The Balkans and the Refugees Crisis: More than Just a Bypass

Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos. Photo by Ggia / CC BY-SA 4.0


Amid the current refugee and migrant crisis that has gripped Europe over the past year, the discussion on the inflow of people coming from the Middle East and West Africa is dominated by potential security implications this wave of refugees may bring to the EU countries. The majority of refugees and migrants see the EU member states as destination countries, but the debate on the issue has been increasingly stringent regarding border controls and the reluctance to accept large numbers of people arriving at Europe’s doorstep.

With the Western Balkans serving as the main frontline for people crossing into Europe, tensions have risen in recent months between EU leaders disputing appropriate responses to the crisis, exposing the EU’s weaknesses and its lack of coordination capacities in guiding the Balkan states who often suffer from migration waves of their own. But just as the EU recently brokered a deal with Turkey on stemming the flow of refugees, the implementation of the plan has encouraged the Balkan countries to shut down their borders, leaving thousands still stranded, and exacerbating a series of security risks facing the region. The Balkans has to start considering its own scenarios should the refugees get trapped within its territories.

In recent months, Camp Idomeni located on the Greek-Macedonian border has seen increasing tensions between security forces and refugees refused admittance to pass deeper into the EU. According to initial reports, “between 7,000 – 10,000 refugees and migrants remain stranded on the Greek side of the border as Macedonia continues to allow only a small portion of them to cross.” Before the EU-Turkish deal, authorities in Macedonia claimed to have set a cap of 580 refugees per day to enter. Although Greek news agencies warned of additional inflows of 6,000 people similarly expecting to cross through the Balkans, Macedonia recently shut its borders, following the example of other neighbors, including Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia that led the move as soon as Berlin formalized its agreement with Turkey. But the agreement itself has not brought any improvement to the deteriorating humanitarian crisis. Over the weekend, thousands of people, unsure of the next moves, attempted to defy border measures by walking into Macedonia.

Even before the agreement, however, images of violence at the hands of Macedonian police have occupied the attention of international media since the summer of last year. As the EU continued to delay a common response on the refugee and migrant crisis, the lack of coordination played a crucial role behind the violence from police who have allegedly thrown tear gas and used brute force against people seeking to enter the country. Macedonia’s officials increasingly defended the use of force against the unforeseen waves of people entering the country, and pointed to EU’s lack of responsibility in setting a common narrative for the Balkans that lacked the capacities to respond in the first place.

Albania: A new route for refugees?

For many months, neighboring Albania declared its willingness to accommodate refugees crossing the region. The country’s recent history of emigration and receiving over 500,000 Kosovon Albanians during the Kosovo war in 1999, make Albanians particularly sympathetic to the challenges and struggles today’s refugees are facing near its borders. But limited emergency response capacities and a recent history of trafficking and people smuggling have forced Albania’s leaders to be more cautious on their narrative. Reports have long circulated that the refugees’ arrival at Albania’s southern borders would re-enable Albania’s flourishing criminal groups’ and smugglers’ trafficking lines. These lines, once operational through speedboats (gomone) crossing the Adriatic, are, once more, becoming visible on the shores of Italy since a government crackdown on speedboats in 2006.

Furthermore, as Albania struggles with corruption, organized crime and high unemployment, there has been a gradual increase in people from Kosovo and Albania migrating to Western Europe in hopes of finding employment. Over the past year, Albanian migrants have ranked third after Syrians and Afghans seeking asylum in Germany since Fall of 2015. With the present challenges and often contradicting statements coming from government officials, Albania seems unprepared to face the struggles that lie ahead as borders may have to open. During a televised interview, the Albanian Prime Minister, Edi Rama, stated, “We have neither the conditions nor the strength nor the enthusiasm to save the world while others close their borders.” Despite these statements, reports allude to a new route opening that will see Albania as the new frontier for the crisis. Since then, Albanian authorities deployed special forces near the Albanian-Greek borders while also holding talks with Greek and Italian counterparts on ways to manage a potential crisis. Despite these last-minute efforts, however, a solution is still remote.

Broader regional implications

Even though the region remains a bypass for the majority of refugees, security concerns and stability remain on the forefront of risks this current crisis may pose for the Balkan countries. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has voiced her concerns in the past about the long-term stability of the Western Balkans. Her first claim, made in November 2014, referred to Russia’s potential neo-imperial appetite in the region following the annexation of Crimea and continuing war in Ukraine. She expressed a second warning recently, while speaking to members of her party, the Christian Democratic Union, on November 3, indicating that the current European refugee crisis could rekindle tensions between the Balkan region’s governments and lead to potential armed conflicts if Germany closes its borders. Though her recent comments triggered a wide discussion in the regional media, most treated Merkel’s warnings with skepticism, maintaining they exaggerate the actual repercussions the refugee crisis could have for the Western Balkans.

Although conflicts and violence do not form an imminent threat to the stability of the region, the current situation and unclear guidance from Brussels puts the countries facing these challenges in a dangerous position. The region itself has a long history of unresolved territorial and ethnic disputes that still drive the majority of the inter- and intra-state disputes and diplomatic rows. Growing internal divisions over territorial agreements continue to dominate much of the political landscape, including disputes over the creation of Serbian-majority municipalities in Kosovo as well as the possible dissolution of the Dayton Agreement in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which could allow the republic-level entity of Republika Srpska (Serb Republic) to secede. But as massive numbers of refugees from Syria and the wider Middle East continue to try to cross the Balkans on their journey to Western Europe, regional governments have spent more time trading insults and blocking borders instead of addressing the needs of those affected or focusing on the region’s larger conflicts and problems. In the Western Balkans, diplomatic rows can easily take on a religious or nationalist tone, and the potential clash of these two opposing forces threatens to destabilize a fragile, but strategically placed area inside Europe.

Ebi Spahiu is an independent analyst of Central Asian and Western Balkan Affairs, focusing on gender and religious extremism, currently based in Albania. She has worked in a number of capacities for UN agencies, including UNICEF and UN Women in Kyrgyzstan, the OSCE Presence in Albania, and other nonprofit organizations in the Western Balkans and Central Asia. Her writing work and reports produced have covered a wide range of issues including countering violent extremism, foreign fighters, human rights in both Central Asia and the Western Balkans, and institutional corruption in Albania. She is originally from Albania, but has lived and worked in China, the United States, and Kyrgyzstan.


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