WB ARA 2017


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Bringing the unprecedented migration flow back under control / coordination and cooperation remain crucial

An array of response measures, ranging from coordinated enhancement of border-controls by the most affected countries to policy actions supported by the EU, contributed to a marked reduction in the volume of the non-regional1 migratory flow transiting the Eastern Mediterranean and subsequently the Western Balkans.

Overall, on the Western Balkan route, the number of detected illegal border-crossings between border crossing points (BCPs) associated with non-regional[1] migrants decreased in 2016 to roughly 270 000 (down from over 2 million in 2015). The largest share of detections was reported in the first quarter, after which the number of detections was slowly de-creasing to reach manageable levels by the end of the year.

Ineffective local response measures

At the height of the crisis in 2015, the most affected countries reacted individually, at times introducing antagonistic measures. For example, while some countries organised a transportation corridor to streamline the movement of mi-grants, others tried to stop the flow by sealing their green borders. These local solutions either accelerated or deflected the migratory flow but failed to bring it back under control.

Need for coordination and cooperation acknowledged

In order to counter the lack of coordination, high-level regional and inter-national meetings focusing on a joint response to the crisis were initiated to-wards the end of 2015 and continued through 2016.

Nevertheless, bringing the crisis un-der control and returning to the normal application of border control legislation was too massive a task to be fully achieved in one attempt. A number of phased measures aimed at a gradual filtering and reducing of the flow were agreed upon and introduced[2] at the regional level starting from the end of 2015.

Closure of the Western Balkan transit corridor and continued cooperation key to keeping control

The closure of the transit corridor was the next crucial step towards regaining control over the migration crisis. Despite being preceded by the phased reduction measures, this closure was not an easy endeavour, given the momentum of the non-regional flow.

Moreover, the success (or lack thereof) with which this measure was implemented carried a crucial message which could either encourage or deter migrants still waiting to leave their home or host countries and move towards the EU.

Likely aware of these aspects, regional countries and EU Member States provided important support to the authorities in Skopje by helping to fully secure their border with Greece. This was a crucial move towards implementing the regional decision of closing the transit corridor and deterring further arrivals from Turkey.

The closure of the corridor was by it-self not enough to bring the situation back under control. Therefore, further coherent measures were implemented in order to tackle other issues, such as the migratory pressure accumulated in Greece or the natural tendency of mi-grants to seek alternative routing.

These measures largely consisted in supporting enhanced border-control activities at key border sections within or outside the region, and policy-level responses to the migration phenomenon.

As regards enhanced border-controls, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia in-creased their efforts both on their own (internal re-deployments) and with international support in the framework of either EC-funded interventions[3] (in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia) or Frontex-coordinated Jos[4] (in Bulgaria and Greece). Whereas, Hungary addressed illegal border-crossings by re-enforcing police presence while also redefining working procedures[5].

As far as policy-level decisions are concerned, the EU-Turkey statement on stemming migration together with the implementation of the Hotspot approach[6] on the Greek Aegean Islands greatly contributed to reducing the migration flow from Turkey and preventing further movements towards the West-ern Balkans.

The increased coordination and coherence of regional and international responses significantly reduced the volume of the transiting flow and helped bring the situation largely under control towards the end of 2016.

Migratory situation ‘close-to-normal’ but coordination still necessary

Following the coordinated restriction measures implemented throughout the region, in destination countries and the Aegean Sea, the non-regional flow transiting the Western Balkans considerably subsided, declining almost every month, from 128 000 illegal border-crossings in January down to roughly 3 000 in December 2016.

The enhanced restrictions led to a number of migrants becoming stranded in different locations along the route (i.e. the Aegean Islands, the mainland Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia). Thus, even though the overall volume of the transiting flow decreased, the stranded migrants continued to exert pressure at different border sections as they repeatedly attempted to cross

Despite this continued pressure, the overall number of detections were brought down to manageable levels to-wards the end of the year. Past data suggest that the current level of pressure can be regarded as a slow return to normality of migration movements via the Western Balkans.

Nevertheless, the underlying conditions for a re-escalation remain in place (i.e. large pool of would-be migrants in neighbouring regions, some actually counting on the Western Balkan route being re-opened), pointing to the importance of close cooperation and coordinated response measures especially considering the precipitous growth of the migratory flow in 2015.

Importantly, the humanitarian aspects of migration have to be taken into consideration. In this sense, identifying and providing necessary support to members of vulnerable groups still in transit or stranded on different sections of the route need to be addressed in con-junction with enhanced border control.

Low level of regional migratory flow, mainly contained in the south of the region

Most of the detected illegal border-crossings of regional migrants[7] (around 72%) occurred in the south of the region (at Greece’s borders with Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) and were, by and large, associated with the Albanian circular migration[8] to Greece.

The northern part of the region (Hungary and Croatia’s borders with Serbia) was affected by approximately 14% of the total pressure exerted by regional migrants, predominantly Kosovo* citizens attempting to reach Western European destinations.

Cross-border criminality – firearm and drug smuggling

Small-scale firearm detections at the borders; continued presence of SALW[9] in the region

Overall, the number of detections re-ported within the general area of responsibility of the regional border police forces (reporting from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo*, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia) indicates a limited number of firearms/ammunition, mostly obtained for personal use (e.g. illegal hunting).

Locally produced cannabis – the main smuggled narcotic substance

Local groups appear to have regained cannabis production capacity lost following police operations carried out by Albania in 2014. Specifically, if the second half of 2014 and the entire 2015 saw fewer detections of cannabis at the borders coupled with higher prices for the product, the year 2016 tended to indicate a re-saturation of the regional market with this type of narcotic (increased number of seizures at the borders, lower prices on the black market).

[1] Migrants of nationalities other than those of Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro or Bosnia and Herzegovina.
For example, starting from November 2015, only Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis were allowed transit; starting from February 2016, migrants were asked to confirm their nationality with proper documents, daily quotas were introduced.
Project ‘Special measure supporting the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to manage its southern border in the context of the European migration crisis’; a similar measure was later implemented at the Bulgarian-Serbian border.
JO Flexible Operational Activities South East, Western Balkans, EPN Poseidon.
For example, Hungarian law on returning migrants detected within8 km from the border to special transit areas where they can either wait for legal admission or return to Serbia.
Providing migrants with accommodation, as well as screening, registering and processing them on the islands rather than in the mainland Greece.
Migrants who are citizens of the Western Balkan countries.
Seasonal movements of workers (Albania-Greece-Albania).
Small arms and light weapons.