New migration policy on the Balkans

Photo credits: Dimitris Vouchouris / Eurokinissi / AFP via Getty Images

In 2015 and 2016, a term that can be considered a masterpiece of political rhetoric became popular in the political debate within EU capitals, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Austria’s then Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz were particularly responsible for its dissemination: the “Balkan route“. The fact that the western Balkans are surrounded by EU member states went unnoticed. Anyone who came to countries like Germany or Scandinavia via the “Balkan route” must first have crossed several EU countries – Greece or Bulgaria in the south and Croatia, Slovenia and Austria or Hungary and the Czech Republic, sometimes also Romania, in the north.

The number of irregular entries to northern Europe via this connection is increasing again – in part via Hungary and Austria as before, but now also increasingly via the Czech Republic, which was still on the fringes of events in 2015/16. There are several reasons for the increase in numbers – but the latest development is just as little a purely Balkan phenomenon as it was seven years ago.

At first glance, an important reason seems to lie in Turkey. In the country that has taken in over 3.5 million refugees from Syria alone since 2012, more than any other country. Indeed, in Turkey, the tone towards the refugee population has become increasingly harsh. Unlike some Turkish opposition politicians, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not yet made a name for himself with hateful statements about refugees. This contradicts his self-image as a world leader among Muslims. But even he cannot escape the pressure of public opinion. In May, Erdogan advocated that one million refugees should “voluntarily” return to Syria. One of the Turkish president’s favorite ideas is to settle Arabic-speaking Syrians in northern Syria, regardless of where they lived before the war, preferably in areas previously dominated by Kurds. Many Kurds suspect that he wants to change the demographic facts there.

In any case, the presidential announcement of a resettlement program in the Syria of the dictator Bashar al-Assad caused unrest among Syrian refugees in Turkey. Recently, reports circulated that a Telegram group called “Caravan of Light”, formed in early September, aims to encourage Syrians in Turkey to resettle in Europe. The group gained more than 85,000 users within weeks. It is said to have arisen out of fear that Turkey would soon deport Syrian refugees to their country of origin.

It is therefore reasonable to assume that the deterioration of the situation in Turkey has led to the increase in migration movements on the “Balkan route” – only this is not supported by figures. According to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a little more than 11,000 irregular migrants from Turkey arrived in Greece by the end of September this year. For comparison: in 2015 there were 860,000 and in 2016 there were still around 178,000 entries. Since then, the numbers have fallen year after year. Syrian refugees in particular hardly play a role in the statistics anymore. Throughout last year, UNHCR registered 291 Syrians arriving in the Greek Aegean islands. In the first half of 2022 there were 232.

In order to keep the numbers low in any case, Greece relies on a policy that could be described as asymmetric border protection. At the border with Turkey, migrants and refugees are prevented from entering the country by robust (including illegal) means on land and water. The practice of pushbacks to the territory of the neighboring country by Greece, which is illegal under European and thus also Greek law, has been documented in many cases. It takes place systematically. Those who still make it inland, for example to Athens or Saloniki, will not be actively prevented from continuing their journey north. The motto in all countries in the region, from Turkey to Greece, North Macedonia, Bulgaria and Serbia to Croatia, Austria or Hungary, could be: Don’t stop people leaving. Especially not if they want to go to Germany.

Greece wants to expand the fence on the land border with Turkey as part of this asymmetrical border security. The Foreign Affairs and Defense Council, a government body, decided in August that the facility should be expanded along the entire length of the border of around 200 kilometers. It currently covers about 40 kilometers. In addition, individual sections are to be equipped with new electronic monitoring systems in order to be able to detect movements on the other side earlier. Last but not least, the rearmament is a domestic political message, because as almost everywhere, a tough defense against irregular migration is also popular in Greece. Conditions for asylum seekers in Greece were already poor under left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. They have deteriorated again under conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. An “asylum desert” stretches between Greece and Austria, says a migration expert: “The countries are competing as to who treats potential asylum seekers worse. The result is that almost nobody wants to stay in a state in the region.”

Meanwhile, Athens claims to be the victim of Erdogan’s policy of using migrants as weapons, as in February and March 2020. Ankara had actually carted thousands of people willing to migrate, mainly men, to the land border with Greece. According to its own statements, Greece forcibly prevented 10,000 people from crossing the border on the last weekend in February alone. The men running towards the border fortifications were fought with tear gas and rubber bullets. At least one man died from the shelling. Anyone who managed to cross the border was arrested and often deported back to Turkey in cloak-and-dagger operations – or urged to leave the country quickly for North Macedonia. The scene of the crisis showed that the events of that time were actually controlled by Turkey. This was the border triangle between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece not far from the Turkish city of Edirne. However, the nearby Bulgarian-Turkish border remained completely unaffected by the events. All the pressure was directed at Greece. Bulgaria’s Prime Minister at the time, Boyko Borissov, was very careful not to spoil things with Erdogan. For example, he deported Turkish citizens or dissidents who had fled repression back to Turkey, in violation of international law, if the regime in Ankara requested this. The dividend of this subservience: calm on Bulgaria’s southern border.

According to the Greek account, the Turkish government is currently repeating its failed blackmail attempt in 2020. Citizen Protection Minister Takis Theodorikakos recently claimed on television that there was a plan behind Ankara’s actions. In many cases, migrants were brought to the border in Turkish gendarmerie vehicles: “You can’t call that spontaneous or disorganized.” Theodorikakos spoke of a “brutal and immoral” Turkish policy of using migrants as weapons. According to the minister, 40,000 people tried to enter Greece irregularly from Turkey via the Evros border river in August alone. In total, there were already 150,000 this year. But the most recent advance could also be thwarted by the strong presence of border police and border guards. The border is monitored 24 hours a day by the police and army: “Our message is that nobody crosses the Evros illegally. We will not allow that.”

However, there is no sign that Turkey is actually repeating attempts to systematically bring migrants to the borders. Rather, it operates the same policy that Greece uses on its border with North Macedonia: asymmetric border protection. Migrants who want to leave a country do not have to fear the border guards as much as those who want to enter it. Migrants who have arrived in Serbia via Greece and North Macedonia report that once they have made it there, the exit was then significantly easier. According to a non-governmental organization, 70,000 new migrants had arrived in Serbia by the beginning of September, twice as many as in the same period in 2021. Most had left Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Northern Africa. However, these figures do not match those of the UNHCR from Greece, they are significantly higher.

How does it work? One answer could lie in the fact that the last cohorts of migrants who got stuck at various stages of the route are currently making their way. Austria’s Ministry of the Interior attributes the recent increase in migration figures on the “Balkan route” to its gradual “emptying” – those who were still there are leaving. This is quickly noticeable at the moment, since even a slight increase in the number of immigrants could pose difficulties especially for Germany, after the country has already taken in hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian women. If the Austrian assumption of “emptying” is correct, the increase in traffic on the “Balkan route” would only be temporary, and the numbers would soon have to decrease again.

Whether in Greece, Bosnia, Serbia or elsewhere along the route, almost nobody in these countries wants to stay. Serbia also secures its borders asymmetrically: sharp in the south with North Macedonia and Bulgaria, casual in the north and north-west with Croatia and Hungary. This selective vigilance is combined with the region’s usual policy of treating potential asylum seekers as badly as possible, so that they don’t even consider wanting to stay. Research by the “Balkan Insight” portal has shown that cooperation between parts of the border police and smugglers is flourishing in Serbia. The gangs give a share of their profits to well-placed officials. They ensure that the criminals are not disturbed at the border.

But there is another possible reason why more migrants are arriving in EU welfare states than the number of irregular crossings at the Turkish-Greek border suggests: Serbia’s visa policy towards countries with high emigration potential. Belgrade has signed visa waiver agreements with Asian, African and South American countries. This often serves as a stepping stone to illegal immigration into northwestern Europe. Only under European pressure did Serbia give up its free visa regime with Iran in 2018. According to Serbian figures, 44,000 Iranians had previously entered Serbia, but thousands never returned to their homeland, instead moving further north.

The agreement with Iran has been cancelled, but visa liberalization agreements with countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Cuba, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and India are still in force. Most of the beneficiaries travel to Istanbul with Turkish Airlines and from there to Belgrade. More than 56,000 applications for asylum have been made in Austria since the beginning of the year, an increase of almost 200 percent compared to the previous year. In August, with more than 14,000 applications, it was even more than in any month of the previous record year 2015. “It is striking that India has been the nation with the most applications since July. A quarter of all asylum applications were made by people from India, mainly by young men,” the Austrian “Standard” recently reported. “The sharp increase in Indians and Tunisians can also be explained by the fact that they can currently enter Serbia without a visa,” the newspaper said.

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