The refugee crisis is placing a huge strain on the countries of the Western Balkans – the EU cannot afford for them to break.
It has become a corridor, the route thousands of refugees take daily from Macedonia through Serbia to the border with Hungary and Croatia. Beyond that lie Slovenia and Austria and finally Germany and Sweden.
The route has become routine, with welcome centres in tents where refugees are counted and fingerprinted before they get on buses which take them several hundred kilometres northward. Close to 300,000 have crossed the Western Balkans since the beginning of the year; more than 6,000 now make this journey on a daily basis.
In the meantime, fences are being erected and borders are being closed. First Hungary started blocking refugees from entering. Then Croatia and Slovenia followed suit. Should Germany or Austria also resort to such measures, a growing number of people – tens of thousands – are likely to get trapped in the Western Balkans at the outset of winter. Today, Serbia's capacity can cater for only 800 refugees.
This humanitarian crisis is leading to rapidly deteriorating relations between the countries in the region, with politicians eagerly channelling long-veiled animosities and gaining electoral wins though rough exchanges with neighbours.
The mini-summit called by European Commission President Juncker last Sunday agreed on a 17-point plan but did not give answers to the two big questions: how to help guard borders along the Balkan route and how to pay for additional refugee shelters and registration centres. It also skirted around the question of relocating refugees stuck in the Western Balkans.
The lucrativeness of human trafficking has resurrected mafia networks from the times of Milosevic and strengthened the grey sectors of Western Balkan economies
Most of the Western Balkan states struggle to ensure the orderly management of the refugee flow. Given a lack of capacity in border policing they sometimes resort to the deployment of military units and thus exacerbate tensions in relations with neighbours. The 400 additional policemen that were promised to Slovenia in Brussels on Sunday did not relieve the state of panic triggered by the growing numbers and now Ljubljana is contemplating building a fence of its own.
The lucrativeness of human trafficking has resurrected mafia networks from the times of Milosevic and strengthened the grey sectors of Western Balkan economies, which, in any case, suffer from low levels of investment and poor competitiveness. While heavier and more visible involvement of Frontex would help stabilise the situation in the short term, an overarching European approach towards the EU’s outer borders that takes into account the institutional weaknesses of the non-EU member of the Balkans should be the long-term goal.
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So far, Macedonia and Serbia have been largely constructive in handling the crisis, sent the right messages, and kept their borders open. But they could easily fall under pressure of the larger domino effect of their neighbours to the north closing their borders.
The Western Balkans, in particular Macedonia and Serbia, must be part of a broader solution to the crisis. The mini-summit was a step in the right direction. But the Western Balkans countries should be treated as equal partners and have a seat at the table when the EU28 next meet to deal with the crisis. They will not only be members of the EU one day but, because of geography, need to be included already in the decision-making. They cannot be treated as an afterthought. The magnitude of the crisis requires collective action that goes beyond the 28 member states.
The Western Balkans should be brought into the EU institutional mechanisms for dealing with the crisis, in particular the proposed relocation mechanism and hotspots structure to process asylum applications. This would provide an ordered and humane way to deal the refugees who will end up stuck in Macedonia, Serbia, and elsewhere in the region. It would also decrease pressure on the borders with Hungary and Croatia.
The Western Balkans should be brought into the EU institutional mechanisms for dealing with the crisis, in particular the proposed relocation mechanism and hotspots structure to process asylum applications
By bringing the Western Balkans into the relocation mechanism, the EU would gain additional recipients for refugees. Countries, such as Albania and Kosovo, actually have some capacity to host a limited number of refugees. Several leaders have already indicated that their countries are willing to receive refugees. The mini-summit agreed to support UNHCR to build camps with a capacity for 50,000 refugees along the route. This is welcome. But the question is whether even this figure is high enough and who will pay for it.
The refugee crisis is putting a serious strain on this fragile region. A greater influx could be highly destabilizing and destructive for these countries. The nasty rhetoric that has surfaced as a result of the crisis has shown that nationalist tendencies are not far off. Neglecting the region is done at the EU’s own peril.