Fears grow on alternative migrant routes in Europe
By Eszter Zalan
Fears are growing that migrants and refugees will try to enter the EU via Albania and the Adriatic Sea after Europe on Wednesday (9 March) closed the Western Balkan corridor.
There is no sign yet of a build-up of people on the Albanian-Greek border.
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But Albania, a Nato member and EU aspirant with a population of less than 3 million, could be a gateway to Italy.
“We have to collectively look at all the possible consequences of the envisaged agreement between the EU and Turkey, and prepare for them, including the issue of alternative routes,” a senior EU official told press in Brussels on Wednesday, referring to an EU-Turkey deal to close the Western Balkan path.
EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said: “There is always the possibility that this flow could be diverted in other directions if the Balkan route is closed. For the moment it is not the case.”
“All countries in the region are well prepared even for this likelihood. But for the moment there is no sign that migratory flows are diverted towards either Albania or other countries in the region,” he said.
According to Frontex, the EU’s border agency in Warsaw, just 8,932 people crossed the Greek-Albanian border illegaly last year. Most of them were Albanians.
Western Balkan leaders, including from Albania and Bulgaria, were expected to discuss the issue in their weekly video conference.
EU home affairs ministers, who are to meet in Brussels on Thursday, are also expected to touch on the question of alternative routes.
According to local media, Albanian authorities have already drawn up plans to provide reception centres for 10,000 Syrian refugees in the towns of Korca and Gjirokastra, near the border with Greece.
The UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR also said it is working on contingency plans.
The UNHCR, the Albanian government and local NGOs are looking at infrastructural needs and possible processing sites in Kakavia and Kapstice, also near Albania’s border with Greece.
The EU official said the possibility of novel routes is not a reason to abandon plans to stop the primary “leak” through the Greek border to Macedonia.
The EU is closely monitoring migrant flows, the official said.
Some migrants have also begun arriving to Europe from Russia in recent months, with EU diplomats suggesting that Russia is facilitating the development.
An EU source said that Russian border authorities had previously kept a tight grip on border security.
Meanwhile, MEPs in Strasbourg on Wednesday criticised the EU-Turkey accord. International human rights organisations have also said it goes against international and EU law.
Guy Verhofstadt, the head of the Liberal group in the European Parliament, said it’s “a deal in which we are giving, in fact, the entrance keys, the keys to the gates of Europe, into the hands of Turkey, of the successors of the Ottoman Empire, to Erdogan, I should even say maybe to Sultan Erdogan.”
Manfred Weber, the leader of the biggest group, the centre-right European People's Party, said that the EU should not give a "blank cheque" to Turkey.
Weber also said Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s seizure of the country’s leading opposition newspaper, Zaman, last week was “unaccpetable.”
The Turkey deal was agreed politically by EU leaders and Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu in Brussels on Monday.
Home affairs ministers are to discuss details of the plan, which is to be adopted formally by EU leaders at another summit next week.
The Greek migration minister will also brief colleagues on new bilateral accords signed by Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and Davutoglu in Turkey on Tuesday.
The bilateral arrangements are designed to make it easier to return migrants to Turkey.
Sources said some ministers are concerned by Erdogan’s crackdown on civil liberties and could bring up the Zaman issue in Thursday’s talks.