COMMENT: The Balkans chain reaction

COMMENT: The Balkans chain reaction
EuroPol map showing the latest migrant routes from Africa and the Middle East to Europe.
By Alex Young in Belgrade March 8, 2016

Wishful thinking has long permeated Europe’s response to the migrant crisis. Its much-derided relocation scheme exposes on a weekly-basis the embarrassing limits of European solidarity. With winter having failed to drastically stem the flow of migrants, the bloc is now investing all its hopes in Turkey. In return for new aid, visa liberalisation promises and accelerated EU membership talks, Turkey will fast track the return of “all irregular migrants crossing into the Greek islands”. In outlining the deal, the EU draft statement prematurely proclaimed the Balkans route closed. As spring approaches, however, there are signs of new fronts opening up in the migration crisis, with a Balkans chain reaction now well underway.

Countries of the Western Balkans – Serbia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, in particular – have been roundly applauded thus far for their treatment of migrants. Both, however, have firmly insisted throughout that they are purely transit countries. Provided the asylum seekers depart within days, they are free to enter and will be given assistance to leave. None are permitted to remain. As EU member states have gradually shut-up shop and imposed admission caps, so countries throughout the region have become increasingly concerned about refugee bottlenecks forming on their own doorstep.

In late February, a mix of ten EU and non-EU member states stretching from Austria to Albania agreed ad hoc measures designed to overcome EU paralysis. The key distinction made was to grant entry to those “in proven need of protection” – thereby prioritising refugees from Syria and Iraq over those from Afghanistan and elsewhere. A common approach to registering migrants was also rubber stamped in order to aid information sharing.     

The closure of the border between Macedonia and Greece is a prime example of how the region has been forced by European actions to adopt a more assertive approach. After increasingly desperate asylum seekers broke through fencing, police fired tear gas on the desperate mass of men, women and children, whilst Greek police intervened to forcibly remove Afghan protesters near the border. Some 13,000 asylum seekers are currently stranded in increasingly dire conditions. The trickle granted permission to cross has been insufficient to relieve the pressure.

Justifying the move, Macedonia's president, Gjorge Ivanov, went so far as to declare that as the crisis was originating in a Schengen country, Greece, his country was actually “defending the EU from itself”. Macedonia, like Serbia, is not prepared to be more European than the Europeans themselves.

The main consequence of these collective measures has been a massing of migrants on Greek soil. As the pressure grows on already strained resources, so the prospect of a chain reaction becomes more pronounced, displacing the migrant problem from one place to another. 

The Balkan’s porous borders – a consequence of challenging geography as much as corruption and capacity-constraints – have long complicated efforts to combat the trafficking of narcotics, weapons, cigarettes and humans into Europe. To believe that such borders can now be magically sealed is an extreme case of wishful thinking that runs counter to the region’s recent history.     

As tougher regimes come into effect – both in terms of border controls and entry criteria – so the number of illegal entries in countries such as Macedonia, Hungary and Serbia continues to spike, with migrants increasingly keen to avoid registration and verification of their origins. Hungary reported some 1,500 illegal entries from Serbia in February alone, despite erecting barbed wire and fences.  

New routes

Asylum seekers are increasingly seeking out alternative routes. The closure of the well-trodden path from Greece into Macedonia is forcing migrants westwards through Albania’s porous borders, exploiting routes well-established during the collapse of the Enver Hoxha dictatorship in the early 1990s. Albanian smugglers have reportedly been investing in speedboats to ferry migrants across the poorly-patrolled Adriatic, potentially revitalising a smuggling route which led the Albanian government to adopt a 2005 moratorium on their use. The east coast of Italy may well be the next port of call for migrants.     

There is also considerable speculation about an eastern Balkan front opening up, with Bulgaria’s frontiers with Greece and Turkey attracting considerable attention. Despite constructing a wire fence along various sections of its border, Bulgaria has also struggled to contain migrant flows, despite its reputation as a hostile and unwelcoming host. Even the Black Sea is being considered as an alternative.

As the humanitarian crisis in Greece grows, so migrants will pursue new paths towards their ultimate goal of seeking asylum in Western Europe. Relying on Turkey to alleviate the problem is wishful thinking of the highest order. Migrants – especially those not from Syria or Iraq – are unlikely to let their future be decided by the whim of a resettlement lottery. The logistical challenges of the ‘one in, one out’ proposal mean that Europe will continue to remain vulnerable to the porous Balkans, with countries increasingly prepared to reciprocate Europe’s lack of solidarity. The Balkans route existed long before Syrian refugees, and will continue to adjust and adapt to changing realities on the ground. Proclaiming the Balkans route closed may work rhetorically, if not practically.