In late 2015 and early 2016, the Western Balkans witnessed an unprecedented flow of people through its borders on their way to Europe. For several months a ‘humanitarian corridor’ provided certain nationalities, including Afghans, with transportation to the outer fringes of the European Union. However, Afghans trying to reach Europe once again find themselves at the mercy of smuggling networks. In this first dispatch of a three-part series, Jelena Bjelica and Martine van Bijlert lay out the key events and policies that led to the establishment and subsequent dismantling of the corridor. It also examines how the relatively benign welcome that Afghans travelling through Serbia experienced, is now fading.
Part I: The opening and closing of the Balkan corridor
Part 2: Afghans in transit through Serbia
Part 3: The smugglers’ re-emergence
Prologue: A Badakhshi on the Balkan route
Rahman – a tall lad in his late teens from Darwaz district in Badakhshan province – began his long journey to Europe about a year ago, when the wave of migration to and through Europe was just gathering steam. He travelled first to Pakistan and then to Iran, where he spent a month, then onto Turkey, where he spent two months earning money to continue his journey onwards. He paid a smuggler 3,000 US dollars, but in the end he had to make his own way to Greece. Unfortunately for him, just as he arrived in March 2016, the EU-Turkey deal that effectively closed the Balkan corridor came into force. The flow of people he had hoped to join had been halted. It didn’t mean the end of his journey, but it made things much more complicated.
Rahman spent around two months in Greece and then walked to Macedonia. In Macedonia he was sold a fake bus ticket to Serbia for 100 Euros, so he resumed his journey on foot. When the AAN researchers met him in Belgrade in June 2016, he had only just arrived and was trying (unsuccessfully) to reconnect with his smuggler. Out of money and no longer in touch with his original smuggler, Rahman is one of many who now find themselves stranded halfway.
The Balkan route
Throughout 2015 and the first half of 2016 the Balkan route was the main land gateway to Europe for many Afghans. The route starts in Turkey, heads west into Greece (by boat over the Aegean Sea) and then into the Western Balkans, mainly through the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria and Serbia. Over a million people travelled through the Western Balkans on foot, by bus, by car or by train in 2015 alone, including over 250,000 Afghans.
Before the establishment of the ‘Balkan corridor’ in late 2015 – and following its closure in early 2016 – refugees and migrants had to rely on smugglers to cross borders illegally. These routes in and out of Serbia largely follow old smuggling routes that were used to smuggle oil and other goods during the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, when Yugoslavia was under UN sanctions. These routes were also traditionally used for smuggling people (from Moldova, Romania and Bulgaria through Serbia to Bosnia and further north to Western Europe), drugs and weapons.
Serbia’s current borders with Bulgaria, Macedonia and Croatia (which were the borders of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia between 1992 and 2003) were extremely porous during the Balkan wars of 1990s. At the time the country was undergoing an economic crisis and smuggling provided an important means of survival. This was made easier as the police and customs departments of the states that were established from the ashes of Tito’s Yugoslavia (the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1945–1992) did not cooperate or exchange information with one another. Traffickers and smugglers, on the other hand, generally managed to work closely across ethnic and (new) political lines.
This situation changed following the wars in the Western Balkans. In the early 2000s, new regional forums were established to improve cooperation between the former foes (for instance with the Migration, Asylum, Refugees Regional Initiative (MARRI) that brought together Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania; see also this LSE paper on the regional initiatives for more details). Such initiatives improved communication, but there was still bitterness resulting from previous conflicts between the different national police and customs forces. These tensions continue to stand in the way of full-scale cooperation.
Although law enforcement improved, former smuggling routes continued to be used for illegal migration towards Europe, including from Afghanistan. According to the Serbian Ministry of Interior’s 2012 annual report – well before the 2015 migration peak – Serbia’s police apprehended 660 Afghans and 396 Pakistanis who had tried to cross its borders illegally (out of a total of 1,560 migrants). In 2013, the Serbian police prevented 340 Afghans and 450 Pakistanis from illegally crossing the country’s borders (out of a total of 1,737 migrants).
Additionally, some of region’s aspiring EU candidates, particularly Kosovo and Albania, were a source of irregular migration themselves, with a peak of outward border crossings into Serbia from these countries in late 2014 and early 2015 (see here). In January and February 2015, tens of thousands of Kosovar Albanians walked through Serbia to the Hungarian border, in an act that may have opened the way for other refugees, particularly the large numbers of Syrian refugees that started arriving a couple of months later.
May to September 2015: Numbers pick up as Hungary closes its borders
In May 2015 when the Syrian refugee crisis broke, people started travelling through the Western Balkans en mass, making it the busiest route in 2015 (see for instance this European Parliamentary report). In 2015, over a million refugees arrived in Europe by sea. Afghans accounted for about 20 per cent of these arrivals, making them the second largest group entering Europe (see previous AAN reporting here). Once people had crossed the sea, many of them travelled from Greece to Macedonia and then onwards, via Serbia, into Hungary.
Significantly, the border between Hungary and Serbia is also the border separating the European Union from its Western Balkan periphery. It was a border that the EU had already been trying to fortify against migrants for many years.
September 2015: Hungary seals its border, migration moves westwards
Between May and August 2015, as migrant numbers picked up, the Serbian authorities registered over 90,000 people who ‘expressed an intention to seek asylum’, but who were, in fact, in transit through Serbia. The real number of people who passed through the country during this period was probably considerably higher.
The high number of arrivals in Serbia and the fact that they were allowed to travel onwards largely undeterred, provoked a harsh response from the Hungarian authorities, who were determined – and obliged – to prevent the flow of migrants entering the EU illegally.
In late June 2015, Hungarian authorities announced a plan to build a four-metre high fence along its 177 kilometre-long border with Serbia. Construction began almost immediately and, on 15 September 2015, the Hungarian border was closed except for two official border crossings (see here and here for more details).
A growing group of people found themselves stranded near the two official border crossings on the Serbian-Hungarian border, Horgoš and Kelebija. On 16 September 2015, there were approximately 3,000 people stranded at Horgoš alone (according to reporting by REACH at the time), many of whom were forced to sleep in the open air. At the same time, on the southern Serbian border with Macedonia, people were still streaming in.
In October, November and December 2015, over 420,000 people continued to pass through Serbia, according to figures AAN received from UNHCR Serbia.
The opening of the Balkan corridor: channelling the flow of people
After the closure of the Hungarian border in September 2015, migrants immediately started seeking out new routes. The next day, on 16 September 2015, people started arriving in taxis and buses at the Croatian border – an EU member-country that had not fortified its borders – and crossed the border illegally on foot. Initially, Croatia sought to close its border with Serbia (see for instance here and here), which resulted in strained relations between the two countries.
After a month of mounting tensions – with Croatia blocking traffic for Serbian citizens, and Serbia banning the import and transit of Croatian products – the authorities in both countries reached an agreement on 3 November 2015. According to the agreement, Serbia would transport migrants by bus to the railway station in Šid (at the border with Croatia, but still on Serbian territory) and guide them to a train that would take them directly to Slavonski Brod in Croatia, where a winter camp with a capacity for 5,000 people had been set up.
In light of this policy of (relatively) open borders as well as the moderate political discourse and public attitudes in this part of the region, a European Parliamentary report labelled the countries in the Western Balkans “refugee-friendly” (despite reported cases of mistreatment).
The cooperation between the Serbian and Croatian authorities continued throughout February 2016. A former humanitarian worker who had worked with migrants in Preševo (on the Serbian-Macedonian border) at the time, gave AAN a sense of the size of the influx of people. “Between November 2015 and early February 2016, when the humanitarian corridor between Serbia and Croatia was open, between 5,000 and 8,000 people per day passed through Preševo.”
She further described how the humanitarian corridor started in Gjevgjelia at the Macedonian-Greek border, from where people were transported by train to Miratovac on the Macedonian-Serbian border. From there they would walk to the transit camp in Preševo on the Serbian side of the border and be taken by the Serbian authorities in buses and trains to Šid/Odaševci on the Serbian-Croatian border. There they would wait for three to four hours to cross to Slavonski Brod in Croatia and travel on to their final destinations via Slovenia, Austria or Hungary.
The Afghan press agency, Tolo, also reported in November 2015 how growing numbers of Afghans had to queue for hours in Preševo to receive registration papers with which they would be able to travel onwards to Croatia.
Croatia’s neighbours reacted uneasily to the agreement. Hungary put up a razor-wire fence on its border with Croatia in mid October 2015, despite both countries being in the EU. In November 2015, Slovenia – another EU member state – did the same, although it claimed it wanted to “direct” rather than reduce the flow of migrants into the country (and, indeed, it did continue to allow the transit of migrants, see here). Finally, and not unrelated, in early December 2015, Austria began building a fence along its border with Slovenia, the first to be set up between two Schengen countries.
Stopping the flow: the EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan and the Western Balkans deal
As the images of large numbers of migrants making their way through the Balkans towards Western Europe put pressure on politicians throughout Europe, the EU began negotiations with Turkey to reduce the influx. This ‘Joint Action Plan’, as it became known, was first discussed in May 2015, then endorsed by EU heads of state on 15 October 2015 and signed on 29 November 2015 (see here and here).
According to the agreement, the two sides would “step up cooperation … to address the crisis created by the situation in Syria” – as well as “step up the active cooperation on migrants who are not in need of international protection and to prevent their travel to Turkey and the EU, to ensure the application of the established bilateral readmission provisions and to swiftly return them to their countries of origin.” The Action Plan effectively sought to push the EU’s borders all the way back to Turkey, which also fit well with Turkey’s aspirations for EU membership.
Initially, the situation along the Balkan route did not change significantly as a result of the Action Plan. In January, February and March of 2016, the numbers crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece were still higher than they had been during the same period in 2015. It was only in April, May and June 2016, after the new EU-Turkey deal was signed and implemented, that numbers started decreasing sharply, compared to the same period in 2015.
In the meantime, two Balkan-born initiatives aimed at reducing and controlling the flow of migrants preceded the EU-Turkey deal of March 2016. At the end of November 2015, authorities in the most affected countries decided to allow only Syrians, Afghans and Iraqi nationals to cross their borders. Nationalities were checked at the Croatian border, including through language checks (although according to Frontex the effect of these checks was limited). As a result of this decision, Serbia started providing registration certificates to migrants from conflict areas (Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq) from 30 December 2015 onwards. This allowed them 72 hours to transit across the country, regardless of whether they expressed an intention to apply for asylum or not.
On 18 February 2016, the national heads of police in Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia signed an agreement to reduce the flow of refugees through the Balkans “to the greatest possible extent.” The agreement introduced a unified registration form as well as additional restrictions (such as requiring that migrants have identity documents and a Greek registration form), and allowed for the possibility of daily transit quotas. It also established common criteria, such as circumstances under which someone fled their country of origin, singling out Syrians and Iraqis as possibly in need of international protection because they came from “war-torn areas,” but surprisingly – as if they were unaffected by conflict – not Afghans. The result was that Afghans were now being turned away from the Balkan border crossings. Macedonia then closed its borders to Afghan refugees trying to enter from Greece.
There was considerable pushback against the deal. On 25 February 2016, Greece recalled its ambassador to Austria in protest, blaming the government in Vienna of undermining efforts towards a joint European response to the refugee crisis. On 26 February 2015, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, expressed “serious concern,” adding that “hundreds of Afghans were reportedly stranded in abject conditions” on the border between Macedonia and Serbia, and many other Afghans had been blocked from entering Macedonia from Greece, “apparently solely on the basis of their nationality.” The spokesperson for UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon also expressed his concern on 28 February 2016, however the policy was not revoked.
The change in policy towards Afghan migrants in the Balkans was matched by increased efforts within the European Union to accelerate the ‘re-admission’ of Afghans to Afghanistan – and the decision by some countries, such as Germany and Finland, to view Afghanistan as a ‘safe country,’ or at least as having ‘safe zones’.
This was illustrated by a (restricted, but leaked) joint ‘non-paper’ from the European Commission and the European External Action Service, dated 3 March 2016, on “migration, mobility and readmission with Afghanistan.” The memo drafted in preparation for the EU-Afghanistan conference in Brussels in October 2016, discussed “possible leverages…to enhance returns and effectively implement readmission commitments.” After the leak, the document was officially withdrawn. Interestingly, the memo acknowledged the “worsening security situation and threats to which people are exposed,” while trying to find ways to make Afghanistan cooperate and accept the ‘readmissions.’
On 4 March 2016, the third progress report on the EU-Turkey Action Plan was released. The report indicated that the total number of irregular arrivals from Turkey to Greece for the months between September 2015 and February 2016 had still been high (with a decrease that seemed at least partially linked to weather conditions at sea): respectively 147,639 (September), 214,792 (October), 154,381 (November), 104,399 (December), 61,602 (January) and 56,335 (February). The top three non-Syrian nationalities requesting international protection had been Iraqis (51 per cent), Afghans (25 per cent) and Iranians (14 per cent).
On 7 March 2016, following the meeting between EU representatives and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the EU Heads of State addressed the migration situation, in particular with regard to the Western Balkans route, saying that “bold moves were needed to close down people-smuggling routes, to break the business model of the smugglers, to protect our external borders and to end the migration crisis in Europe. We need to break the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement in Europe.”
This was an admission that the November 2015 EU-Turkey Action Plan had not yet borne the desired effect; arrival figures had been reduced, but were still in the tens of thousands.
The end of the Balkan corridor: a new route and the resurgence of smugglers
On 18 March 2016, a new EU-Turkey deal was signed, stipulating that after the 20 March cut-off date all new irregular migrants crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey to the Greek islands would be returned to Turkey. (1) This date is often used to signal the end of the Balkan corridor, but the actual closing started two weeks earlier, when, at the beginning of March 2016, Slovenia and Croatia announced their decision to close the transit corridor and to return to the full implementation of the Schengen Border Code. This had a domino effect among other countries in the region who adopted daily quotas and sought to re-establish greater border control. Thousands of people were stuck in Greece as well as at various other junctions along the route, with many more on the way from Syria and Afghanistan, and other places. In Serbia at the time, there were approximately 800 people in Preševo (near the Serbian-Macedonian border) and 600 people in Šid (near the Serbian-Croatian border).
After the adoption of the new EU-Turkey deal and the closure of the Balkan corridor, the migration flow was reduced, but it did not stop (UNHCR charts showing estimated numbers of arrivals, before and after 20 March 2016, can be found on this webpage). An alternative, overland route from Turkey to the EU – through Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary, while sidestepping Greece – had already gained importance throughout 2015 (see this Frontex report). It now became the route of choice for many, as AAN discovered during its interviews in June 2016 – despite reports of police brutality and Bulgarian efforts to fence off the border.
Smuggling networks, whose services had become redundant for several months beyond Greece, started up once again as a result. The third dispatch in this series will look at what AAN research in Belgrade found on how these smuggling networks are organised.
But before we turn to this, we take a closer look in the second dispatch at how Serbia, one of the main transit countries along the Balkan route, has been affected by the establishment and closure of the humanitarian corridor, and how authorities and civil society groups have sought to respond.
This series of three/four dispatches stems from research done in Belgrade in June 2016 by AAN’s Jelena Bjelica, Martine van Bijlert and Fabrizio Foschini. During the course of their research, they conducted interviews with migrants, aid workers, volunteers and informed observers, visited the main gathering places for Afghan migrants in Belgrade and tried to gain access to the Horgoš and Kelebija transit zones.
(1) For the full text of the agreement, see here. The agreement also stipulates, among other things, that for every Syrian returned to Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian would be resettled in the EU; that Turkey would take all necessary measures to prevent new sea or land routes for irregular migration to the EU opening from its territory; that once irregular crossings between Turkey and the EU have ended or been substantially reduced, a Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme would be activated; that the fulfilment of a visa liberalisation roadmap would be accelerated; that the EU would speed up disbursement of the initially allocated 3 billion Euros under the Facility for Refugees in Turkey (with up to an additional 3 billion Euros to be mobilised until the end of 2018); that Turkey’s accession process would be re-energised; and that the EU and Turkey would work to improve humanitarian conditions inside Syria.