Outsourcing Migration Management: The Role of the Western Balkans in the European Refugee Crisis
AUGUST 17, 2017
By Alice Greider
During the peak of the European migration and refugee crisis, hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and migrants arrived in the European Union via the Western Balkans. In 2015, 600,000 registered at the Presevo camp alone, on the border of Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Key components of crisis management fell to non-EU states along the Western Balkans route, primarily Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which paradoxically were not consulted on broader, European-wide responses.
The Western Balkans geographic region—comprised of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia—is no stranger to refugee flows, having itself experienced massive displacement as a result of violence and ethnic cleansing during the 1990s. While Balkan countries at first opted to facilitate the movement of asylum seekers through their territories, to pass on responsibility for them, pressure from EU Member States ultimately led to a domino effect of border closures and increasing restrictions on movement as the crisis wore on.
As a series of cascading border restrictions in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia closed the Western Balkans route, the number of people moving dropped dramatically. Migrants still wishing to travel north were pushed into more dangerous irregular channels in remote areas, and many became subject to police violence. Such practices are not unheard of within the European Union itself, but the trend carries worrisome implications for countries still consolidating democratically and developing the rule of law. Further, while many perceive the crisis in the Balkans to be over, thousands of migrants remain in limbo, stranded in countries along the route—nearly as many as in 2016. This article outlines the critical role played by countries along the Western Balkans route during the height of the crisis, charts the gradual closure of the route, and examines the political implications of migration for these countries and their EU accession aspirations.