Two years have passed since the refugee deal between the European Union and Turkey that officially closed the so-called "Balkan Route". But in these two years, facts have shown that this route has not been completely closed: it has only changed its directions and has become even more dangerous for migrants who are trying to reach Europe. In fact, the migrants' flow is now taking new directions, as demonstrated by the thousands of irregular entries into Bosnia-Herzegovina from Serbia and Montenegro since the beginning of 2018.
One crisis, different approaches
In September 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel surprised Europe as a whole by opening the borders of Germany and welcoming about 900,000 asylum seekers mainly from Syria. However, after less than six months this approach was abandoned, and the pressure was high for reaching a solution at the EU level. A solution was eventually achieved in March 2016 with the implementation of the EU-Turkey statement that closed the Balkan route. According to the deal, all migrants and asylum-seekers who irregularly arrived in the EU (mainly on Greek islands) should return to Turkey. In exchange, Turkey was promised 6 billion Euros. This deal had a double consequence, reversing the initial open-borders approach and also leaving thousands of migrants stranded in the Balkans. Moreover, this deal represents an externalisation of European policies on migration, i.e. the transfer of border management to third countries.
The Balkan countries located between EU member states had to bear the heaviest burden for the Union's failure to agree on joint action for the refugees who were stranded in the region. "For the first time since the EU opened a membership prospect for the countries of the Western Balkans in Thessaloniki in 2003, the Union openly exported instability instead of stability to the region" writes Bodo Weber in the report "The EU-Turkey Refugee Deal and the Not Quite Closed Balkan Route".
The lack of efficient joint action at the EU level has encouraged countries at the external borders of the EU to act by themselves, often violating international law. This unilateralism is particularly evident in the case of Hungary, where the government of Viktor Orban in 2015 ordered building an iron fence at the border with Serbia, and where cases of physical push-backs, systematic violation of human rights and the systematic violation of domestic, EU and international laws were reported.
"Violent Borders" – an investigative documentary on the Balkan route that will soon be released – reports that the “push-back” practice is often accompanied by beating and other abuses, also against women and unaccompanied minors, especially at the Bulgarian border with Turkey and at the Hungarian border with Serbia.
Delegating the crisis, delegating responsibility
Within the Balkan region, Serbia and Macedonia are by far the countries that more than others were affected by the refugee crisis in 2015. The situation was even worse for Serbia because of the migrants who were pushed-back from the Hungarian border. This practice contributed to turning Serbia into a "Balkan Calais", with thousands of refugees who remained stuck in the country.
The latest news about refugees entering Bosnia-Herzegovina from its neighbouring countries confirm two failures of the EU-Turkey deal. First, thousands of migrants still manage to cross the borders within the region, as a result of the redirection of the route, with the southern entry point shifting from the Greek islands to Bulgaria’s land border with Turkey; as a result, there is an increase in the number of border crossings migrants pass through. Second, the attempt to close the route has indirectly incentivized migrants to turn again to smugglers to cross the borders, as the system of the list according to which Hungarian authorities let enter only ten migrants per working day could not satisfy the huge amount of asylum-seekers' applications.
When it comes specifically to Serbia, the management of the crisis proved to be both an internal challenge and a stability test whose positive outcome should be appreciated by the EU. Through the financing of assistance programs and governmental capacities, the EU has de facto delegated to candidate countries in the region the management of the refugee crisis.
In this respect, the positive reaction of the Serbian government, with the equipment of 18 reception centres for asylum-seekers, could be seen as a point in favour of Serbia in the framework of the pre-accession process to the EU, which has recently foreseen Serbia's complete integration by 2025.
It seems that, by delegating the management of the refugee crisis to its candidate countries, the EU has indirectly tested the ability of the Western Balkans in handling an issue that -- together with Brexit – proved to be one of the main EU instability factors.
In conclusion, the difference in responses to the refugee crisis between some EU member states and the candidate countries is a proof of the EU's political weakness in finding a joint solution to a problem that concerns the whole of Europe but hit the Western Balkans particularly hard. The EU-Turkey deal, with the externalisation of European border management, is a paradoxical attempt to delegate to others the responsibility for migrants’ passage through borders.
While news from the Middle East – with the direct involvement of some EU member states and Turkey in the Syrian war – leaves us wondering about future migrations in the region, the new path through Bosnia-Herzegovina confirms that the more migrants are kept waiting for their destiny, the more they will turn to smugglers – in order to reach a continent that has already closed the possibility for their safe passage.