BELGRADE Serbia's cabinet on Wednesday approved draft amendments to the criminal code envisaging harsher sentences for people-smuggling, a move aimed at stanching the flow of illegal migrants, Tanjug news agency reported.
West European and Balkan countries have been considering how to respond if a European Union deal with Turkey that has significantly reduced a migrant influx into the EU this year collapses.
In 2015 hundreds of thousands of refugees mainly from the Middle East and Asia swept northward through non-EU Balkan states like Serbia bound for Western Europe, prompting countries along the route to erect border barriers.
But some migrants continue to trickle in from the south and more than 6,500 are now trapped in Serbia.
Under the draft amendments, anyone convicted of organized people-trafficking within Serbia will face jail terms of up to 15 years, up from the previous 12, Tanjug quoted senior Justice Ministry aide Radomir Ilic as saying.
There will also be jail sentences of up to eight years for assisting in illegal crossings of Serbia's borders, up from previous legal maximum of five years.
Parliament is expected to debate and enact the amendments next week.
"It is important not only to catch cross-border people smugglers, but to deter any attempt of local population from taking part," Ilic told Tanjug.
Serbian authorities blame people traffickers for much of the migrant influx. Since the beginning of this year, they have prevented over 5,000 illegal border crossings and charged over 350 suspected people smugglers.
(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Mark Heinrich)