Countries across Southeast Europe are boosting security and preparing reception facilities as they brace for a possible new influx of refugees and migrants, now that the March 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey looks increasingly shaky.
In late July, a group of 130 refugees embarked on a hunger march from Belgrade to Serbia’s border with Hungary. Walking the 200 kilometres in temperatures of 35C, the refugees said they were both protesting against Budapest’s closure of the border and trying to raise awareness of the plight of refugees worldwide.
The march briefly brought the situation of refugees in Southeast Europe back into the media spotlight, from where it had been absent since countries across the region closed their borders early this year.
Back in March, countries along the Balkan route from Macedonia to Austria shut their borders, leaving tens of thousands of refugees and migrants stranded in Greece, and the number of people attempting to reach Northern Europe via the region fell dramatically. Data from the UN refugee agency UNHCR shows a sudden hike in the number of people arriving in Italy and a corresponding slump in the numbers attempting to travel via Greece.
However, while there is no longer mass migration along the so-called ‘Balkan route’ on the scale seen during 2015, authorities across the region report that refugees and migrants are still trying to cross the Balkans to get to Germany and other north European countries.
In Serbia, Minister of Labour, Employment and Social Affairs Aleksandar Vulin announced on July 8 that 102,000 migrants had been registered since the start of 2016, compared to over 600,000 during 2015, despite the official closure of the Balkan route. “That means that the Balkan route still exists and that people are finding it increasingly difficult to reach European Union countries,” Vulin said, according to a Serbian government statement.
Illegal migrants have been arrested in countries including Albania, which was not on the original migration route, indicating that refugees and migrants are searching for alternative routes across the continent. Numerous arrests have also been made in Macedonia, the next state on the route after Greece, and Bulgaria, which borders Turkey.
“In spite of the closure of the so-called ‘Balkan Route’ in March 2016, we are still witnessing that people are trying to make their way to Western and Northern Europe, in search of security and protection. Obviously the numbers are much smaller now, but people are still trying to reach their final destinations, further north of the Western Balkans region,” Neven Crvenkovic, spokesperson for Southeast Europe at UNHCR, told bne IntelliNews. However, asked whether new routes are opening up within the region, he added that, “these numbers are still rather insignificant to speak of the ‘opening of new routes’”.
After years of war and mass emigration from the Balkans, there are fears that old people smuggling networks will be reactivated as desperate refugees and migrants try to continue their onward journey. “The closure of the ‘Western Balkans route’ has led to the increase in the activities of smuggling refugees and migrants and to the fragmentation of respective routes, some of which have not been exploited during the massive inflow of refugees and migrants in the region in 2015,” said Crvenkovic.
Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic claimed on July 8 that smugglers were demanding between €1,000 and €9,000 from migrants. Serbian police filed over 1,000 criminal charges against migrant smugglers in 2015 alone.
There are now fears of a resurgence of migration across the Balkans as the deal struck between the Brussels and Ankara looks increasingly shaky amid a worsening of relations following the failed coup in Turkey on July 15. The EU had promised an easing of visa rules for Turkish citizens, fast track EU accession talks and €6bn in financial aid by 2018, in return for Turkey accepting back refugees returned from EU countries. However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned in early August that Turkey will pull out of the deal if the EU fails to deliver visa-free travel for Turkish citizen by October.
Bulgaria, which has a 240km border with Turkey, has been particularly concerned about a possible upturn in the number of people entering the country. Immediately after the attempted coup, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov warned that Sofia was preparing for a “severe problem with refugees” and had bolstered border security. While an immediate change following the coup attempt did not materialise, the Bulgarian authorities still say that growing numbers of people are trying to cross the border; 140 made the attempt within a 24 hour period on August 13-14, according to the interior ministry.
As well as reinforcing its borders (Bulgaria has already fenced off part of its border with Turkey), Sofia more recently announced plans to build internal checkpoints, including on minor roads, in an attempt to block refugees and migrants trying to cross the country from Turkey to Serbia. Meanwhile, Serbia has turned back over 2,000 irregular migrants trying to cross the border from Bulgaria since additional security was introduced on July 22, AP reported.
Bulgaria has been criticised by human rights watchdogs for its treatment of refugees. On August 11, UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein reported “worrying signs” in Bulgaria’s detention regime. Al Hussein pointed out that almost everyone entering Bulgaria in an “irregular manner” was subjected to detention but could be prosecuted and even jailed if they try to leave which placed many “in an invidious Catch-22 situation”. Bulgarian police have also been criticised for cooperating with vigilante “migrant hunters”, who patrol parts of the border with Turkey.
Elsewhere in the region, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov said on August 2 that a second wave of migration was “on the horizon”. “[The] regional crisis and the conflicts in the Middle East and northern Africa pose a threat to the security of Macedonia,” Ivanov said, according to daily Vecer. In Italy, there are fears of more migration across the Adriatic from Albania - a route previously used by thousands of Albanians fleeing poverty and violence in their own country in the 1990s. Meanwhile, as far afield as Slovenia, the authorities are adding more capacity to reception centres in preparation for the arrival of thousands more people.