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REACH Situation Overview: Rapid assessment of the humanitarian impact of new border policies in the Western Balkans, 4 March 2016

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As of 3rd of March, thousands of migrants are stranded at various points along the Western Balkan corridor following the implementation of stricter border policies over the past two weeks, including more than 10,000 at Idomeni and nearly 6,000 which are waiting elsewhere in Greece. Many of these people will likely not gain passage to Europe due to new policies.

As European leaders prepare for the EU-Turkey Migration Summit to be held in Brussels on 7 March 2016, REACH conducted a rapid assessment to provide decision makers with an update on the emerging displacement trends and humanitarian situation, as a result of the implementation of newly adopted border policies. Large numbers of people are currently waiting at borders, often for many days, while others are refused entry altogether and face limited options for either onward movement or return. With their limited resources rapidly depleted during delays, large numbers of migrants are becoming increasingly reliant on humanitarian assistance.

New border policies are currently excluding previously eligible migrants from continuing their journeys, such as Afghans or those who have spent significant time in a safe ‘third country’ such as Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan, originating from Syria and Iraq. Additionally, some migrants were refused entry to Croatia for spending a month in Greece prior to travelling through the Balkans. Interpretations of the new border policies are inconsistent and unpredictable, and causing a major threat to the smooth flow of regular asylum seekers along the Western Balkans corridor.

Moreover, the build-up of over 10,000 people currently waiting at Idomeni is a direct result of border closures and restrictions further along the route, in countries like FYROM and Serbia. Therefore, unless Western Balkans countries, like FYROM and Serbia, extend the numbers of migrants allowed to transit through their territories, Greece will undoubtedly suffer a humanitarian crisis.

The new criteria are having an impact not only on the number and profile of migrants allowed to access the formal migration route, but also on the number of migrants that seek informal and alternative routes to Europe. This will also have negative consequences such as migrants falling off the radar and becoming stranded, where they are more vulnerable to protection risks. It will also directly affect the level and types of humanitarian needs, with few transit sites currently equipped to respond to extended stays for over a week. In this respect, authorities should be conscious of the humanitarian impact of push backs, taking into consideration the capacity of the country to which they resend migrants.

Furthermore, if the current strain on service provision and living conditions within the registration centres and transit camps is an indication of capacity by authorities and aid organisations, the coming spring, which traditionally brings higher numbers of migrants crossing the seas, is likely to lead to a full scale humanitarian crisis in centers, camps and beyond.

At the European Summit on Migration on 7 March, states should consider the impact their policies are having on migrants, but most importantly on Greece’s capacity to response and handle the situation alone and develop a unified, European response that addresses both the security concerns of each country, but also the capacity of governments along the Western Balkans to effectively provide assistance to those in need.