The Western Balkans have been dealing with internal displacement and refugee issues since the 1991-95 conflict. While still coping with the aftermaths of the refugee flows within the region, those countries have more recently also become one of the most important transit areas.
The “Balkan Route” involves migrants smuggling routes starting in Turkey or Greece and proceeding all the way up to the EU through North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Hungary and Romania. This phenomenon has been increasingly more travelled due to the general stabilisation of the region and the trajectory of many states to the European institutions and integration, starting with Bulgaria and Romania’s and later Croatia’s membership in the EU and perspective of future accession to the Schengen zone. As a matter of fact, Frontex registered a gradual increase in migration flow to/through the Balkans from 3,090 arrivals in 2009 to 43,357 in 2014. In 2015 the migratory crisis hit the region with 764,033 arrivals. Since then, the local governments, with the support and complicity of the EU, have been putting a great effort into systematic pushback operations on their own national borders. As a clear result, in the following years, the number of migrants and asylum seekers undergoing the Balkan Route dropped tremendously from 130,325 in 2016 to 5,869 in 2018. However, pushback practices and widespread ill-treatment at the EU external borders did not stop migrants and asylum seekers from attempting to reach the EU through the Balkans. Indeed, the numbers increased to 19,707 in 2020 despite the border restrictions due to the Covid pandemic. Since the beginning of 2021, 11,606 irregular border crossing have been reported by Frontex, while UNHCR states, in its report for South-Eastern Europe, updated to 30th April 2021, that there are currently 13,351 refugees and asylum seekers (excluding the people displaced by the ‘90s armed conflict in former Yugoslavia) on the Western Balkans territory.
UNHCR reveals that out of these 13,351 people, only 274 have been granted the status of refugee. Although numbers cannot replace humans or explain their experience, at least in such a case, they can help us grasp the worrying dimension of basic refugee reception in the Balkans and the EU.
The same report from UNHCR provides information concerning the ethnic configuration of the asylum seeker and refugee population, showing that currently the most present nationalities are Afghani (21,9%), Pakistani (16,1%) and Syrians (8,4%), followed by Bangladeshi, Iranians, Morocco, Algerians, Palestinians, Libyans, Indians and Tunisians. Moreover, the main countries of stay at the present moment are Bosnia and Herzegovina (48,8%) and Serbia (47,7%), followed by Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania, while 70% of asylum claims are addressed to Serbia, possibly because this country borders on four EU member states, namely Croatia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.
Human rights violations at asylum seekers and refugees’ expenses consistently occur on the Western Balkan external EU borders. Firstly, these people lack proper state material assistance, suffering from inhuman living conditions in refugees camps. Furthermore, the asylum application process is, in many cases (as we can deduce from the data provided above), intentionally hindered, making it impossible for many of them to be granted the refugee status. Secondly, the pushback operations involving violence, torture, denigration, and intimidation are being carried out by state authorities in Greece, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia. Although, a big responsibility for human rights violations also lies within other EU states involved in the Balkan Route. Italian authorities, for example, has been reported and condemned by the Rome Court for having pushed back asylum seekers from Trieste to Slovenia in January 2021.
Pushback is an illegal practice under international law since it criminally prevents asylum seekers from exercising the right to seek and claim asylum in a country granted by article 14 of the Declaration of Human Rights. This means that a country has the right to control its borders, but there is no justification for rejecting asylum seekers at the frontiers. Moreover, the forced transfer or return of asylum seekers and refugees from a country jurisdiction to another breaches the principle of non-refoulement, included in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED). It is also necessary to underline that the justification for such violation, made under the assumption that asylum seekers are being rejected to ‘safe countries’ (used, for example, by Italy for motivating the informal readmission to Slovenia), is also unacceptable under international human rights law.
While refugees’ rights are being violated and their life and well-being threatened at its very borders, the EU is behaving like a reluctant spectator and showing a strong unwillingness to take proper action for the sake of human rights protection. A delegation of Italian MEPs on assignment to verify the situation of the migrants on the Balkan Route rightly blamed the Croatian police for having stopped them from crossing the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina in January 2021. Although, their strong condemnation is not representative of a broader EU refugee rights protection policy in the Balkans. The EU is complicit in the illegal treatment of refugees and asylum seekers by turning a blind eye to the life-threatening conditions endured by migrants and taking the active initiative to hinder the migration inflows further. For example, the 2016 deal with Turkey intended to financially support the country in ‘keeping’ refugees within its boundaries to, in fact, prevent them from reaching the EU. Moreover, a generalised and increasingly worrying trend of criminalisation of help and solidarity towards migrants can currently be witnessed throughout Europe.
The scenario becomes even more painfully ironic when we consider that the institutionalisation of human rights and refugee law is a European product, established as a system of protection of the refugees scattered throughout Europe after the Second World War. As long as the asylum seekers in Europe will be denied the treatment they deserve under the law, the European Union will be betraying the very values it was founded on and violating the same laws it established to protect its own citizens.