EU should bring the Western Balkans into the refugee relocation scheme

The Western Balkans are becoming a de facto holding centre for refugees –  they should be included in the relocation scheme.

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The Western Balkans is turning into a dumping ground for refugees, as EU member states fortify their borders while refugees continue to head towards Europe. This has caused a humanitarian emergency in Serbia and Macedonia and is raising tensions in this fragile region. It is also compromising for our basic humanitarian values to have Hungarian policemen beating up and tear-gassing Syrian refugees in the name of protecting the EU's border.

As part of the President Juncker’s proposal to deal with the refugee crisis, the EU will give money to help the Western Balkans manage refugee flows and provide protection. While this is necessary, it does not solve the problem of what to do with the growing number of refugees in the region. To handle this, the EU should include the Western Balkans in the proposal to set up an institutional mechanism for relocating refugees. And it should do so now. 

The crisis is likely to get worse – much worse – before it gets better. Some 75,000 more refugees are expected to arrive from the Mediterranean and Turkey this year. UNHCR estimates that at least 450,000 will come next year. Until there is peace in Syria and stability in Libya, there will be massive flows of people to Europe. This will be a major issue for the EU for some time to come, but even more so for the Western Balkans as it is on the frontline of the crisis.

The Western Balkans is quickly becoming the EU’s de facto holding centre for refugees

Macedonia and Serbia are part of the main transit route for refugees heading to northern Europe. About 160,000 have transited through Serbia into Hungary since the beginning of the year. This is a tenfold increase compared with last year. Dealing with this humanitarian emergency has been a major undertaking for Serbia and Macedonia. The other countries of the Western Balkans – Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina – have been largely unaffected as they lie outside the main refugee route.

But now, the main route is being shut down. Hungary closed its border on 15 September and has enacted draconian legislation to keep refugees out. The fence along the border with Serbia has been completed, and new fences are being constructed along parts of the border with Romania and Croatia. Croatia shut its border last week (except for one border crossing) after being overwhelmed by 13,000 refugees entering the country. Slovenia has suspended the railroad link with Croatia to keep refugees out and will introduce controls along the border with Hungary. 

The options for entering the EU are disappearing, but the influx of refugees into the Western Balkans continues. Between 2,500 and 3,000 refugees are estimated to be entering Macedonia and Serbia every day. 

As the total number of refugees in the Balkans increases, more countries are fortifying their borders. There is a domino effect at play of borders being closed and fences being erected. This is causing further tensions among the states in the region and leading to nasty quarrels among EU member states.

And for the refugees, with nowhere to go, many will end up stuck in the Balkans.

The Western Balkans is quickly becoming the EU’s de facto holding centre for refugees. This is highly destabilising for a region with weak institutions that are ill-suited to dealing with a major refugee crisis. As long as the refugees have been flowing out of the Balkans, many local leaders have been able to take the moral high ground and appear as responsible and gracious – in particular in contrast to Orban of Hungary. But with the number of refugees increasing, this could change. Instability in the Balkans has many times proven to be highly costly for the EU.

The EU is rightly stepping up its humanitarian assistance to help the governments handle the deteriorating situation. But the EU needs to also bring the countries of the Western Balkans into the institutional mechanisms for dealing with the crisis, in particular the proposed scheme to relocate refugees. 

When European leaders meet on Wednesday, they should invite the countries of the Western Balkans to be part of the permanent relocation mechanism that is on the table. The mechanism is meant to help an EU member state that comes under extreme pressure because of an influx of people by resettling them to other member states.

A quota system based on population and GDP, along with unemployment rate and number of asylum seekers, is to be used to determine how many people each member state receives. The mechanism is built on the principle of solidarity and the shared responsibility of all member states. But there is no intrinsic reason why it cannot be extended to the countries of the Western Balkans.

This is not only about moving refugees out of the Balkans. It is also about enlarging the group of countries able to receive refugees. Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Montenegro are poor but still have some capacity to take on refugees; their populations also know from the Yugoslav wars what it means to be a refugee. The prime minister of Albania and president of Kosovo have already said that their countries are ready to accept people fleeing the war in Syria.

The mechanism would, most importantly, provide a structured way to deal with the refugee crisis in Serbia and Macedonia. The situation in both countries is so dire that they would probably already now meet the conditions foreseen to activate the mechanism. A functioning scheme for relocating refugees would mean that they would not have to try to break through Hungarian police lines to enter the EU. Resettlement would decrease pressure on Serbia and Macedonia but also on EU frontline states, notably Hungary and Croatia.

While the permanent mechanism has still to be agreed by the EU, the Western Balkans can already now be brought into the institutional set-up by inviting the region to join the resettlement of 120,000 refugees currently in Greece, Hungary, and Italy. Using the formula, Bosnia’s quota would be around 700, Albania 530, Kosovo 325, and Montenegro 120. (This compares with Lithuania taking 780 and Malta taking 133.) Macedonia and Serbia would not take part because of the number of refugees already in their countries.

Everyone would benefit from extending European solidarity to the Western Balkans

Under the quota system, each member state receives 6,000 euros per person. For the Western Balkans, this amount could be increased in light of the countries’ relatively low levels of GDP.

Although the numbers are not overwhelming, they are still significant and would reduce the overall number of refugees the EU states have to take under the system. There is also important symbolism in the Western Balkans accepting refugees and sharing the responsibility, in particular since the region has been a major source of economic migrants trying to seek asylum in the EU in recent years.

 It is unlikely that including the Western Balkans in the EU's relocation mechanism would constitute a pull factor any more than Greece's inclusion in the scheme is a pull factor. There is of course always the risk that refugees resettled to the Western Balkans would leave and head to Germany. But this risk also applies to other EU member states, such as Bulgaria and Romania, that would be part of the mechanism. What the mechanism would do is provide a much needed order to a chaotic situation. 

Everyone would benefit from extending European solidarity to the Western Balkans. It would provide relief and stability for the countries under most pressure in the Balkans. At the same time, adding more recipient countries would contribute to a wider spread of responsibility.

This is of course only one part of the overall solution to the refugee crisis, which must include greater efforts to deal with the root causes in Syria and Lybia and support for neighboring countries, such as Turkey, that host refugees.

But it is an opportunity for the Western Balkans to show that it is willing to take on its share of responsibility and be part of Europe’s solidarity – as well as for the EU to demonstrate that it is willing to deal with the refugee crisis in the Western Balkans in a responsible way. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director of the Wider Europe Programme

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