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The Balkan Migrant Trap

Thousands of rejected asylum seekers are in limbo in non-EU Balkan countries, unwilling players in a game of international hot potato. by Rose Joy Smith 21 May 2019

The refugee deal between the European Union and Turkey three years ago was aimed at curbing the large numbers of refugees arriving in the EU. Refugee numbers did fall dramatically: The current level of arrivals was just 10 percent of the figure for 2015, when the influx was at its peak, according to a European Commission press release in March.


While the number of migrants arriving in Greece – the main entry point for migrants from the Middle East – has plunged, the official numbers do not tell the whole story.


The Commission press release does not mention the physical and legal barriers erected in 2016 to physically stop the flow of migrants, when first Hungary, then Balkan countries erected fences and began pushing migrants back.


Under the EU-Turkey agreement, those who have not successfully applied for asylum in Greece are to be detained and returned to Turkey. However, new arrivals applied for asylum as soon as possible resulting in very few deportations and a massive backlog in the Greek system, the Associated Press reported. From April 2016 to March 2019, according to EU data, only 2,224 people were returned from Greece to Turkey.


Although 8,000 migrants and asylum seekers arrived in Greece in the first quarter of this year, the total number now in Greece is much higher, at 67,000, according to the International Organization for Migration.


While the deal prohibited asylum-seekers to make it on to Greek mainland to deter them from making their way through the Balkans and on to central and northern Europe, it instead offered a new southern entry point: Bulgaria’s land border with Turkey.


Migrants at the Slovenian-Croatian border in October 2015. Image by Ministry of Defense of Slovenia.


As Deutsche Welle reports, the old Balkan route via North Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary was rerouted through Albania and Bosnia, from where migrants hope to make it to Croatia and then Western Europe.


Life in the Zone


For the 10,000-odd illegal migrants and asylum seekers now effectively trapped in Serbia, Bosnia, and other non-EU countries of the Balkans, there is scant hope of reaching Western Europe. Few have voluntarily chosen to return to their homes in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries.


They must also deal with hostile local authorities, according to rights workers in the region.


When reports appeared suggesting that Hungary was denying food to failed asylum seekers, government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said that the authorities provided “everything for people who have a legal right to stay in the transit zone,” while he added that those who were found to be ineligible to stay would not be provided a meal, the Guardian reported last month.


In a blog post cited by Deutsche Welle, the government said, “We take the position that Hungary is not responsible for those who have not requested asylum, nor for those whose requests have been denied.”


After the human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, Dunja Mijatovic, added her voice to the criticism of its treatment of migrants, Hungary reiterated its insistence that it is not violating international law, and that it is under no obligation to feed rejected asylum seekers in the transit zones on the border with Serbia, the BBC reports today.


"The transit zone can voluntarily [be] left towards Serbia at any time and food can be bought in the transit zone at any time, the conditions for self-care are met," the Foreign Ministry said in a reply to a new Council of Europe report on the issue.


The addition of Serbia to Hungary’s list of safe countries in July barred those entering from Serbia, where most irregular migrants enter Hungary, from seeking asylum.


Earlier this month, reports of the deportation of two Afghan families to Serbia raised alarm from the UN Refugee Agency. “Hungary’s actions overnight to force two asylum-seeking Afghan families to leave the country under duress is deeply shocking and a flagrant violation of international and EU law,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a statement.


The Hungarian Immigration and Asylum Office said the deportations were part of a joint operation with Frontex, the European border and coast guard agency, Euronews reports. 


Croatian border police were also criticized by Amnesty International for sending refugees back to Bosnia without access to an asylum procedure. Many of 94 people interviewed in temporary accommodation camps “described how they were beaten and intimidated, how travel documents and mobile phones were stolen or destroyed," the human rights organization said in a report published in March.  


While Croatia’s Interior Ministry denied this and other reports of illegal “pushbacks,” saying in December that that the officers were acting properly by “deterring [migrants] from illegally entering Croatia,” Bosnian Security Minister Dragan Mektic slated the Croatian police’s behavior as “a disgrace for an EU country,” the Guardian reported.


Bosnia Struggles to Cope


With the opening of the new Balkan route, Bosnia has received more than 23,000 migrants and asylum seekers from 2018 to early 2019, compared to less than 1,000 in 2017. The sudden spike in arrivals caught the country’s authorities off guard, according to Foreign Policy.


Bosnian authorities sought help, and the EU provided 9.7 million euros ($10.8 million) last year and a further 13 million euros this April to help the country manage migration flows. The EU support aims to ensure accommodation and food for refugees and other migrants, strengthen border management, and support assisted voluntary returns, the European Commission reports.

Rose Joy Smith is a TOL intern this semester. 
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‚ÄčThe 2019 edition of Prague Media Point will highlight these types of inspiring examples and more. We will offer a mix of scholarly presentations, including keynote addresses; sessions with innovators explaining their solutions; and networking opportunities to promote the exchange of know-how. As in years past, the conference will have a special regional focus on Central and Eastern Europe, though we look forward to covering cases and trends from other parts of the world. – WHAT’S WORKING





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