chinese man with a mobile phone in one hand and a list of names in the other. After making some calls, he leads them outside in groups of five to 15, paired like schoolchildren on a field trip.
They head for a remote parking lot, where some second-hand Western-made cars with Italian or German plates appear out of nowhere. Everybody gets into a car, and they all disappear.
Belgrade as Gateway
You might not think Yugoslavia, one of the poorest and most isolated countries in Europe, could be a land of opportunity. But for about 15,000 Chinese immigrants, it is a new place to do business — and for thousands more, it has been a gateway to the West.
“About 80,000 Chinese have used Yugoslavia as a first step for their clandestine journeys to the West since the early 1990s,” says Predrag Milojevic, who runs a consulting agency for those Chinese who want to stay in Yugoslavia. “You even have a Chinese name for them, ‘Ya-Zi,’ or ‘geese’ in English. They are using Serbia as a gateway to the West at the rate of 400 people a week.”
Because of Yugoslavia’s good relations with China, Chinese citizens get visas to enter Belgrade legally and easily. All they need is a Chinese passport, an invitation letter from a relative living in Serbia, and proof that they have bought a round-trip plane ticket.
Most do not want to stay, says Milojevic, a Beijing University graduate who spent 14 years in China and Hong Kong. Their families have saved or borrowed $10,000 to pay a “master,” or smuggler, for all the necessary papers — plus a guarantee that his associates will meet the immigrant at the Belgrade airport and escort him or her illegally to the West.
The “geese” come largely from the poor Qingtian area of Zhejiang Province in Southern China, Milojevic says. From Belgrade they take one of three routes. Some go south through Montenegro, the smaller of Yugoslavia’s two republics, and then by boat to Italy. Others go west, crossing to Slovenia and then Austria via Croatia or the Serb-controlled part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. And many more try their luck heading north, through Hungary to Austria.
Not everybody succeeds the first time. A month ago, Serb police arrested 102 Chinese migrants on the border with Hungary for trying to leave the country illegally. All of them were deported to China.
A Thriving Chinatown
Many, at least temporarily, stay in Belgrade.
“I came here six months ago with my wife,” says “Lin,” 27, in perfect Russian. “We want to settle here for couple of years and then see where we want to go next.”