Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Serbia: Chinese Marriage Scam
They began with stalls in the flea markets, now they own shops in city centres. Slowly but surely, thousands of Chinese are taking over the south of Serbia. Their goods are five times cheaper than domestic products, business is flourishing and they are in no hurry to leave. In order to stay, many are following a well-trodden path to citizenship and permanent residence: marriage.
"You Serbs may be moving to Western Europe, but Serbia is Western Europe to us," one Chinese businessman told IWPR. Accordingly, the young women, divorcees and widows of southern Serbia have adopted the practice, long common in countries like Britain, France and Germany, of exchanging their marriage vows - and the residence rights which come with them - for money.
Natasa from Nis, in south Serbia, recently married a Chinese for a fee of 20,000 German marks. "Isn't it every girl's dream to marry a prince on a white horse with pocketfuls of money?" she said jokingly. In a country where the average monthly salary is only a few hundred marks, the payment represents a small fortune. Natasa claims that many of her girlfriends are planning to follow suit.
Marija from Leskovac was delighted with her marriage fee of 17 000 marks.
"Getting married on paper hasn't changed me in the slightest," she told IWPR. "In the meantime, I have secured my future for a few years at least."
So far, both sides seem happy with the arrangement. The girls, who mostly say the Chinese are "honest and upstanding", are confident they can sustain the two or three years of marriage required by the authorities for their "husbands" to then retain their papers after a divorce.
As for the "husbands", it is money well invested. Natasa's says it will take him no more than six months selling goods in the flea market to recoup the 20,000 marks he paid her.
Following a ceremony at a local registry office, the newly-weds must move in together and pass through a lengthy process of proving their cohabitation to the authorities. After they have also proven that they have the means to support themselves and no criminal records, the groom can be granted a Yugoslav passport.
Once they have acquired Yugoslav citizenship, they're able to import goods directly from China. Relatives send merchandise to Bulgaria, from where it is easily transported to southern Serbia. "My stuff comes to Sofia. It doesn't cost much to travel there and more importantly I don't need a visa," said a Chinese shop owner in Nis, who now has Yugoslav citizenship.
For the time being, it seems the authorities are tolerating the arrangement. Novica Zdravkovic, police chief of Pcinje borough in southern Serbia, told IWPR that the police are well aware that finance, not romance, is behind the sudden spate of Serb-Chinese marriages, but no measures are envisaged to try and stop them.
Jasmina Arsic is a freelance journalist working in southern Serbia.
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