Monday

4th Jul 2022

Balkan countries close borders to 'economic migrants'

  • 'Deciding who can pass on the basis of nationality is not acceptable,' said the UN (Photo: Stephen Ryan / IFRC)

Four countries along the migratory route in the western Balkans have in one day closed their borders to all migrants except those from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, in a move that each justified because of restrictions imposed by the next country in the chain.

Thousands of people are now at risk of being stranded in a No man's land, and the developments create new tensions between the former members of Yugoslavia.

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The restrictions started with EU member Slovenia, which said on Thursday (19 November) it would no longer allow “economic migrants” to cross from neighbouring Croatia, another EU member but, unlike Slovenia, not part of Europe's open borders Schengen area.

“Over the past days more and more people that we have reason to believe are economic migrants have been arriving,” a Slovenian police spokesperson told Reuters, adding his country would only take in migrants “from countries where there are armed battles”.

This triggered a similar response from the countries down the line: Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia.

Ranko Ostojic, Croatian minister of home affairs, said he had “informed colleagues from Macedonia and Serbia that citizens [from Morocco, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Algeria, Liberia, Congo, Sudan, Pakistan] will no longer be able to use this route”.

Croatia said it would allow in migrants from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as Palestinians, although Serbia and Macedonia have said they would not allow in Palestinians.

For his part, Serbian labour and social affairs minister Aleksandar Vulin said Thursday his country had no choice but to respond.

“We need to protect our country, and that is why we have brought in reciprocal measures toward those that Croatia and Slovenia have no room for. We will not allow into Serbia anyone who cannot continue their journey,” noted Vulin.

The same day, Macedonia began building a fence along its border with Greece.

The rapid chain reaction of restrictions have left many stranded.

Al Jazeera reported Thursday that families risk being torn apart, as 30-year-old Afghan Mohammed Mirzam told the news agency he was allowed to cross the Greek-Macedonian border, but his Iranian wife and two small children were not.

“We're trapped. … They won't let my family across. We have no money, and we're waiting without any idea of what is to happen,” said Mirzam.

Several hundred refugees were caught by surprise by the sudden decisions and left “stuck in a No man's land”, said a spokesperson for the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

Serbia sent around 200 migrants back to Macedonia, but Macedonia has not let them in, said spokesperson Melita Sunjic.

And after Slovenia initially refused to let 162 Moroccans through, Croatia refused to take them back. Slovenia later allowed them to proceed towards Austria.

UNHCR's Sunjic said that what the four countries are doing - selecting migrants on the basis of their nationality - does not square with international rules on applying for refugee status.

“It is not acceptable, deciding who can pass on the basis of nationality. Every person needs to have a right to ask for regular asylum procedures,” said Sunjic.

“UNHCR does not think that there is any nation that can be excluded from international protection based on their nationalities, but believes that each case should be screened and processed individually, based on the merits of the case,” she added.

It is unclear what the new requirements mean for Eritreans. The Eritrean government says the people leaving its county are economic migrants, but they themselves say they are fleeing military service. The EU's relocation scheme is available only to Syrians and Eritreans.

Balkan migrant route plan full of caveats

The success of the action plan agreed by EU and Balkan leaders on Sunday will depend on funding, member state cooperation and migrants' good will. None of them are guaranteed yet.

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