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Refugees: EU Victimizing Balkans?

Can the EU seriously drop the migration problem in the lap of the countries in the Western Balkans?

May 3, 2016

Can the EU seriously drop the migration problem in the lap of the countries in the Western Balkans?

The current refugee and migration crisis, the largest since WWII, has quickly become one of the most contentious European security issues.

As EU governments struggle to accept and relocate refugees, their attention span seems to be mainly focused on the immediate issue of how this crisis is affecting EU countries.

The logistics of absorbing the large numbers of refugees and migrants into any destination country is not easy. Wrestling with the moral and ideological response, contentious as it was in quite a few cases, was easy compared to the reality of making it work.

As we witness the challenges that the destination countries struggle with in absorbing the flow of people, it is important to remember that the destination countries have better resiliency in their economies and institutions than the transit countries.

The destination countries enjoy well-developed infrastructures and they have long histories of positive rule of law as well as good governance and strong institutions.

As EU member states and other European countries clamp down on accepting asylum seekers, the results of these actions will trap the illegal migrants in the entry and transit countries.

Greece, the main gateway

Based on current migration patterns, this effect will be felt most severely in the southern part of Europe. As these countries’ leaders seek ways to close their doors or limit the flow of refugees, their actions will likely cause a chain reaction.

Large numbers of refugees, asylum seekers and illegal migrants will be trapped in the non-EU countries (e.g. Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina) that serve as entry and transit points for all involved in this migration crisis.

Because of geography, Greece has become the main gateway to Europe and the EU, receiving more than 850,000 registered irregular migrants, according to the IOM.

This cause-and-effect relationship must receive serious policy making consideration and action. If ignored, it creates the potential for millions of refugees to destabilize already stressed economies in the Western Balkans and makes for an easily predictable new refugee crisis.

In assessing this current human migration pattern, it is important that leaders and policy makers not view the current migration crisis as similar to past experiences.

The European migration in the first half of the 20th century was propelled by economic crises and wars. The great death and destruction of the wars had significantly diminished working age populations.

Challenges to deal with

This factor was a key driver in shaping post-war migration patterns because the demand for immigrant workers was very high.

Although the population demographics of the EU indicate a need for foreign workers to bolster its aging workforce, its collective current unemployment rate is just below 10%.

This indicates that EU countries are far from ready to expand the number of unemployed by adding refugees with questionable skills to the pool of job seekers.

The current migration patterns, not only in Europe but also in Africa or Latin America, are decidedly different from the previous one. In the 21st century, migration is caused primarily by despair in the sending countries – not so much by demand in the destination countries.

Further complicating the current migration challenge is the fact that the refugees and asylum seekers are non-Europeans. This is important for planning purposes because their different religious and cultural identities make the resettlement goal of integration very difficult.

This will make matters more challenging at the local level and likely further dissuade localities from accepting more refugees.

As EU countries restrict inflows of migrants, they will likely view it as a fix to the crisis. However, this would be an illusion and a huge mistake.

Unless there is a practical solution that fixes the outflow problem from the source countries, the number of refugees will continue to grow – even if from now on they become trapped in the entry and transit countries.

The “Balkan Route”

According to the latest figures from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the Western Balkans route is by far the most used gateway into Europe for irregular migrants. It has become a corridor from Greece, to Macedonia and then through Serbia to the borders with Hungary and Croatia.

The “Balkan Route” is also well known as the major route for smugglers moving illegal cargoes into and out of Europe.

This creates an added dimension to the problem. Human smuggling and trafficking networks have been quick to use their networks and criminal enterprises to capitalize on the plight of refugees and migrants for profit.

This is why an overarching comprehensive European strategy, with well thought-out supporting polices that call for a “collective” European response, is needed.

The transit countries need to be players at the table because of their geography and the fact that their economies are too fragile to incur the political and economic costs of dealing with the refugees and migrants.

The lesson not to be lost is that this crisis did not suddenly appear as a result of a catastrophic natural disaster. Instead, it has been growing over several years during which time European governments have continually demonstrated failure in appreciating the magnitude of the problem. They deliberately overlooked the need for a long-term, proactive strategy to deal with its consequences.

There should be no illusion about the significance of the economic and psychological costs of this refugee crisis. It will likely be enduring and felt for a generation or more

Editor’s Note: The views presented are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent views and opinions of the Department of Defense or the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.


European migration in the first half of the 20th century was propelled by economic crises and wars.

Today, migration is caused by despair in the sending countries, not by demand in the host countries.

The Western Balkans route is by far the most used gateway into Europe for irregular migrants.