This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today’s Palais des Nations press briefing in Geneva.
UNHCR is concerned about increasing risks facing refugees and migrants in the Western Balkans with more people using this route for their journeys. Men, women and children are often walking for days, some exposed to violence and abuse, or accidents along train tracks.
What has become known as ‘the Western Balkans route’ is seeing a dramatic increase in refugees and migrants. Some are registering for asylum in the Balkans, others are heading onwards.
Between 2012 and 2014 the number of people registering their intention to seek asylum in the Western Balkans went from 5,000 to 20,000, a four-fold increase. So far in 2015, the numbers have been rising further, with over 22,000 asylum claims lodged in Serbia alone in the first five months of the year, a six fold increase from the same period as last year. Close to 10,000, new asylum-seekers were registered by the authorities in May alone. Authorities and civil society in Southern Serbia are currently stretched to provide basic humanitarian aid, registration and accommodation to some 200 asylum-seekers that approach them each day for help, having crossed the border from fYR Macedonia. UNHCR estimates that at least an equal number of people potentially in need of international protection forego registration, have been moving through the region irregularly, with the help of smugglers. The vast majority of them seek to reach Western Europe crossing into Hungary.
Most of those travelling this route are from refugee-producing countries, mainly Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia. They mostly come via Greece, and with the recent surge in sea arrivals there, the number of people undertaking this journey is expected to grow further.
The situation is particularly difficult in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia where refugees and migrants follow rail tracks and mountain routes, walking for days exposed to train accidents, natural elements and to abuse and threats from smugglers and criminal networks. A series of fatal accidents over the last few months have been a reminder of the dangers, including to young children and women.
UNHCR has been advocating for improvements to the asylum systems in this region since the early 1990s. Existing capacities are inadequate for the scale of arrivals. In particular, we have been working closely with the Government of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to amend its Law on Asylum and Temporary Protection, so that people potentially in need of international protection are registered and get access to legal processes. The proposed changes, which are still to be approved by the Parliament, urgently need adoption and implementation.
In Serbia the situation is more positive and asylum-seekers are not detained. UNHCR is working to increase its support to the efforts of authorities and civil society to provide basic assistance, services and access to procedures.
The situation remains critical and will require further support, including through joint efforts with the European Union, national Governments, and NGOs.
For more information on this topic, please contact:
In Budapest (regional), Kitty McKinsey on mobile +36 30 530 9633
In Budapest, Balint Linder on mobile +36 30 587 2969
In Sarajevo, Neven Crvenkovic on mobile +387 61 611 082
In Sofia, Boris Cheshirkov on mobile +359 878 507 041
In Greece, William Spindler on mobile +41 79 217 3011
In Geneva, Babar Baloch on mobile +41 79 557 9106