Sunday

7th Jun 2020

'Balkan route' countries pledge to stop asylum seekers

  • Asylum seekers and Hungarian police at the Croatian-Hungarian border in 2015 (Photo: Eszter Zalan)

Countries along the so-called 'Balkan route', where hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers crossed in 2015-2016, are pledging not to allow migrants to cross this time.

In an political climate that has turned to the right in the EU - with prime ministers from Hungary and Austria both pursuing a hardline anti-migration policy - many countries are eager to demonstrate that migrants will not cross the EU's borders this time.

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Along with Greece, Hungary also announced over the weekend that it is suspending admitting asylum seekers at the two entrances at the transit zone on its southern border.

Greece pointed to the new influx of asylum seekers from Turkey, while Hungarian officials cited a possible link between the coronavirus and migration.

The EU commission said on Monday it is "looking into" measures taken by the Hungarian authorities to shut down access to asylum seekers.

Gyorgy Bakondi, domestic security advisor to prime minister Viktor Orban told journalists on Sunday that most migrants arrive from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran - and since Iran is a focal point of a coronavirus outbreak the suspension is necessary.

He claimed the measure was taken mainly to protect the approximately 300 people waiting in the transit zone.

However, Bakondi mentioned no other measures taken with regards to other travellers from Iran.

"The measures that member states take to contain and limit the spread of the virus should be based on risk assessment, and scientific advice, should remain proportionate, and be coordinated with other member states," a commission spokesperson said.

"Any measures taken should be balanced against the principle of non-refuolement and obligations relating to asylum stemming from EU law," the spokesperson added.

The move in Hungary came only two days after Orban said the country's southern borders need to be strengthened after a phone call with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan last Friday.

Hungary's security cabinet, called by Orban, decided that "Hungary must strengthen the protection of its borders and pay special attention to developments on the Balkan migration route."

On Monday, the UN's refugee agency said there was no legal basis in international or EU law for Greece to suspend accepting asylum applications.

EU countries have been unable to agree on the reform of the bloc's asylum policy over the last four years.

Preparations

Forming the 'Balkan Route', North Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Austria in 2015-2016 served as a corridor for hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers on their way to Germany and further north.

In 2015, Hungary at first waved through migrants, and pointed to Greece which has then failed to stop them at the EU's external border.

Later on, Budapest erected a fence at its souther border to stop the flow.

At the time, Orban, who has solidified his grip on power in Hungary with his hardline anti-migration rhetoric railing against "Muslim invaders", warned against the EU-Turkey agreement on asylum seekers.

In 2016 Orban called the agreement, under which Turkey would stop migrants from leaving for the EU for money and concessions, an "illusion".

Austria on Sunday also said it will stop any migrants attempting to rush its border if measures to halt them in Greece and through the Balkans fail, Reuters reported.

Conservative interior minister Karl Nehammer told broadcaster ORF: "Hungary has assured us that it will protect its borders as best it can, like Croatia's".

Croatian premier Andrej Plenkovic said on Monday that his country would do all it could to help protect the EU external border, according to HINA news agency.

Croatian president Zoran Milanovic, who was prime minister at the time of the 2015 flow, said the repetition of the 2015 events is impossible.

"It is precisely because of what we as Europe went through nearly five years ago and what has been done in the meantime that it is impossible for a refugee wave of that scope to occur again, it is simply physically impossible," he said on Monday.

Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borissov was due to meet Erdogan in Ankara on Monday evening.

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