Increased Illegal Border Crossings a Concern in Western Balkans

Frontline police officers study the early detection of human trafficking and smuggling (FYR Macedonia)

By Katarína Lughofer

The Western Balkans emerged from the turmoil of the 1990s as a source of migrants seeking better lives in Western Europe. It then became a transit route for migrants from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa also heading towards European Union countries. In 2015 it again hit the headlines with thousands of economically hard-pressed Kosovar migrants seeking asylum in Hungary, Austria and Germany (IOM Press Briefing Notes, February 13, 2015).

But the ebb and flow of irregular migration in the region – its patterns, the pull and push factors and the availability of networks that facilitate illegal entry – continue to change. Fed by the war in Syria and lesser conflicts and economic hardship worldwide, the Western Balkan countries continue to serve as transit routes for migrants desperately trying to reach Europe.

While thousands continue to die at sea in the Mediterranean, notably between Libya and Italy, many of the migrant deaths in the Balkans – particularly in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia - occur on railway tracks. Smugglers tell the migrants to follow the rail tracks at night to avoid detection. Others try to hitch rides on the trains – often with fatal results.

The migration management as well as international protection concerns have prompted IOM and UNHCR to launch a Regional Initiative on Refugee Protection and International Migration in the Western Balkans to help governments in the region to develop and operationalize comprehensive national migration management and asylum systems.

Governments are facing an increase in the number of criminal organizations that facilitate smuggling of irregular migrants. The scope of their operations is also expanding as smugglers use social media and the internet to build their business.

While migrants are usually moved by public transport or in smugglers’ vehicles, porous borders are usually crossed on foot. The smugglers are rarely present, making detection and apprehension very difficult. Limited financial and human resources on the part of governments also help sophisticated smuggling networks to thrive.

Studies carried out by IOM on irregular migration in the Western Balkans, include: “Feasibility Study on Irregular Migration in Western Balkans” (2013) and “Migration Flows in Western Balkan countries: Transit, Origin and Destination, 2009-2013” (2014).

The research shows that that the number of irregular migrants from outside the region has risen steadily since 2009. The main countries of origin have been Afghanistan and Syria.

Many of the migrants are cheated by the smugglers. A migrant from West Africa told IOM that he had paid EUR 2,000 to a smuggler to get him to the European Union. But the smuggler left him stranded in Serbia.

Countries in the region have enacted legislation and introduced mechanisms to manage irregular migration flows. But these interventions have typically taken place at the national level. While they form a legal basis for migration management, cooperation at the regional level is needed in order to effectively manage irregular migration flows.

The UNHCR-IOM Regional Initiative on Refugee Protection and International Migration in the Western Balkans initiative is a step in this direction.

The initiative aims to strengthen the capacity of States to address and manage mixed movements of migrants and refugees from outside the region in a more predictable, efficient and protection-sensitive manner. It hopes to foster national and regional dialogue, and practical cooperation.

The initiative aims to establish protection-sensitive entry systems. This involves mechanisms to differentiate among various groups of people on the move; the identification of those in need of protection; and their referral to the appropriate authorities.

Irregular migration has to be placed in a broader context of trans-regional cooperation between countries of origin, transit and destination.  Investigations and prosecution of smuggling networks aiming at dismantling of criminal organizations should be coupled with a rights-based approach towards migrants, ensuring the protection of their rights and the provision of targeted assistance during their journey.