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Managing the Western Balkans Route

The 17-point plan agreed upon by European representatives and key states along the Western Balkan migration route is a welcome step in managing the refugee crisis. However, it is only another step in what is likely to be a long and tiresome journey for all involved. Indeed, the plan is at best a band-aid solution.

                              © EPA published at Al Jazeera Balkans, 29 October 2015

Namely, the plan aims to coordinate the flows of refugees along the Western Balkan route, the main route many refugees take to reach the European Union after entering through Turkey or Greece. As such, many of the points are specifically focused on the issue of coordination and ensuring that there is “orderly movement” of refugees. Moreover, the plan includes a focus on supporting refugees and ensuring that they receive adequate shelter and rest as well as information about their rights. In this regard, there are several important points that should ameliorate the situation for many individuals. For example, point 4 states there will be an increase in “capacity to provide temporary shelter, food, health, water and sanitation to all in need.” Point 16 outlines the need to ensure that refugees are informed about their rights and obligations and calls on the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to assist national authorities.

Still, the plan is not without serious short-comings. A key concern is that refugees would be kept in the transit states until their claims are processed. As Craig Damian Smith notes, this does not account for the agency of the refugees and the reality that they might not be willing to remain in the transit states. Similar concern that the plan could end up “exacerbating suffering and blocking access to protection” has already been raised by Human Rights Watch (HRW). In particular, HRW points out that a focus on transit countries processing claims could potentially create new “bottlenecks.”

Equally concerning, and also noted by HRW, is point 14 which confirms that a country may refuse “entry to third country nationals who do not confirm a wish to apply for international protection.”  What this would mean in practice remains to be seen. As HRW explains, entry point countries and those of the Western Balkans could refuse protection to those who “do not register an intention to seek asylum in that country.” For their part, as Heiko Wimmen points out, a likely scenario is that individuals from these third countries, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, will simply destroy their documents. This, in turn, would require additional resources and capacities that are sorely lacking. In addition, countries such as Afghanistan are experiencing a deteriorating security situation and returning individuals to these places is disconcerting.

Once again, the issue is the agency of the refugees and their choice where to apply for asylum as well as the ability of entry point and transit countries to process the claims in a fair manner. Despite the additional European support, the question of whether already impoverished Western Balkan countries can provide refugees with adequate shelter and support when much wealthier countries such as Germany are struggling is an important one. After all, some 38 percent of applications for asylum that Germany received this year, from January to September, came from economic migrants from the Western Balkans.

Another issue to be considered is the reluctance on the part of many European states to accept refugees and embrace the true meaning of burden sharing. Hungary though present at the October 25 summit has described itself as an “observer”. Hungary has built a 175 km razor-wire fence on the border with Serbia. This means that it is no longer on the route for the refugees. Other countries, such as Austria, are contemplating building their own fences. The growing anti-migrant backlash is also likely to shape the decisions of European countries on how many refugees they accept. However, if the European countries do not come to an agreement of a fair share of refugees, the countries of the Western Balkans will be ill-equipped to respond creating an even greater crisis.

A report, by the Croatian newspaper Jutarnji List, that a deal with Turkey means that the migration flows will stop in roughly two weeks remains unverified. According to latest discussions, Turkey is using their cooperation on the refugee crisis as a bargaining chip with the European Union and is demanding greater levels of bilateral aid as well visa-free travel for Turkish citizens.

But the greatest concern in the managing of the refugee crisis is the lack of policy vision for addressing the drivers of the migration. Many of the refugees coming to Europe are from Syria and countries experiencing severe human rights violations, such as Eritrea. The on-going conflict and persecution in these countries will continue to push people to make the journeys through the Western Balkans and through other entry points. Importantly, European countries should have learned from their past experiences with the refugees from the Western Balkans that people will continue coming until the wars stop and even years afterwards. The latest plan is then merely another step but it is by no means a solution of any kind. 

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