Migration in Europe: the lingering Balkan route

By on September 7, 2016

The trend

The EU’s deal with Turkey was heralded for supposedly ending the migration route through the Balkans – from Greece into the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) on to Serbia and into the EU (via either Hungary or Croatia). Indeed, on 9th March, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, declared that, “irregular flows of migrants along western Balkans route have come to an end.”

And yet Serbia continues to grapple with migration flows. Some 103,500 are estimated to have crossed in the first six months of 2016, according to data from Serbia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. Of this number, over 7,300 filed asylum requests (though primarily in order to regulate their temporary stay) and over 5,000 were returned. Most enter illegally from Bulgaria and FYROM. Many are some of the 50,000 plus migrants whose patience at being stranded in Greece finally broke (overcrowded camps being listed as the main complaint). Some 356 smugglers have been reported to the Serbian authorities.

Whilst the EU-Turkey deal has given the region some breathing space after the challenges of 2015, each country has taken steps to firm-up their borders. A lack of faith in the sustainability of the Turkish agreement, however, particularly after the failed coup attempt and subsequent crackdown, has fuelled fears about the future of the estimated 2.7m (a sizeable number of Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans) still seeking refuge in the country.


State of play

Despite the reduction in migrant numbers, Balkan countries have not rested on their laurels. In recent months, Croatia has been constructing a fence on its border with Serbia in the Osijek-Baranja region, apparently leading to temporary closures of the Bezdan-Batina border crossing. The fence constitutes the first such initiative with any of its neighbours, and is understood to have been motivated by the arrival of sizeable groups of refugees in nearby Serbian towns, such as Sombor.

For Croatia’s neighbours, Serbia, refugee fatigue has already prompted the closure of a distribution centre in Belgrade’s Savamala neighbourhood, known as ‘Miksaliste’, which had been aiding refugees from the Middle East. The closure has been attributed to a lack of resource and logistical means to assist the 500 or so refugees arriving on a daily basis. Despite being lauded for its efforts throughout 2015, Belgrade residents and business owners have become increasingly dissatisfied, leading to calls for the Commissioner for Refugees of Serbia and UNHCR develop a more functional and coordinated system.

Though Serbia’s Minister of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Policy, Aleksandar Vulin, has vowed that his country will act as it did prior to the EU-Turkey agreement, he conceded that there was nothing they could do about the conduct of their neighbours. With European states accepting very few people, the lingering fear is that the backlog will start to swell in countries like Serbia and Macedonia, especially if Turkey begins to let refugees pass through. An Afghan migrant was recently shot dead near Serbia’s border with Bulgaria.

To counter the problem of illegal entry, mixed teams of police and army personnel have been deployed to Serbia’s borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria. Serbia’s prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, has stated that, “Serbia cannot be a parking lot for Afghans and Pakistanis whom no one else in Europe wishes to accept” and that “new procedures will be implemented without using force and erecting border fences.”

Hungary has already tightened its asylum seeker rules, which has prevented many refugees entering through the Horgos crossing. Some 3,000 found themselves stranded, with 150 or so reported to have gone on hunger strike. There are, according to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC), a growing number of reports of violence and abuse against refugees in the transit border areas with Serbia. There have also been accusations of brutality by the Hungarian police.


What next?

In the absence of a broader European solution to the refugee crisis, urgent steps must be taken to prepare countries of south eastern Europe – Serbia and Macedonia in particular – for a spike in migrants claiming asylum in their respective countries as they become a buffer zone between Turkey and the EU. Human and material resources are vital to ensure their domestic procedures can cope with the new registration demands. A systematic approach to aid provision needs to be developed in conjunction with international agencies and local NGOs to prevent a possible humanitarian catastrophe. Camps are already severely overcrowded, with deteriorating hygiene and sanitation conditions.

The joint patrols operating along various borders would benefit from technical and material equipment from their European counterparts, particularly in terms of surveillance. Such assistance should include a focus on combating smuggling and human trafficking. A key challenge is the weakness of cooperation between police and intelligence services, respectively, across the region, which needs to be overcome through region-wide initiatives involving the directors of the respective police forces. Steps are also required to better sensitize offices to the particular needs and concerns of refugees.

The oft-repeated claim about the closing of the so-called “Balkan Route” is likely to divert attention from the security challenges facing those countries on the frontline of the crisis. Preemptive steps to improve their border security, humanitarian and administrative infrastructures will help mitigate the potential consequences of a renewed wave of refugees, whilst reassuring countries of the region that they are not being neglected by European countries who have been too often accused of preserving their own self-interests throughout the crisis.

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