New border regime in the Balkans “inequitable and illegal”

Passport checks. Visa controls. Border fences. Electronic and drone surveillance. Sanctions on airlines and shipping companies. And the interdiction and redirection of boats at sea. During the
past three decades, the world’s more prosperous states have introduced a panoply of measures intended to prevent and deter the arrival of asylum seekers and migrants from other parts of the globe.

In the last week, several European countries – Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia – have adopted a new tactic in an effort to limit the number of people who are making their way through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans towards Austria and Germany. The policy allows entry to arrivals from the war-torn countries of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, while barring the admission of people from states such as Bangladesh, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Sudan, where levels of violence and human rights abuses appear to be lower.

The result has been to add a new degree of chaos to an already fraught situation. Unable to continue with their intended journey, asylum seekers not from the three designated countries have found themselves trapped in border areas, forced to sleep in the open in freezing temperatures or in rat-infested makeshift camps. 

Tensions have inevitably erupted between the different refugee groups, with some of those whose onward passage has been barred resorting to demonstrations, hunger strikes and other forms of self-harm. At the same time, the closure of borders to certain nationalities has created more demand for the services of human smugglers, who have been able to increase the charges they impose on asylum seekers who are desperate to continue their journey. 

For small and relatively poor European countries such as Macedonia and Serbia, the sudden arrival of significant numbers of asylum seekers clearly represents a major logistical challenge. The security concerns these countries have expressed cannot be totally discounted. And it is certainly true to say that some people who are not in need of international protection are taking advantage of the refugee movement in order to fulfil their migration ambitions.

But in addition to the immense hardship and confusion it has caused, the ‘designated nationalities’ strategy constitutes an inadequate, inequitable and illegal response to the refugee challenge in the Balkans.             

As the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has suggested, “all people have the right to seek asylum, irrespective of their nationality, and to have their cases heard.” The actions taken by the three Balkan countries run counter to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.

There is also a very significant risk that people whose lives and liberty are at risk in their country of origin will be denied the protection they need, and to which they are entitled under international refugee law. According to the latest statistics, just under a quarter of all the recent arrivals in Europe come from countries other than Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. 

Any suggestion that none of these people has a valid claim to refugee status clearly cannot be sustained. In the second quarter of 2015, for example, the average EU recognition rate for Iranian asylum seekers was 67 percent, 58 percent for Sudanese and 28 percent for Pakistanis and Sri Lankans. 

Another consequence of the approach adopted in the Balkans has been to reinforce the perception that there are ‘good refugees’ and ‘bad migrants’, and that a simple distinction can be made between these two groups on the basis of a simple and single criterion, namely country of origin. In fact, assessing asylum claims is a complex process that requires many different elements of the asylum seeker’s individual situation to be taken into consideration.

At the same time, growing numbers of asylum seekers are said to be making false representations about their nationality in an effort to ensure they are not trapped at the border of the Balkan states. As a result, the integrity of the international refugee protection system is unwittingly being undermined.  

Regrettably, the EU and some of its more prosperous member states are failing to provide alternative solutions to the region’s refugee emergency. While Germany and Sweden have admitted a highly disproportionate number of the new arrivals, other countries have expressed very limited interest in region-wide refugee resettlement and relocation programmes. 

Brussels has set a poor example to the Balkan states by launching a naval operation in the Mediterranean to “smash the smugglers’ networks”, an initiative that legitimises other measures to halt the arrival of refugees who are obliged to travel by irregular means.

And while refugee children continue to die in the narrow stretch of water between Turkey and the Greek islands, no progress has been made on the introduction of safe and legal routes to Europe, such as humanitarian evacuation and visa programmes. As the winter weather intensifies, it seems likely that growing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers will be trapped behind the borders of states that are determined to obstruct their arrival. Unable to move on and unwilling to return, what solutions can be found for these stranded populations?