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A woman holds a baby as migrants and refugees stand facing Greek police
Image: Getty Images/AFP/L. Gouliamaki

Western Balkans nervously await EU-Turkey summit

Zoran Arbutina / js
March 5, 2016

Until now, countries along the Balkan route have simply helped refugees and migrants continue their journey. Now they fear that many could be stranded in their countries - and are hoping Germany will find a solution.


When EU and Turkish heads of state and government convene to discuss possible solutions to the refugee crisis on Monday, they will be doing so under the watchful eyes of observers from the Western Balkan states.

Two important countries along the Balkan route - Macedonia and Serbia - won't have a seat at the negotiating table, but they will closely monitor the talks. Not only will that which is decided at the Brussels summit have an immediate impact on what happens along their borders, that which is simply being considered can have dramatic effects as well.

Vladimir Cucic, Serbia's commissioner for refugees, has divested himself of any and all responsibility. "I guarantee you that such decisions are being made by the destination countries - whether that be Germany, Austria or Sweden," he told DW. And Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov was clear: "Whenever a country to our north tightens its borders, we do the same."

A sign from the West

Vladimir Cucic
"We are prepared to help facilitate the transit of those people that target countries are willing to take in": CucicImage: Vreme

This attitude among the Balkan states is by no means new, and it was the same after the EU-Balkan summit back in October. Back then, measures to control the chaos along the Balkan route were already being discussed.

Afterward, Ksenija Milenkovic, director of the Serbian-European Integration Office (SEIO) in Belgrade, announced that only refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan would be permitted to travel north from Greece, and that no others would be allowed to continue on - effective immediately.

Milenkovic says people got the message. When the discussion over whether or not Afghans should in fact be recognized as war refugees ensued in Germany, the Balkan states didn't hesitate: Afghans were immediately declared economic migrants and were not allowed to travel on.

"We are prepared to help facilitate the transit of those people that target countries are willing to take in," said Serbia's Cucic tersely, essentially washing his hands of any guilt. "There has been talk of not allowing Afghans to travel north for some time now. That was not our decision."

Balkan route infographic

Unusual harmony

Rarely have the Balkan states been so unified, and seldom has there been so much agreement between the political elites and the people as there is on the refugee crisis. Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia have been chanting the same mantra, repeating it in unison: It is not about us! The people just want to travel on and we are giving them logistical help! The harmony with which officials repeatedly insist that Skopje, Belgrade and Zagreb will not become refugee hotspots is highly unusual.

Last summer, when the refugee influx was still in its early days and dramatic images began to flicker across TV screens, the Western Balkan states were excitedly discussing the geostrategic roots of the crisis and the supposed "Islamic threat." But it soon became clear that the refugees could not remain in those countries for any length of time.

"At the time one said: 'We are just a transit country, the refugees want to keep moving on to Germany, that is their promised land. It has nothing to do with us,'" said Andelko Milardovic of the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies in Zagreb. The numbers back up his statement. It's estimated that more than 800,000 refugees traveled along the Balkan route last year, but only 1,578 asylum applications were filed in Macedonia. In Serbia, it was eight and in Croatia - an EU member - all of 211.

For months, hundreds of thousands of refugees were simply accompanied from one border to the next until they reached their "recipient countries," as Austria, Germany and Sweden are referred to by people along the Balkan route.

Fear is now rampant

Meanwhile, the situation has changed. The so-called transit countries were alarmed in early February when Austria announced that it would only process 80 asylum applications each day, and that it would set an upper annual limit of 37,500.

None of the Balkan states want to run the risk that refugees may be stranded and remain in their countries. Macedonia has in effect closed its border with Greece, while Croatia is contemplating a deployment of the army to secure its borders.

Other countries so far untouched by the large flow of people are now getting nervous about the possibility of new, alternative routes. Klajda Gjosha, Albania's minister of European integration, warned recently that a "large number" of refugees were waiting to be let into Albania, while Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has ordered joint police and army exercises in the border region near Greece and Macedonia.

Andelko Milardovic
"We are just a transit country, the refugees want to keep moving on to Germany": MilardovicImage: privat

Governments along the Balkan route are nervously awaiting the results of Monday's EU-Turkey summit, and all eyes are on Germany. "Germany is the most influential country in the EU and the target destination of most refugees," said Dario Hajric, a sociologist and blogger in Belgrade. "Germany now has the opportunity to come up with a fundamental solution to the refugee crisis rather than toying around with quotas and blocking travel routes."

Hajric went on to say that should a solution fail to crystallize, the further partitioning of Europe will continue unabated. "If Europe decides to follow Hungary's lead and continue to put up fences, it will doom itself to remain in ugly company - isolated with its own xenophobia," he said.

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