Monday

1st Mar 2021

Balkan migrant route plan full of caveats

  • Syrian asylum seekers in Belgrade (Serbia). The plan to create 50,000 accomodation places in the region has not been detailed. (Photo: Stephen Ryan / IFRC)

A day after eleven EU and Western Balkans leaders agreed on measures to provide migrants with shelter and aid, and to stop moving them on to neighbouring countries, questions arise about how to implement them.

The 17-point action plan announced on Sunday evening after an extraordinary meeting at the European Commission includes the creation of 100,000 places to accommodate migrants along the route from Greece to Germany.

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The bulk of this operation falls to Greece, which pledged to create 50,000 places before the end of the year.

Greece, where 48,000 people arrived on the islands only last week and 480,000 have arrived since January, resisted the request.

"The 50,000 wasn't easily agreed," an EU official said on Tuesday. "There was a quid pro quo," after which the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) agreed to provide support.

Host families

Details of the mechanism for the UNCHR support, based on "rent subsidies and host family programmes" remain unclear, however. The idea, modelled on how some other EU countries operate, could prove difficult to implement in a country struck by a deep economic and social crisis.

The plan adopted on Sunday also anticipates the creation of 50,000 additional places but sets no deadline and does not mention in which countries or according to which criteria.

"There is no breakdown [by country] because leaders need to go home and see how it operates" on the ground before saying how many places they could create, the source admitted.

Furthermore, the cost of the creation of those 100,000 places will be partly supported by the EU budget, the official said. The official admitted it is a decision that will have to be taken by the 28 EU member states.

On Monday afternoon, the European Commission announced that Greece will receive €5.9 million of emergency aid.

The funding, the Commission said, "will fully cover, for a period of 4 months, the costs for the transportation by ferry of at least 60,000 persons in need of international protection and other migrants from the Eastern Aegean islands to mainland Greece."

Waiting for experts

Another measure announced on Sunday is an upgraded Frontex support in the Aegean sea, as well as on the Bulgaria-Turkey and Croatia-Slovenia borders. Frontex will also "assist Greece in the registration of refugees and migrants who have not yet been registered".

The decision to give new missions to Frontex comes as the EU border agency is already struggling to receive experts from member states to fulfil its current missions.

In a statement published on Monday afternoon, Frontex said it needed "775 border guards, including 610 for operations in Greece and 105 for new land operations in the Western Balkans region."

So far, the agency added, "member states have agreed to provide 326 officers."

The question of whether or when new staff will be redeployed from other areas or sent directly by member states has not been decided yet, another EU source told EUobserver.

German chancellor Angela Merkel said at a press conference on Sunday that the EU relocation mechanism "can actually start" because Greece committed to setting up hotspots where migrants will be registered and identified.

But on the ground, the task remains difficult to achieve, as many migrants "believe they are better by walking on [the] Western Balkans route" rather than be relocated to an EU country they would not choose, the second official said.

"A lot of migrants want to go to Germany," the official noted. "We have to convince them that they would benefit from a system that pays for an aircraft".

Some migrants, the official said, have been so far "afraid to go to the aircraft [transporting them to another EU country] because they were afraid to be sent back" to their country.

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