Western Balkans, Austria take tougher line on migration

Western Balkans, Austria take tougher line on migration
Athens reacted angrily to the decision to hold the conference without inviting Greek officials, since it has borne the brunt of migration into Europe.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest February 25, 2016

Foreign ministers from Austria and the Western Balkans countries - many of which lie on the main migration route to western Europe - agreed on February 24 that migration flows need to be “significantly reduced”.

In recent days countries across the region have stepped up border security and increased security at flashpoints such as the Macedonia-Greece border. The move comes amid hardening stances across Europe and has left Greece - which was not invited to the February 24 summit in Vienna - isolated. Athens is struggling to cope with tens of thousands of refugees and migrants now stranded on its territory after its neighbours introduced new border restrictions.

A draft declaration drawn up at the summit states that the migration flow along the Western Balkans route needs to be reduced to ease the burden on Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia, which lie along the route.

Foreign and interior ministers from the eight Western Balkans states plus Austria agreed that it was no longer possible to process “unlimited numbers of migrants and applicants for asylum” and said that migrants not in need of international protection “must be swiftly returned”.

“The right to asylum does not include the right of applicants for international protection to travel onwards and choose a country of preference,” the 19-point document adds.

The security aspect was also stressed, noting the “potential consequences for internal security and social cohesion” of mass migration. Governments are “aware of the risks of crime, violent extremism and terrorism, which may spread as a consequence of irregular migration", the document said.

Ministers want migrants without documents to be sent back, and there will be no tolerance for those who fail to respect the laws of their host countries.

Opening the meeting, Austrian interior minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner indicated Vienna was losing confidence in the ability to manage the crisis at EU level. "For all of us to protect the EU's external borders is a top priority. As long as this does not work, we just have to strengthen cooperation on our national borders,” she said.

Macedonian foreign minister Nikola Poposki said the country, which is not an EU member, “has been placed in the awkward position of acting as an external border of the EU".

“Macedonia essentially is already under attack since it faces mounting pressure on the southern border but the opposite flow of migrants from the north, with 700 migrants from Afghanistan stuck on Macedonian territory,” Poposki said, He called for EU efforts at registration, temporary residence, transit and return to concentrate on Greece.

While the governments represented at the meeting appear keen to present a united front, overall the EU is fragmenting on the issue.

Athens reacted angrily to the decision to hold the conference without inviting Greek officials, since it has borne the brunt of migration into Europe with more than 80% of the 1 million people that entered the EU last year arriving via Greece.

Greek foreign minister Nikos Kotzias described the summit as an “extra-institutional initiative that violates the letter and spirit of the Treaties of the European Union and International Law on refugees".

“Our country’s not being invited to this meeting is perceived as an unfriendly action, as it creates the impression that certain parties, in our absence, want to set in motion decisions that concern us directly,” Kotzias said in a February 23 statement.

However, Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz claimed Greece had expressed no interest in reducing the migrant flow and was therefore not invited to the meeting, Reuters reported.

Individual countries along the Western Balkan route have already taken steps to restrict the flow of migrants, with each tightening security in response to its neighbours’ actions to avoid being stuck with thousands of migrants unable to continue their journeys northwards.

After Macedonia decided to stop allowing passage to Afghans - previously one of the only three countries along with Iraq and Syria whose nationals were allowed to enter the country, clashes erupted along the country’s border with Greece.

Skopje’s decision to recategorise Afghans as economic migrants followed decisions from Austria, Croatia and Serbia, all of which lie further along the route, to introduce new restrictions.

Croatia said on February 18 that it would limit numbers to 2,500 people a day, following limits in Austria, which is now only accepting 80 applicants from asylum seekers a day as well as limiting the number of migrants allowed to cross its territory. Meanwhile, Slovenia’s parliament voted to allow the army to reinforce its border with Croatia.  

Several hundreds of migrants have now been sent back from Croatia to Serbia and there are reports that around 1,000 migrants and refugees are stranded on the border between the two countries.

Serbia’s stance was previously relatively soft, but Belgrade has also tightened its borders. Foreign minister Ivica Dacic told the summit that Serbia would “will not be in a position to allow the migrants ... to remain and stay longer in our territory, if the countries upstream along the route block their passage and the final destination countries deny them reception".

In addition to the chaotic scenes in Greece it is unclear how the new restrictions will affect migrant flows in the Balkans. The document drawn up at the summit acknowledges that “migration routes may change quickly and the pressure on the region as a whole is still very high".

There are already reports of a resurgence in migration from Serbia to Hungary, a route that was virtually sealed in late 2015. Budapest has also announced plans to build a razor-wire fence on its border with Romania, which has so far not been on the main migration route. There is speculation that migrants could start travelling through other countries such as Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro, and governments across the region are making contingency plans.