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UNHCR: Balkan states turning away 'economic migrants'

Some Balkan states are no longer letting in supposed "economic migrants." Melita Sunjic, from the Belgrade office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, tells DW why this is such a grave turn of events.

DW: Ms. Sunjic, could you tell us about the situation? Which countries are allowing refugees in, and where are they turning people away?

Melita Sunjic: Four countries enacted the same regulations almost simultaneously: Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. Those are as follows: Only those people that, by virtue of their country of origin, are most likely refugees - that means Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis, are allowed in. All others are turned away.

With what justification?

The justification is political. Slovenia began by announcing that it would only allow people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to pass through its borders, but would no longer admit anyone from other countries. That started a domino effect because no one else along the Balkan route wanted these people, either.

In most cases EU countries send people back to non-EU countries. But with Macedonia, it's exactly the opposite. Here, a non-EU country is deporting people back to the EU country through which they traveled, namely Greece. The claim is that Greece reneged on its obligation and simply waved people through rather than registering them.

Melita Sunjic

'It's unacceptable that people who were already in Greece cannot get an asylum procedure': Sunjic

For months we at UNHCR have been saying that it's unacceptable that people who were already in the EU, specifically in Greece, and have a legal right to an asylum procedure - not necessarily asylum, but the asylum procedure - cannot get one because, for a number of reasons, Greece is unable to fulfill its legal obligations. And then these asylum seekers are forced to traverse a number of non-EU states in order to reach the EU once again. The situation is untenable. Reception centers, operated as an EU-wide project, must be set up in Greece so that people can be screened there, have their asylum applications reviewed and verified, and then distributed within the EU.

Can an EU country like Croatia deny entry to someone from Eritrea, for example? In Germany, an Eritrean would likely be granted asylum. In other words, would it be a violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention to turn them away?

The convention on refugees states that I can travel within a country if I am seeking protection in that country and intend to apply for asylum there, even if I do not have the appropriate papers.

So the answer is that a country cannot turn that person away?

Correct, it cannot legally turn that person away.

What can be done to stop such practices?

Firstly: All of the countries along the Balkan route are countries that have signed the Geneva convention on refugees and use its asylum system. So we advise people that have been turned away to apply for asylum in the country that they happen to be in at the moment. People have the legal right to an asylum procedure, but not to choose the country that they want to seek asylum in.

Croatian Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic has claimed that the European Commission is behind the move. Can you say anything about that?

We were not involved in the political discussions. We were also surprised by the measures. No one informed us ahead of time; we simply had to react to what the politicians presented us. It has been that way since the beginning of the crisis.

What will happen to those who are turned away?

They have the choice between applying for asylum if they are indeed refugees in search of protection; or, if they are migrants and have no intention of applying for asylum, being treated according to national laws regarding undocumented migrants.

Could you tell us how many people with no chance of receiving asylum are currently stuck, and where?

About 300 are currently in Slovenia, 50 at the southern border, and 250 at the northern border. And there are also about 300 people stuck in Macedonia.

That isn't many, considering several thousand arrive in Germany each day.

That has to do with the fact that some 93 percent of the registered refugees that have arrived, from Serbia for instance, are from the three countries that I mentioned before, and most of those are from Syria. That means that only 7 percent are from other countries.

That means there was really no reason to turn people away, even according to the criteria of the Balkan states themselves, simply because there weren't that many people arriving from countries other than Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan?

Very few. But naturally there is a desire to differentiate between refugees and migrants. But that can only be done if everyone is registered in an orderly fashion and then asylum proceedings are carried out.

What would be your plea to the concerned governments?

We at UNHCR are of the opinion that the EU must first of all come up with a comprehensive European plan. It simply cannot be that individual countries can meddle with the system by implementing national measures. There has to be a unified European effort. And for several months we have been calling for the setting up of reception centers in Greece where people can be admitted, their cases reviewed and then they can be distributed within the EU. Those who are refugees should receive protection. And those who are not deemed to have the right to international protection, because it's determined upon reviewing their application that they are fleeing their country of origin for economic or other reasons, can then be sent back.

Melita Sunjic is a spokesperson for the Belgrade office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).