Over In March 2016, two measures ended what has been labeled the European refugee crisis – the closure of the so-called Balkan route and the agreement on the EU-Turkey statement. The EU’s shift in policy put an end to the Eastern Mediterranean migration route into the EU, but it did not result in a complete closure of the Balkan route.
The effect of the two measures on the Balkan route has been threefold: First, the number of refugees and migrants moving along the route has dropped dramatically, but tens of thousands still succeed to transit; second, the route has been redirected, with the southern entry point shifting from the Greek islands to Bulgaria’s land border with Turkey; and third, the form of transit has shifted back to the use of smugglers. The three EU member states located at the southern entry (Bulgaria) and northern exit (Hungary, Croatia) of the Balkan route have reacted to the inability to completely close the route with intensified efforts of systematic push-backs of refugees and migrants. Bulgaria has done so with limited success, the other two have been more successful. The attempts to physically close the Balkan route, especially in the case of Hungary, have included changes to asylum legislation that, taken together with the physical push-backs, amount to the systematic violation of human rights and the systematic violation of domestic, EU and international laws and conventions and constitutes a departure from core EU values. The two Western Balkan states on the route that aspire to EU membership, Serbia and Macedonia, have been caught in the middle. Neighboring EU member states’ efforts to close the route have created a bottleneck, particularly in Serbia, where around 10,000 refugees and migrants remain stuck. Both countries’ governments have been compelled to adopt the asylum policies of their EU neighbors consisting of a combination of the misuse of the safe third country concept and of physical push-backs.
The EU’s institutions and the member states not located on the Balkan route have chosen to largely ignore the performance of their fellow member states and that of the two states that seek membership in the Union. This ignorance in practice amounts to a tacit agreement. It reflects the new, temporary arrangement on the EU’s asylum policy that has emerged among member states since the end of the refugee crisis. In the absence of any prospects to agree on a joint policy regarding the reception of asylum seekers within the EU, member states have shifted to a joint policy representing the lowest common denominator. This policy focuses on security measures, on keeping as many asylum seekers away from EU territory as possible and on attempts to outsource dealing with refugees and migrants to external partners, in keeping with the intent of the EU-Turkey deal. The policy has managed to temporarily paper over the inner-EU divide that had emerged during the refugee crisis, but only because of the substantially lower number of asylum seekers arriving in the EU, and despite its undermining the rule of law in the EU and its core democratic values.
While the impact of the EU member states’ asylum policies may not be so evident in the EU, the negative political and societal impact on the two Western Balkan countries not (yet) members of the Union is easier to identify – and even more worrying given the continuing political instability in the region. First, the (mis)use of domestic asylum systems to deny international protection to asylum seekers combined with the direct involvement of police and border police in illegal push-backs has damaging effects on the rule of law and democracy. Second, the experience with neighboring EU member states’ policies and with the EU’s disunity in the refugee crisis discourages pro-European segments of the political elite as well as of civil society, while it encourages Eurosceptic elements among the political elite. Third, in parallel with the post-March 2016 evolution of the Balkan route, autocratic tendencies have been increasing in both Serbia and Macedonia, either encouraged or tolerated by EU member states eager to “keep the Balkan route closed”.