"On the wrong path? Protecting the European Union’s External Border in the Western Balkans"

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That was the intriguing title of a webinar run this week by the prestigious Migration Policy Institute, where IOM’s Chief of Mission and Western Balkans Coordinator, Peter Van der Auweraert participated as a key expert.

Up for discussion was the European Union’s more stringent controls on its external border and they impact they are having on its near neighbours.

In Bosnia, thousands of people trying to make their way to the EU Member States last year had their paths blocked at the Croatian border. Many spent the winter in Bosnia, a country ill-equipped to deal with their needs. Bosnian authorities have struggled to adapt, even with help from international agencies and the European Union, with whom they signed an agreement in January to facilitate joint operations and so-called ‘rapid border interventions’.
With thousands more migrants potentially travelling through the Western Balkans this year, this MPI Europe webinar explored the implications of the buttressed EU border on the bloc’s neighbours.

Against the backdrop of the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina – which since the start of 2018 has seen over 37,000 migrants and refugees arriving, with 28,000 of them transiting through the country – Van der Auweraert emphasized how the “Western Balkans route” has underscored the need for an accelerated alignment of the Western Balkans countries migration and asylum policies and practices with those in place within the EU.

 “The starting point has to be a good understanding of the migratory movements affecting the Western Balkans countries,” he said. “It is predominantly transit migration, with very few migrants and refugees having the intention to stay within the Western Balkans, and it is a movement from the Southern part of the EU (Greece and to a lesser extend Bulgaria) to more Northern parts of the EU. Moreover, the number of economic migrants largely outnumber those fleeing war and persecution.”

Van der Auweraert cited key lessons learned from the past, chief among them the need to further strengthen reception capacity and, more broadly, reinforce humanitarian capacities in the countries affected by the transit migration. While this is necessity, a humanitarian response alone does not provide a structural solution, he stressed. Such solution has multiple facets, including an accelerated strengthening of asylum processes in the Western Balkans to ensure effective protection with the end goal for the Western Balkans to become “safe third countries”. It also requires the development of an integrated return framework, which focusses on both voluntary and involuntary return for those who do not obtain the right to stay, the latter requiring close collaboration between the Western Balkans and the EU.

While further investment and collaboration in combatting smuggling is required, the experience with combatting other forms of smuggling and illicit economic activities in the Western Balkans warns against expecting short-term results in this regard, he cautioned.

“Increased collaboration in terms of border control is to be encouraged as well, although more thought needs to be given to both the usefulness and humanity of returning migrants and refugees from one Western Balkans country to another. In practice, people will continue and eventually succeed in crossing the borders, as geography makes the closure of the borders an unattainable goal.”

He concluded by looking at the half-full glass: “The presence of migrants and refugees also provides opportunities for the Western Balkans countries. On the one hand, they may spur on a political debate as to how the Western Balkans will cope with a rapidly diminishing workforce due to outward migration and (partly related) demographic changes. On the other hand, their presence also provides opportunities for economic development and growth, for example in communities were reception capacity is created.”

 Listen to the webinar here