EU-Turkey agreement ‘closes’ the Balkan refugee route: solution or displacement of the problem?

Thu 10 Mar 2016

EU-Turkey agreement ‘closes’ the Balkan refugee route: solution or displacement of the problem?

The Balkan Route
On 10 March the refugee route through the Balkan supposedly ceased to exist. While in many parts of the Balkan, memories of the war and seeking refuge lie on the surface, today it is at the centre of new suffering. Both literally and figuratively. The ‘the Balkan Route’ has become a significant part of the escape to Western Europe. In the literal sense, it is the middle of an arduous journey. Figuratively, it lies between (and is dependent of) political powers which decide on the faith of these refugees and thus of the Balkan. Namely, the EU and Turkey. The outcome of their negotiations also settles the amount of options for Balkan countries to react to the current crisis. Solidarity and opportunism therefore could get at odds with each other. Because at every new obstacle on this route, refugees get stranded, challenging the will for balanced accommodation and thus the room for solidarity. If your downstream neighbour closes its border, you will be the next end-of-the-line on the refugee route.        

Greece abandoned
Radio Free Europe (RFE) reports that hundreds of thousands of people journeyed through the Balkans to reach Western Europe in the past year. Now the route is being choked off, it is unclear where the refugees go next. Balkan Insight warns for a domino effect: ‘as Slovenia effectively closed its border to migrants on Tuesday night, its southern neighbours, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia, rushed to follow suit, furthering the risk of a refugee pile-up in Greece’. Slovenian PM Miro Cerar explained ‘the path used by most Middle Eastern migrants was being closed not only because of risk it poses to the EU's passport-free Schengen system but for the sake of refugees themselves, who will be closer to home once they are returned to Turkey’. The Serbian Minister for Interior, on the other hand, declared ‘Serbia will not allow itself to become a buffer zone for refugees’. According to RFE, ‘Greece is furious with these decisions, because it turns the refugee crisis into a Greek problem’. The unilateral setting of refugee quota, do not contribute to a European approach and Greece rightfully fears congestion. It remains to be seen whether a deal between the EU and Turkey can aid Greece in time.

New routes will be forced

While the border strategies in the Balkan show a lack of regional trust, the EU repeatedly shows its struggle to arrange a unified approach. At the same time it is naive to think refugees will not find new routes to their desired destination. The UNHCR prepares for this and thinks new routes will be forced. According to the Guardian, ‘[even] though officials have closed the humanitarian corridor that emerged last summer, irregular migration would probably still continue throughout Eastern Europe, albeit to a lesser extent’. Therefore, despite the actions of European governments, thousands of refugees will make their own way through the Balkans. According to the Guardian, this happened last summer and ‘this pattern is likely to re-emerge’. Carlotta Sami of the UNHCR states: ‘We do not think that the closure of the [western Balkan] borders will stem the flow,” adding: “If this route closes, we will have new routes with new problems. We are preparing for an increase through Libya, Bulgaria, Turkey to Italy, Libya to Italy – and there is the possibility of more people crossing to Spain’. Apart from the probability of new routes, Human Rights Watch is very critical on the current propositions of the EU-Turkey summit and states ‘Turkey cannot be regarded as a safe country of asylum for refugees from Syria, or for refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other non-European countries’.         

Greater political powers
Whatever the outcome of the summit, or of any new refugee strategy whatsoever, it seems the Balkan cannot take control. The unilateral actions seem rather futile and certainly not solidary. On the other hand, the bigger political lines are settled by the EU and Turkey. The last, makes clever use of the new implications of its geographical and geopolitical position, leaving less and less room for other stakeholders.   

Sources: RFE, Balkan Insight  2, The Guardian and Human Rights Watch