Balkans and refugee crisis: What to expect from the EU

Meeting of the EU countries with Serbia, Macedonia and Albania is focused on the Balkans refugee route. How would you say the situation re refugee crisis is perceived in those non-EU countries? Do they expect more from the EU, don’t they? Read few comments.

James Ker-LindsaySenior Research Fellow on the Politics of South East Europe, London School of Economics and Political Science

There is a very high degree concern about the refugee crisis in the Western Balkans. In Serbia, which has played an admirable role in providing humanitarian assistance to refugees crossing its territory, there is undoubtedly a real worry that if Croatia follows Hungary and tries to close off its borders many refugees will become stranded in Serbia. Winter is rapidly approaching and the weather will become treacherous. Serbia is simply not able to bear the cost of housing, heating and feeding tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people. As well as the financial strain this will put on the country, it could well have very serious political repercussions. Already, we have seen some figures in Belgrade, most notably the Russian Ambassador, suggest that the EU will inevitably leave Serbia to manage the refugee crisis. This is a calculated attempt to undermine support for the EU in Serbia.

Meanwhile, the crisis has also led to a serious rise in regional tensions. This has been particularly notable between Serbia and Croatia. This has not been a good year for bilateral relations for a number of reasons, but the refugee crisis exacerbated the situation as Croatia at one point completely closed its border with Serbia.

For these reasons, this weekend’s summit needs to produce some clear results. Internally, EU members have to make commitments that they will not close off the Balkan routes. Recent figures from Greece suggest that the number of arrivals is not yet dropping with the onset of Autumn. These people will be making their way up through Macedonia and Serbia. The flow needs to be managed somehow. The worst thing that could happen would be for neighbouring EU members to try to shut down all routes. At the same time, the EU needs to make sure that it offers firm and deliverable commitments to help the countries of the Western Balkans manage the situation, especially with winter coming. In a more general sense, I think that Belgrade will be hoping that after everything that it has done, the EU will finally open up the first chapters of the accession process. This would show that its efforts have been recognised and rewarded, and thus help to counter those who seek to use the crisis to push an anti-EU agenda in the country.

Ida OrzechowskaSecurity Analyst, PhD Candidate, Institute of Political Science, University of Wroclaw

Well, from how I see the situation in the region I would say that both the countries are using the refugee crisis to improve their image in Europe and work against the perception of the Balkans as wild, not-Europen and hostile states. This is particularly true when it comes to Serbia, where there is a clear governmental strategy, supported by state-controlled media to shape the approach of the society in a friendly and open manner. This serves Prime Minister Vucic to create a clear opposition of his actions to what Hungary and especially Croatia is doing. I’m expecting this policy to be continued if two conditions I speak about below ill be fulfilled.

The societies themselves seem to not oppose this policy and a wide range of activities undertaken by the civil society shows that the societies have a living memory of what being a refugee means and show a clear understanding and solidarity with the needs of the current refugees from the Middle East.

Two things a crucial though and can significantly change the situation in case the states would be expected by the EU to become real refugee hubs. First is security – the countries will not risk their security for the price of an image. In case the number of refugees will increase in the region, they will seek assistance and support – particularly from Greece and Turkey – to maintain a level of security control of the incoming people on a reasonable level. And the second is economics. Both Macedonia and Serbia cannot afford refugee policies on their own and are not willing to pay for it from their own pocket. An extensive financing of the refugee policies will be sought from Brussels.

The refugee crisis will probably become an issue in the electoral campaign before the elections in Macedonia in April 2016 and can be used by the EU as a push factor in the mediation process.

Christian Costamagna, Adjunct Professor, University of Oriental Piedmont

Serbia is usually perceived by the refugees as a transit country (the average is supposed to be around 3 days spent there by the migrants), so, at some extent, the government in Belgrade was not (yet) under heavy pressure. The government and other institutions offered transportation and other kind of basic support to the migrants.
In Serbia there are humanitarian organisations offering help in the refugees camps. They are supported by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs (about 400,000 euros) and other donations (another 400,000 euros). While there have been violations of human rights of those refugees (both in Serbia and in Macedonia), we should take into account the general failure of the EU policies toward migrants. Moreover, Mr. Aleksandar Vucic had the opportunity to show, despite his personal background of radical nationalist, to be closer to European values than Hungary and other EU countries.

The general population (in Serbia), notwithstanding the xenophobic instances of certain movements, showed a rather high degree of empathy and goodwill in helping the refugees.

However, if countries such as Germany or Austria will close their borders, and with the winter coming, it would be hard for Belgrade to cope with the migrants and their camps without a strong and coordinated support from the EU.
The past October 25 Meeting on the Western Balkans Migration Route, between the EU and the WB countries led to an impressive action plan, but still it is too early to suggest that each government will be able (or willing) to implement it. On the other hand it is not certain that EU countries will offer the help they promised.
Serbia, according to UNHCR’s representative, will receive about 25 million US dollars in order to help the refugees during the winter (the European Commission will deliver 2 million euros to UNHCR for both Serbia and Macedonia), while EU already allocated about 8 million euros in order to help Belgrade (part of 17 million euros promised by Jean-Claude Juncker to Serbia and Macedonia).

In Macedonia the refugees situation is partly similar, while the local government has been distracted by its deep and prolonged political crisis. Macedonia, as Serbia, is essentially a transit country (from June to October 2015, 70 people out of 204,000 demanded asylum in Macedonia), afflicted by widespread poverty, high level of unemployment and a strong migration trend of its own citizens. Foreign help is vital to Skopje: for exampale, recently Japan decided to offer half million US dollars to Macedonia and Serbia in order to support their efforts toward the migrants flux. The Italian government recently donated 90,000 euros to the Red Cross in Macedonia for the same reasons.

If EU will not fulfill its financial promises, the Macedonian authorities would get a serious headache because the process of migrants management would be undermined.

The bottom line is that Serbia and Macedonia will face problems without the promised help from Bruxelles, and the overall situation in the Western Balkans may deteriorate, as Angela Merkel already warned few days ago.

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