Europe’s immigration challenge: The Balkans, gateway to Europe

Croatia’s accession to the EU in July has reopened the stream of illegal immigration that passes through the Balkans via Greece and spreads around Europe. As the number of undocumented immigrants rises in the countries concerned, reception facilities are almost non-existent.

El Periódico de Catalunya Barcelona Irene Savio 19 August 2013 Comment
When night falls, they climb into locally-rented private cars or light vans. The operation costs them from 600 to 1,000 euros, sometimes even more. It’s a gamble, but these days it pays off, since many succeed in getting across Slovenia to Italy and the rest of Europe. Sitting in a cafe near Ban Jela?i? square in Zagreb, PWS, a Nigerian based in Zagreb, takes a sip of coffee and pulls an old phone from his pocket. “See it? I’ve got the SMS messages here. They say life is better in the north.”

Between 2011 and 2012, the total number of illegal migrants identified in the region increased by one third, from 26,223 to 34,825.
Coinciding with Croatia’s entry into the EU, the latest figures from the European Commission declare it loud and clear: the illegal immigration routes winding through the Balkans have sprung back into life. Between 2011 and 2012, the total number of illegal migrants identified in the region increased by one third, from 26,223 to 34,825. They busiest borders are those between Croatia and Slovenia (which saw a rise of 95 per cent) and Serbia and Croatia (with a rise of 118 per cent). The situation is also reflected in the number of foreigners discovered to be in Croatia illegally: between 2011 and 2012, that number climbed from 3,461 to 6,541, a jump of 89 per cent.




Croatia passes Greece


“The number of arrests for illegal crossings from Serbia to Croatia in the fourth quarter of 2012 has been the highest among members of the Schengen area and the EU, even higher than for Greece,” reports the Western Balkans Risk Analysis-2013 of Frontex, the agency in charge of patrolling the European Union’s external borders. Worth mentioning here is the arrest on August 2 of Blaz Topalovic, the police chief of Vukovar – a city near the border with Serbia – for trafficking illegal immigrants.

The problem is that, beyond any progress in the legislation that has been made, the procedures for integrating the illegal migrants into these countries are not exactly shining models of effectiveness. In Croatia, for example, there are no centres for illegal minors, and there is only one facility for adults, which is reaching its maximum capacity. Another centre in Kutina, intended for applicants for political asylum and humanitarian protection, a status that Croatia very rarely grants, finds itself in a similar situation. According to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, of the 3,228 applications received by the country between 2004 and 2012, only 50 applications for refugee status and 80 for humanitarian aid were approved.


Stepping stone


I’m staying, but I’m in the minority!
PWS, the Nigerian, breaks into a smile. He is one of the few whose applications were approved. He arrived in the country clandestinely a year and a half ago. A few months ago, he got political asylum and a Croatian passport. “I’m staying, but I’m in the minority!”, stresses the migrant, who was recruited as an interpreter by a NGO. “Croatia is considered to be a stepping stone for immigrants,” agrees Barbara Matejic, a journalist who covers minorities.

However, the phenomenon gets even more complicated when one considers that these routes often coincide with other illegal trafficking in the region, which the EU now fears will intensify.

“The flow of arms from the Balkans into Europe could get heavier thanks to the accession of Croatia and the shift of the borders of the EU to the mountainous area separating Croatia from Bosnia-Herzegovina,” says the Frontex Border Control Agency.

Translated from the Spanish by Anton Baer




View from Greece
“Europe’s entry point” under pressure

Greece is a point of entry for migrants entering Western Europe by land via the “Balkan Route”, and the finger is often pointed at Athens due to the poor conditions in which those requesting asylum are welcomed and retained. Revolts have erupted in retention centres for asylum seekers, most recently on August 11, when migrants in the Amygdaleza centre near Athens learned their detention time would be increased from 12 to 18 months, reports Greek daily To Vima. The migrants attacked their guards and set their bedding on fire. Riot police were called to the scene, and 14 asylum seekers were arrested.

“The conditions in the detention camp are appalling, and we were expecting an uprising by the immigrants,” the mayor of Acharnes, where the centre is located, told the paper. The centre houses 1,650 people in prefabricated buildings in which the temperature can rise to 50°C in the summer, writes To Vima. The unrest occurred two weeks after the death of an Afghan refugee due to respiratory failure.