Key components of the European crisis management fell to non-EU states along the Western Balkans route, primarily Serbia and Macedonia, which paradoxically were not consulted on European-wide responses, reports Migration Policy Institute, an independent think-tank from Washington dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. The report also states that the mismanagement of mid-2010s migrant crisis can have a detrimental effect on democratic institutions throughout the region.
The report recognizes that Balkan countries at first opted to facilitate the movement of asylum seekers through their territories, but that pressure from EU Member States led to a domino effect of border closures and increasing restrictions on movement, which in the later period of the crisis dramatically decreased the number of migrants through the Western Balkans.
While many perceive the crisis in the Balkans as finished, thousands of migrants remain in “limbo, stranded in countries along the route — nearly as many as in 2016”, report continues.
Historical background of the importance of the Western Balkans started when refugees from the Yugoslav wars led to the development of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). Hundreds of thousands from within the region at the time used this route to flee 1990s violence, when the region for refugees “was primarily one of origin, not transit”.
In mid-2015, the number of irregular migrants passing through the Macedonia and Serbia increased dramatically. During the peak of the European migration and refugee crisis, hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and migrants arrived in the EU via this route. In 2015, 600,000 registered at the Preševo camp alone, on the border between Serbia and Macedonia.
In November of the same year, in an attempt to start managing and reducing flows, both governments enacted legislation allowing migrants to register “intent to seek asylum” upon entry and receive a 72-hour temporary permit to be in the country. “This move created a fluid, hyper-temporary, semi-legal status that would become problematic later on”, the report states.
At the same time, with the aid of international humanitarian organizations, Macedonia and Serbia started facilitating transportation, sending migrants northward through their territories by train or bus. After Hungary erected border fences with Serbia and Croatia, countries focused on shuttling migrants northward into Croatia as quickly as possible to avoid responsibility for them.
While facilitating transit operations, countries along the route introduced new national legislation and interpreted EU law in a manner that artificially reduced the numbers traveling north. As candidates for EU membership, Western Balkans states were under obligation to adopt EU-style asylum laws as part of accession negotiations.
“At the start of 2016, a number of EU Member States, often led by Austria and Germany, began imposing their own restrictions, unleashing a ripple effect of responses further south. Slovenia and Croatia adopted quotas to limit passage, aggravating the situation at the Greek-Macedonian border”, reports the Migration Policy Institute. Meanwhile, Macedonians had begun constructing a fence while periodically closing its border with Greece, going so far as to use tear gas to counter protests and barrages.
“The EU-Turkey deal and the closure of the Balkans route have left thousands of migrants stranded in under-resourced camps and reception centers along the borders, primarily in Serbia and Bulgaria”. Number of them is even living on city streets or in abandoned warehouses near train station in Belgrade. One must note that far less help is available to the residents outside the state-run camps, but also that Western Balkans states lack the integration programs and financial benefits common to Western Europe.
Main implications for this region Migration Policy Institute sees in renewing of tensions between and within individual Balkan neighbors and straining of relations between the Western Balkans and the EU. On the other hand, report recognizes that “responses to the crisis also hold important lessons for the still-uneven development of democratic institutions in the region, as well as for migration management in Europe more broadly”.
“European Union appears to place high priority on maintaining stable governance and establishing control over migration. The lesson from the Balkan experience is that in the absence of common policy to deal with an influx of asylum seekers, countries may compete to be the lowest common denominator, with no one wanting to be saddled with ultimate responsibility. This knowledge could inform future proactive policy development ahead of the next crisis”, the report emphasizes, but its pessimistic conclusion is that “the worry is that (Western Balkans) countries will become further entrenched ‘stabilocracies’ under a façade of democracy” and that “it remains to be seen what effects the EU quest for migration management, which has led to approval of a much-criticized EU-Turkey deal and the tacit approval of Balkan leaders’ slide toward authoritarian rule, will ultimately have on the shaky democratic institutions of its partners”.
Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States