Do the Balkans represent a source of new migration flows and policy gaps amongst EU countries?

By Sara Bonotti, September 2017                                
Centre “War & Peace Studies” at Link Campus University in Rome;
Former OSCE Officer in the Balkans, Ukraine and Central Asia

The migration route reaching the heart of Europe from war-torn areas of the Middle East through the Balkans formally closed up in March 2016, after being passed through by approximately one million migrants over 2015. The turning point coincided with the agreement between the European Union and Turkey over the latter’s commitment to halt the transit of makeshift boats from its coasts to the Greek islands, departure point of the Balkan route. However occasional breaking news, surveys and reports show that the route is far from being inaccessible.

Stratagems to bypass the obstacle are varied and include, for the migrants stopped in Greece, the payment of human traffickers to transfer them to the mainland and then an on-foot trip to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYRoM). An organized crime organization, targeting mainly Syrian refugees, had been till recently active along the illegal route from Turkey to the EU via Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia.

Moreover, over the last summer, a secondary Balkan route opened up. It is the so-called Black Sea path, originating from Turkey and leading up to Romania. The latter country’s borders have no strict surveillance and barbed wire fences, if compared with the ones of FYRoM, Bulgaria and Croatia, not to mention the Hungarian wall – set up in 2015 at the border with Serbia with sensors and security cameras to counteract illegal immigration.
The existence of an alternative route has been corroborated with evidence on a few distinct occasions throughout the months of August and September: Romanian Coast Guards seized several vessels used by Bulgarian, Cypriot and Turkish smugglers to transport hundreds of Iraqi, Syrian and Iranian migrants and refugees, including women and minors, from Turkish harbours to Romania and beyond.
Bucharest is quite concerned about the consolidation of refugees influxes from the Black Sea. In 2017 the country, according to institutional statistics, has already turned into a key stop-over along the route: over the first six months of the year, about 2,500 people have reportedly been intercepted while attempting to enter into Romania, a number exceeding by five times recorded data in 2016. Though current figures remain limited in comparison with massive migration flows towards Italy and Greece, they are swiftly increasing.

Another relevant data, to be jointly assessed with the above-referred ones, comes from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR): between March and August 2017, the population of migrants in Serbia shrank from 9,000 to 4,500. The decline implies that a number of them may have most likely fled to Croatia or some other Serbia’s neighbouring countries by illegal crossings, as some well-documented episodes demonstrate.

The dynamic is rather alarming at a global level, as it reflects the human traffickers’ ability to detect the new migration trends and exploit them to their utmost benefit. Thanks to the widespread closure of borders and increasing tightness of the controls regime, the smuggling of human beings along illegal routes is more and more profitable. According to recent Europol’s investigations, a trip from Greece to Central Europe may cost from 4,000 to 6,000 Euros per traveller.

The Balkan scenario looks like an even more volatile Pandora’s box in view of the widely-reported – including by the same Europol – infiltrations of a radical Islamic ideology and the phenomenon of domestic foreign fighters travelling to and from conflict zones in the Middle East, particularly Syria, along a well-established route of terrorists and illegal weaponry (Source: EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report – June 2017).

Balkan paths, regardless of the starting point and destination, have also become notorious for the abuses and intimidations perpetrated by the same law-enforcement authorities that often create arbitrary hurdles to integration and asylum seeking administrative procedures. Prominent international non-governmental organizations – such as Oxfam – as well as regional human rights-oriented and lawyers’ associations from the region have been witnessing stories of hardship and discrimination collected from interviews with migrants in the Western Balkans. The compliance with European and international standards and norms on asylum is reportedly at the bare minimum in the region and at its borders with Central Europe.

Last summer six Mitteleuropean countries, i.e. Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary deepened the already tangible rift over the migration crisis management within EU. In the framework of the “Central European Defence Cooperation” - operational from 2010 - the respective Ministries of Defence, along with committing to the joint protection of external borders and the uprooting of illegal immigration sources, explored the concrete possibility of assembling their national armies to face a potential new migration emergency along a reopening Balkan route. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been the most vocal in repeatedly declaring that migrations endanger the same existence of Europe, its identity, cultural values and security. According to Orbán’s stance, only a Europe of nations can endure the major challenge of illegal flows.

Such an approach weighs heavy on the system of redistribution of refugees’ quotas among EU Member States, grounded on the criteria of gross national product, population and countries’ size. Out of 160,000 asylum seekers that Brussels plans to spread over the Union from Italy and Greece, only infinitesimal percentages have been so far relocated to Central Europe.