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The Western Balkan Migration Plan: Solidarity and Burden-Sharing in a Zero-Sum World

On Sunday evening the range of EU legislative and executive branches, UNHCR, and heads of state along the Western Balkan migration route issued a leader’s statement on a 17-point plan for tackling the migration crisis.

The document reveals the basic contours of a plan for alleviating stress on Member States and the European project writ large. It hits all the main nodes: stemming out-migration, discerning between those with genuine asylum claims and “economic migrants” in transit states, trying to stop the endemic burden-shifting which characterizes state reactions to date, and tightening controls at the European Union’s external borders.

The EU needs to take action for its own sake. Member States are responsible to domestic constituencies, who are losing their patience for refugees as state’s reception capacities are strained. The risks of inaction go far beyond electoral repercussions, and include the resurgence of nativism, pushing the political spectrum to the right, and endangering support for European solidarity.

Beyond whether the plan can work, the main questions revolve around the likely repercussions for migrants and transit states, and whether they will suffer them in the interest of alleviating pressure on European destination states.      

Points 1-3 call for the exchange of information between states along the route. This alone would go a long way toward alleviating tensions and make for a more humane experience for migrants. I’ve been travelling to the border areas and interviewing policymakers over the last months. In Serbia this past week officials complained that they had no forewarning as to the number of migrants who would arrive from Macedonia on a given day. On the Serbian side of the Berkasovo (Bobska) border with Croatia, police and NGO personnel had no indication of how many would arrive on buses from Preševo in the south of the country, and were simply forced to react and make due. Chaotic scenes resulted, which Croatian officials blamed on a total absence of Serbian management. Croatian controlled the crowd with a line of riot police. Humanitarian workers and officials from UNHCR had no idea when the next buses would arrive to take migrants to processing centres in Croatia, and hence had no information to pass on to migrants.   

The ensuing crush of people resulted in heart-wrenching scenes of separated families, fainting mothers and children, and a series of scuffles in the crowd. The introduction of basic crowd control measures on the Serbian side over the past days was likely the result of an informal, bilateral meeting last week between Interior Ministers Ostojić and Stefanović rather than any Brussels-led initiative.

Every state along the route feels itself overburdened, sees the crisis as predominantly a European problem, and blames the previous states for dumping migrants over the border. They are not entirely wrong.

It is questionable as to what extent the plan can overcome the incentive for burden-shifting. In the context of the Western Balkan route, irregular migration governance is only a collective action problem for Schengen states. It is a zero-sum game for transit states, perhaps including Member States like Hungary, Bulgaria, and Croatia. It will prove difficult for Brussels to alter decision-making logics using only the carrots of long-term visa liberalisation or access to EU emergency relief funds, or the soft sticks of shaming and moral appeals for solidarity.   

The most fundamental shortfall of the plan, however, is its seeming ignorance of migrant agency. It is a truism that tightened controls help create structures for irregular movement. Any prohibition in an area of growing and inelastic demand will generate alternative markets. Nonetheless, containing migrants in transit states against their quite obvious desire to move seems key to the plan. Points 8, 11, 12, 13 and 14 make this clear. The evidence is buttressed by the repeated emphasis on adding capacity for processing and reception centres in transit states. This is where the plan is either foolhardy or foreshadows much stricter controls in receiving states and Member States with external Schengen borders. I think the latter is more likely.

Despite the onset of winter, adding capacity only makes sense in the context of migrant populations who are unable to move on or willing to stay put in transit states for more than a day. This is a tall order. As an illustrative example, last week personnel from the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees told me that only 60 of the 1,200 beds in the country were occupied despite the scenes on the border. Rumours of border closures only pressed migrants to move more quickly.  

I am unaware of any example of positive incentives effectively containing migrants in a transit state. Doing so through financial mechanisms would create perverse moral dilemmas, act as a pull factor for the most downtrodden, and create serious friction with domestic constituencies. It also seems exceedingly unlikely that any of the states would bear the financial, moral, or image cost of enforcing closed camps. All of the policymakers I’ve spoken with have reacted with disgust at Hungarian policies over the summer.

Germany has already enacted changes in its asylum law to reduce the incentive for migrants without genuine asylum claims. A number of states in the system have signalled their intention to close borders if Germany closes its doors. The result would be a cascade of trapped migrant populations throughout the Western Balkan route.

Brussels likely has the most sway over candidate states. The Serbian government sees its role in the migration route in light of its path towards accession. Policymakers I’ve spoken with have repeatedly made reference to fulfilling specific aspects of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement in reference to their role in managing the flows. The result could very well be overwhelmed Serbian state capacity.  

Brussels is putting great faith in stemming the flow. Various points in the plan stress the finalisation and conclusion of the EU-Turkey Action Plan, which hinges on visa liberalization and extraordinary EU aid to better the situation of refugees in Turkey. It also includes greater cooperation with Frontex and Europol to stop trafficking and smuggling rings. But Turkey’s borders are long and rugged, and migrants and their facilitators are committed and resilient.  

Stemming out-migration and containing migrants in transit states comports with well-established externalized migration controls. The EU’s High Level Working Group on Asylum and Migration, Global Approach to Migration and Mobility, various regional consultative processes covering Europe’s peripheries, and bilateral Mobility Partnerships push for tighter migration and border controls in sending and transit states, and incentivize readmission agreements through reciprocal visa liberalization programs and development aid.

Why would people elect to remain? The question plagues the entirety of the EU’s external approach to irregular migration governance. The distance between the image of Europe and the reality of transit states is simply too vast. Migrants report serious abuses by Turkish security services. Meanwhile, Turkey has tightened maritime patrols and has threatened to repeal protection mechanisms for using irregular means of egress.  The vast majority of people I’ve spoken with who have transited through Bulgaria report robbery and extortion at the hands of police. The Czech Republic has been accused of widespread human rights abuses as a deterrence mechanism. Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, and most Baltic states are outwardly hostile to the notion of hosting large numbers of refugees. The Greek and Macedonian borders are replete with scenes of police ushering migrants with taunts and verbal abuse. In each state I’ve visited I’ve witnessed police telling refugees to “go see Merkel.”

The incentive for burden-shifting for non-accession states is far greater than the incentive for alleviating pressure on European states. It is difficult to foresee a scenario in which the plan, if it were implemented today, would not result in large numbers of trapped refugees along the Balkan route, insecurity around borders, and more expensive and dangerous irregular migration.

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