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Refugee routes

Nemanja Rujevic / ctFebruary 18, 2016

The Visegrád Group wants Macedonia to assist Greece in closing their border. Alternative routes through the Balkans would thus grow in their relevancy. But which paths do the refugees favor?

Serbien Flüchtlinge Balkan-Route
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Nimani

The majority of refugees arriving in Europe today are doing so via the so-called Balkan route. More and more EU states want to channel this flow - if not stop it entirely. Since the summer of 2015, an informal "Coalition of the Willing" has been discussing a plan to go to the refugees directly in Turkey and divvy them up among member states. The discussions are being held by Germany, Belgium, Finland, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden, Portugal, Slovenia and France.

In the opposite corner sits the eastern European Visegrad Group - Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia - who are calling for border closures. They want to seal the border between Greece and the Balkan states and assist those affected countries by sending additional personnel.

Despite the cold and stormy sea, more than 80,000 people have taken the risky journey from Turkey to the Greek islands already this year. When spring arrives, the number will only grow. At its peak last year, in October and November, those numbers were 10,000 people per day. Where will they go if Macedonia closes its southern border - the most frequented route?

Infografik Balkanroute und die Alternative Routen Englisch
Various routes pass through the Balkans

Macedonia's main route

At the moment, Macedonia is finishing construction on its border fence: two rows of razor-wire nearly 2.5 meters (8 feet) high. A gift from Hungary, which has quite a bit of experience with fences itself. The barrier will close off 37 kilometers (22 miles) in the Vardar River valley, the "critical area," according to Skopje. On its east and west boundaries the terrain becomes nearly impassable with large lakes and craggy mountains that make border-crossing difficult. Border patrols from the Visegrad countries will work there alongside their Macedonian colleagues.

Since November, the only people allowed through via the Balkan route have been those from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan - those considered war refugees. Many others, namely Africans from the Maghreb, are trying to cross the Macedonian border with the use of falsified travel documents or by using people smugglers to illegally cross over in uninhabited areas.

Even those allowed to cross legally into Macedonia have to wait ever longer at Greek gas stations and camps, since Macedonia has limited the number of refugees to pass to 2,000 a day. By the end of January, a stop-and-go situation has been in affect due to the "limited reception and transport capabilities"of neighboring countries along the route: Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia.

Griechenland Mazedonien Grenze Flüchtlinge
Refugees camping at the Greek-Macedonian borderImage: DW/P. Zafiropoulos

The Bulgarian highway

Nearly nine percent of those refugees who traveled through Serbia last summer arrived not via Macedonia but Bulgaria. That's according to the Serbian newspaper, which was asked to compile a report by a Belgrade NGO that serves as an assistance central for asylum seekers. At its highest, that means that tens of thousands of refugees have already entered Western Europe via Bulgaria.

One glance at a map and the route appears inviting. Bulgaria shares a 240 kilometer (149 miles) long border with Turkey, a border that is only fenced off at certain places. The path from Istanbul and the Turkish border town of Edirne is overland, sparing the migrants the life-threatening boat trip across the Aegean along with the average bill of $1,200 that is to be paid to the traffickers organizing the passage.

A closer look will show, however, that the Bulgarian route is not without its problems. Police brutality against refugees has been well-documented by human rights organizations like Pro Asyl. On Internet sites that have popped up to aid refugees in planning their route, Bulgaria has been ranked top on the list of countries that one should avoid.

DW reporters have likewise met a number of refugees who speak of beatings, humiliation and theft by Bulgarian security forces. In October, a policeman shot an Afghan refugee on the Turkish border. Smugglers are trying to give the police a bad name in order to garner more business for themselves. A report in November by the "Wall Street Journal" said that on average, 500 people were transported this way to Serbia for a price of around 2,700 euros per person.

Kroatien Slowenien Flüchtlinge an der Grenze bei Lucija Brezovica
Razor wire blocks part of the border between Croatia and SloveniaImage: Getty Images/AFP

Via the East Balkans

Romania, on the other hand, has seen remarkably few refugees cross its borders. Yet the ways they do come are much more creative. In January, 60 people from Pakistan, Iraq, Morocco, Afghanistan and Somalia outfitted with night vision gear were arrested as they arrived from Serbia. Since last June, hundreds of people who wanted to cross over via the Danube river bridges - or, more rarely, via a boat over the Danube - have been taken into custody.

The Black Sea was the site of two attempts made in 2014 to travel directly from Turkey to Romania. More recently, there have been a number of refugees who are being documented as coming in via Ukraine or Moldova. Most of these are Afghans using Central Asia as a transit route. The next stage on their journey would have been Hungary.

Yet Budapest, under the leadership of Viktor Orban, wants to close the Hungarian route and has many times said that it would like to build a fence on its border with Romania. It would be the largest construction project of its kind at 443 kilometers (275 miles). This is quite a bit longer than the fences already built on the borders to Serbia and Croatia, at 151 (93 miles) and 329 kilometers (204 miles), respectively.

Across the Adriatic

"New routes now via Albania have already opened. From there, the path leads through Montenegro and Croatia, something that we want to prevent," Ranko Ostojic, Croatia's outgoing interior minister, said in January. With that statement, he was the first official to have mentioned the Adriatic route. Until that point, there was only speculation.

"In winter, we expect to see a new direction leading over the Mediterranean region and Montenegro," Croatian migration expert Anđelko Milardovic appeared to prophesize in September in the newspaper "Jutarnji list."

The reason for the shift is the remarkably warmer temperatures along the coastline, compared to those in the heart of the Balkans. The only problem is that such a route crosses a number of additional borders; not including Greece, there is Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia, before reaching Austria.

Until now, few have chosen to walk this path, as Montenegro's Prime Minister Milo Đukanovic told DW in an interview. "We've prepared ourselves and our country's structures should it come to a shift in the main route being used." As a responsible candidate up for EU accession, they want to adopt those refugee policies that are agreed to in Brussels. But which policies? Đukanovic didn't say.

A route across Kosovo?

If refugees do at some point need to bypass Macedonia, another possibility would be to take a path via Albania and Kosovo to Serbia. Serbia still has not recognized Kosovo's declaration of independence that was made eight years ago - which would make it very difficult for Serbia's political elite to control the borders of its former southern province. That's not technically even a border but an "administrative line," according to Belgrade. Experts, however, see this route as less likely.

Whichever flight path will hold the greatest potential for refugees in future is not something that can be predicted and will be influenced by the meeting of the Visegrad Group and the subsequent EU Summit, where government heads are hoping once again to work out a common policy on refugees.