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Europe

Austria takes steps to control migration on Balkan route

For Austria, it's clear: Uncontrolled migration must be stopped. Police chiefs from Austria and the Balkan countries are discussing how they can improve cooperation on migration matters.

Migrants Standing along steel fences

Border fence near Spielfeld on the Austrian-Slovenian border

Austrian authorities are intent on being well-prepared for any future movement of migrants. In the opinion of Austrian Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka, good cooperation with neighboring countries is essential.

After bilateral meetings with his counterparts from Italy and Hungary, he met with police chiefs from the Balkan countries at the interior ministry in Vienna. Just days before, the heads of border police agencies from these countries had also come together.

"Migration movements through the eastern Balkan route and the central Balkan route are, as always, cause for concern. We must carefully observe these routes, like the route through Bulgaria and Romania or Bulgaria and Serbia," Sobotka said.

Conference participants sitting around a table

Vienna hosted the first Western Balkans conference on the refugee crisis in February

"We will be on alert"

Police chiefs from Bulgaria, Greece, Croatia, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Hungary as well as representatives from Europol and Frontex met in Vienna. According to the information they released, they agreed on "police measures for handling uncontrolled migration in the future."

"Because of Austria's geographical location, the country is affected by migration through the western Balkan route and the Mediterranean route. We will be on alert if any routes through Bulgaria, for example, are extended," said Konrad Kogler, general director of public security in Austria's interior ministry. "We will only be able to successfully combat uncontrolled migration if we closely coordinate our security measures."

The meeting of police chiefs is seen as a preparatory measure ahead of the next big Balkan refugee conference being planned by the Austrian interior ministry. Sobotka said that the upcoming conference will ensure that the "Balkan route stays closed."

New migrant routes are more dangerous

Fabrice Leggeri, the executive director of the border protection agency, Frontex, is concerned about the shift in migrant routes, which he says is placing a massive burden on Italy. He said that the number of refugees traveling from Libya to Italy is 13 to 14 times greater than the number crossing to Greece from Turkey. He added that the central Mediterranean route is being used more than ever, and the number of illegal border crossings between Libya and Italy exceeds the number of all other illegal border crossings in the EU.

It's mainly refugees from western Africa and the Horn of Africa that are using this route, the Frontex director said. "There is persecution and a brutal dictatorship in Eritrea; the people are in need of protection," Leggeri said. "Many flee from Senegal, Gambia, the Ivory Coast and Niger because they lack economic prospects." People embark on the dangerous journey to Europe across the Mediterranean from Egypt, which Leggeri said is likely to develop into a new hub for refugees.

After meeting his Italian counterparts, Austria's interior minister Sobotka said that Europe needs functioning external border protection and official registration centers known as "hotspots" in Italy. Austria said it is willing to send immigration experts to help out at the Italian hotspots, as well as to help set up hotspots on the coast. That way, refugees can already be registered when they're aboard ships. "It is important that those not in need of protection can be sent back and those in need of protection can be taken care of in Italy," Sobotka emphasized.

Smugglers are benefitting from the closure of the Balkan route

The European Union has seen a drastic reduction in the number of newly arriving migrants thanks to the closure of the Balkan route and the EU-Turkey refugee deal. However, the problem with smugglers is gaining in significance again because of the border closures, said historian Armina Galijas from the Center for Southeast European Studies in Graz, Austria. "The people have not disappeared; they are still there but their situation has become more difficult. Now they barely have any help and support, and the smuggling business is flourishing. Smugglers now ask for considerably more money than before," said Galijas following a visit to Belgrade.

Österreich Flüchtlinge bei Mistlberg an der Grenze zu Deutschland

Migrants walking down a road in Mistlberg near the German border in November 2015

The historian was critical of what she sees as a degree of hypocrisy on the part of the European Union with regard to the refugee crisis. "Many politicians from the Balkan countries are branded authoritarian and nationalist by the EU, but when they support EU plans for more restrictive refugee policies then they are suddenly important partners," said Galijas.

Now Austria and its partners from the Balkan states are devising new plans to cope with the future of the refugee crisis. "At the beginning of the year, a strong cooperation between our countries was crucial in order to get the situation along the western Balkan route under control," said Konrad Kogler after the meeting of police chiefs in Vienna. This most recent meeting was designed to ensure that nothing changes.