Balkans braced for more refugees

By bne IntelliNews September 14, 2015

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As Hungary tries to seal its border with Serbia against the thousands of refugees determined to reach northeast Europe, the Balkans - now mainly a transit route - could end up taking on a larger share of the burden.

Two aspiring EU members from the Balkans are deeply involved in this European crisis. As the European Commission proposes redistributing refugees from Greece, Hungary and Italy across the EU 28, Serbia and Macedonia, which are also on the main migration route, are looking to Brussels for support. Meanwhile, existing member states Bulgaria and Romania have indicated they may tie acceptance of asylum seeker quotas to their entry into the Schengen area.

As of early September, around one thousand refugees were in the park next to Belgrade’s train and bus stations, waiting for transportation to the border with Hungary, their point of entry into the EU. More than half were from Syria, 25% from Afghanistan, and others from countries across the Middle East and North Africa. Some said they were looking ahead to where they might be accepted in order to rebuild their lives. But when the heatwave that has sent temperatures soaring above 40C in Serbia broke, most were just thinking of a dry place to sit or a pair of dry shoes to wear.

On the evening of September 10, a group of Serbian citizens, organised via social networks, came out in the downpour to help drive the refugees to safe places within Belgrade, as well as providing them with clothes for the colder weather. The locations have been kept secret as the refugees transiting the country are only allowed to stay in Serbia for 72 hours. Other Belgrade NGOs and individuals have been helping the refugees by supplying food, hygienic products, medicines, clothes and baby equipment.

It is a similar situation in Preshevo near the Macedonian border, where most refugees entering the country are registered. A photograph of an ethnic Albanian policeman hugging a small Syrian boy, posted on Twitter by BBC journalist Manveen Rana, went viral not just in Serbia but around the world. As the weather worsened, citizens from Preshevo started taking refugees into their homes.

The welcome in Serbia contrasts with their reception in many other countries in the region. Memories of the Yugoslavian civil wars of the 1990s, and the displacement of many people in the region, is still strong. People from Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of Europe’s poorest countries, have also been sending aid.

However, the warm welcome is not universal. Serbia’s nationalist media is full of dire warnings about the threat Islamist extremism poses to the Orthodox Christian church. There are also reports of refugees desperate to continue their journey being exploited by illegal taxi drivers around Belgrade station.

Official resources to handle the flood of refugees are overstretched, even though the EU has promised to allocate €3.2mn to help Serbia over the next six months. Construction of a new centre able to accommodate up to 2,000 people will start in Belgrade on September 20, and there are plans to expand the existing centre in Preshevo.

Neighbouring Macedonia is similarly overwhelmed. 17,000 people entered the country in the first week of September, including a record 7,000 on September 7 alone. Thousands more are waiting on the Greek island of Lesbos to continue their journey via Macedonia.

As the numbers increased from hundreds to thousands per day, tensions have risen within the country. Police clashed with refugees in August, using tear gas and stun grenades, and the government sent in the army to maintain order. Sky News showed a shocking video of a Macedonian police officer beating peaceful refugees with his truncheon.

Others have profited from the situation, with transport companies and some private individuals charging €50 per person to drive to the Serbian border. Even state railway operator Makedonski Zeleznici has nearly doubled ticket prices on the route, from MKD338 (€5.50) to MKD600.

Macedonia’s interior ministry says its additional expenses amount to around €800,000 a month, and Skopje is now considering building a fence along the border with Greece. A similar measure has already been taken in Bulgaria, which started building a razor wire fence along its border with Turkey in 2014.

As the crisis grows, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced plans to distribute 120,000 asylum seekers across the EU, to take the pressure off Greece, Hungary and Italy. “It is time we started putting in place the building blocks of a truly European migration policy,” Juncker said on September 9. “If ever European solidarity needed to manifest itself, it is on the question of the refugee crisis.”

This follows the May proposal to redistribute 40,000 refugees voluntarily. However, the new proposal would set mandatory quotas for member states, calculated based on their GDP, population, unemployment rate and the number of asylum applications they have already processed.

Romania, which would have to accept 4,646 refugees, is expected to oppose the plan at the upcoming Justice and Home Affairs council on September 16, since the Romanian authorities say they do not have the capacity to host more than 1,800 people.

So far, the flow of refugees has not yet reached Romania, which does not lie on the main route to Germany. Nor is there any recent history of receiving large numbers of immigrants, so Romania - like other CEE countries such as Poland or Hungary - has not developed the institutions or social attitudes that would help the process. The integration of the Roma, a substantial minority within Romania, has been a clear failure.

Both Romania and Bulgaria - the two poorest EU member states - have, however, indicated that they may be willing to accept the refugee quotas in return for their accession to the Schengen area. Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister Meglena Kuneva said on September 9 that the two countries’ entry to Schengen was part of the solution to the crisis.

The European Council has repeatedly confirmed that Romania and Bulgaria meet the Schengen area entry requirements, but at past Justice and Home Affairs councils a decision on the two countries’ membership has been repeatedly delayed, with EU ministers citing corruption and insufficient judicial reforms.

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