Leaders of EU member states and Southeast European countries on the main migration route to western Europe agreed on a 17-point refugee action plan late on October 25. The plan is intended to provide an immediate, comprehensive and joint response to the ongoing refugee crisis that has affected the entire continent.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees and illegal migrants have arrived in the region in recent months as conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa have escalated. Southeast European countries including Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia have been forced to take on much of the burden recently, after the Hungarian government closed its borders with neighbouring states in September and October. This has put a strain on relations between Brussels and countries in the region - both existing EU member states and would-be members.
The leaders of Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia, as well as representatives of EU institutions, met in Brussels at the European Commission's Berlaymont headquarters on October 25.
The European Commission announced in a press release issued immediately after the meeting that leaders had agreed to implement the 17-point action plan’s operational measures from October 26.
The 17 points cover the permanent exchange of information, limiting secondary movements, supporting refugees and providing shelter and rest, managing migration flows, border management, tackling smuggling and trafficking, information on the rights and obligations of refugees and migrants and monitoring.
"Countries affected should not only talk about and at each other but also with each other. Neighbours should work together not against each other. Refugees need to be treated in a humane manner along the length of the Western Balkans route to avoid a humanitarian tragedy in Europe,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who called the meeting, said in a statement.
“I am therefore pleased that today we were able to jointly agree on a 17-point plan of pragmatic and operational measures to ensure people are not left to fend for themselves in the rain and cold."
The EC says in a statement that the past weeks have shown that the challenges currently faced along the Western Balkans migration route will not be solved through national actions, and that only a collective, cross-border approach based on cooperation can succeed.
The statement stressed the responsibility countries have under international law to treat refugees in a humane manner. Migrants who are not in need of international protection should be swiftly returned to their countries of origin, the statement adds.
The day before the Brussels meeting, the Prime Ministers of Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia agreed at a meeting in Sofia that if other EU member states closed their borders to migrants, they would do the same to avoid becoming a buffer zone.
“If Germany and Austria or other states close their borders for migrants, we won’t allow our countries to become a buffer zone for millions of migrants stranded between Turkey and the new barriers that may follow ... We’re also prepared to close our borders immediately,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov told reporters in Sofia according to Bloomberg.
According to the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union (Frontex), more than 710,000 refugees and migrants crossed the EU’s external borders in the first nine months of 2015 while only 282,000 were recorded in the whole of 2014. A record number in monthly terms was recorded in August when numbers reached 190,000, while in September it stood at 170,000.
However, these figures only include people that have been registered. The real number is higher as hundreds of people travel through so-called “green borders” and avoid registration.
After the closure of the Hungarian border, most refugees now travel through Serbia to enter the EU via Croatia and Slovenia, before crossing the border into Austria, the first Schengen country on their route. This has put huge pressure on countries along the route, and the crisis is expected to worsen as winter approaches.
Almost 15,000 people entered Slovenia on October 25 alone while the government says it only has capacity to handle 2,500 people. In response, Slovenia has adopted changes to the Defence Act that allow the intervention of the armed forces where needed. Now, according to the 17-point plan, 400 police officers will be sent to Slovenia within a week.
Croatia became a transit country for migrants after Hungary’s decision to seal off its border with Serbia. More than 240,000 migrants have entered the Adriatic country since the beginning of the migrant crisis and new arrivals from Serbia are expected, according to the interior ministry.
This has resulted in disputes between countries in the region. Following Hungary’s decision to also build a fence at the Croatian border, Croatia started to reroute migrants to neigbouring Slovenia. Tensions soon emerged as Slovenia accused Croatia of sending more migrants than it could manage. The Slovenian government claimed its neighbour was dispatching new arrivals to the border without counting them. On October 23, Croatia and Serbia agreed to speed up the flow of migrants at their border, after thousands of asylum seekers were stuck there and had to spend the night out in the cold.
On May 13, the European Commission presented its European Agenda on Migration, which sets out a comprehensive approach to improve the management of migration. Two implementation packages under the Agenda, on 27 May 2015 and on 9 September 2015 have already been adopted, setting refugee quotas for member states.