Balkanalysis on Twitter

The Adriatic Chessboard: Migration Policies and Regional Security

February 22, 2016

By Matteo Albertini

The threat of another surge in refugees and migrants from North Africa and, peripherally, from the Balkan Route has alarmed Italian security planners. Their assessments, discussed below, provide some indication into how they intend to manage the flow, in the case of route diversification, backlog, or other events (such as terrorism) that would cause a strong anti-migrant reaction among Europeans.

The Two Routes- and the Macedonian Solution that Alarms Greece

Since the death of Muammar Gaddafi – the former guarantor of a mostly migrant-free Mediterranean – Italy began to receive more and more migrants by sea, often landing at its southern island of Lampedusa.

The strain from this influx eventually resulted in the most sophisticated EU military engagement in the history of the overall migrant crisis. Operation SOPHIA, which was led by the Italian navy, was recently disclosed in a document published by Wikileaks. The document (an internal review of actions taken in the period May 2015 to January 2016) cited a secret plan to enforce a stable government in Libya- that would then ‘invite’ the EU to start a military operation against traffickers in its territorial waters.

This document and its significance for EU actions elsewhere cannot be discussed in detail here. It will be assessed by in a separate article.

A second unprecedented flow starting last summer brought the so-called Balkan route into the media, and eventually policy spotlight. In 2015, nearly 880,000 people took the route from Turkey to Greece, heading on to Central Europe by traveling through Macedonia and Serbia. Although this massive influx of people received huge attention, it did not result in any EEAS mission similar to Operation SOPHIA, despite Greece (like Italy) being an EU state.

The EU’s failure to slow migration on the Balkan Route has led Balkan countries to seek other solutions. Most importantly, Macedonia (with the backing of Austria and the Visegrad countries) on February 18th won support for a plan it offered to streamline migrant entries. Now, all those wishing to enter at the non-official part of the southern border of Gevgelija must have a special registration card from the Macedonian authorities: anyone who does not have it, further north, will be sent back to Greece.

Greece, which is very alarmed by the EU’s acceptance of this plan, threatened to block a Brexit deal if countries close borders with it. But Macedonia has not closed its legal borders- ironically, it is the protesting Greek farmers who have been blockading their own borders elsewhere along the Macedonian, Bulgarian and Turkish lines. Their motives have nothing to do with the migrant crisis, but are causing serious economic impact, for the neighboring countries as well as their own.

The EU-agreed plan to streamline the migrant flow through Macedonia allows some compromise between rival EU powers. However, our assessment still remains that absent some unexpected pressure, Macedonia will eventually seal its border to all migrants and refugees.

In this case, they will seek other points of entry from Greece, such as Bulgaria and Albania. However, Bulgaria has just dispatched soldiers to the Greek border, and there are indications that Albania is preparing for migrant inflows.

The latter prospect is the most worrying for Italy, considering its history of receiving illegal aliens by the thousands from Albania in the 1990s, in a very lucrative trade run by organized crime and also involving cigarette and drugs trafficking.

Italy’s Concern: Route Diversification and the Trans-Adriatic Corridor

From the Italian point of view, the current situation is extremely serious: the Adriatic Sea represents, after the Greek islands, the longest European border towards the Middle East. The risk that a sudden closure of some Balkan countries’ borders would change the routes covered by migrant smugglers, possibly moving towards the sea and Italy, is the most feared, especially while Italy is already managing a contemporaneous flow coming from Northern Africa through the Sicilian Channel.

This concern was reinforced by the recent declarations of the leaders of Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia, each of them underlining that without a bigger effort from the European Union, the closure of borders could become a necessity. Just a few days before the Macedonian solution was accepted, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić called on the EU to come up with a common approach to the refugee crisis, stressing that if Austria and other countries on the Balkan Route shut their borders, Serbia would have to reconsider its policies.

As Dačić said in an interview with Radio Deutsche Welle, “in 2015, we had 600,000 migrants pass through Serbia and what is cause for us to worry further is the absence of a unified approach from the European Union. And these individual measures and steps that are taken by certain countries are something that puts us in a very difficult situation.”

A ‘Very Peculiar Phenomenon’

Interesting enough, Dačić also added that it was a very peculiar phenomenon that the migrants had never opted to change the route set in the beginning. The Foreign Minister said that “they never opted to go maybe through Kosovo, and one of the reasons was because Serbia was always a helping hand to them.” This was probably a politically-motivated comment, considering the fact that traveling through Serbia and Croatia is faster and easier than to go, for instance, Kosovo or Bosnia.

Concerns about a New ‘Albanian Adriatic Route’: Noted by the EU in October 2015

Returning to Italy, it is important to underline that in the October meeting chaired by EC President Juncker concerns were raised about the possibility of migrant smugglers opening a new route from Albania to Italy, in case of border closures by neighboring countries.

Even if the concerns voiced then about a possible exploitation of this route during the current winter season now seem to have been exaggerated, it is noteworthy that it was even considered at that point. This shows Italian analysis of the ‘Adriatic Chessboard’ was well advanced at a time when Austrians and Germans were still waving their ‘migrants welcome’ signs. With Germany’s interior minister now calling Austrian policy ‘unacceptable,’ the predictable divisions in European migration policy are worsening.

A Return to the Past?

The possibility that the Adriatic route could be used in the future remains. That would be a veritable return to the past, almost twenty years after the biggest exodus across the Adriatic Sea, after the collapse of the pyramid schemes in Albania, in 1997. Albanians used the sea crossing heavily when the country was swept by civil unrest caused by the scandal. In March 1997, 84 people, mostly women and children, drowned after their boat sank in the Straits.

Despite its perils, the route has also been used by drug smugglers and human traffickers. During the 2000s, it was mainly used to transport illegal narcotics to Italy. In 2006, overwhelmed by the large number of speedboats shipping drugs from Albania, the Tirana government decided not to allow any private small boats to sail in the country’s territorial waters for a time.

For this reason, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama – even though his country wasn’t touched by the recent migrant inflows – was also present at the October meeting, and signed a new agreement with the Greek government to enforce land border controls between Greece and Albania.

Italian Actions on Hotspots and Reception Centers, in Light of the ‘Nightmare Scenario’

Since then, Italy has still not completed building all of the mandated hotspots and reception centers on its own territory. Those already established are located in Lampedusa, Pozzallo, Porto Empedocle/Villa Sikania, Trapani, Augusta and Taranto.

However, only the first two are fully operative, while the third is in the final refurbishment phase. All these three active hotspots are located in Sicily (as also is the fourth one in Porto Empedocle). Nevertheless, only the fifth, in Taranto, would deal with hypothetical new migrant flows coming from the Adriatic Sea.

After the decision of six countries (Austria, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway) to ask for a two-year suspension of the Schengen Treaty, and the ensuing statement by the members of the Visegrad Group to opt for the closure of borders, it seems that the agreement of free circulation in European Union is near to an end, fifteen years after its introduction.

For Italy, this means the nightmare scenario could come true: to be bordered by foreign walls and transformed into a dead end for migrant routes. In this, the Italian government has reacted in the same way that Greece is now doing. As Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said for CNN, “the Dublin rules create a risk for Schengen […]. We need to share the migrants’ weight, because if we just continue to criticize Greece and first-arrival countries, the only result would be the final conclusion of the agreement.”

Italy is indeed one of the countries of arrival, receiving more than 150,000 asylum seekers in 2015. Most continued their travel towards France and Northern Europe, but this situation will not last if the Alps resumes its historic role as a natural border that Italy shares, with countries which have suspended Schengen.

This is why Italy is now preparing to create new reception centers in Northern Italy: there were announcements about the choice of Brennero and Tarvisio, located at the borders with Austria, a clear sign of the concern about a possible new exodus from the northern and the eastern neighboring countries.

Unclear Prospects

Much of the future dynamics of the Adriatic region depend on the continuing endurance of the European project and on the future of the Schengen agreement. Italian interior minister Alfano stated two weeks ago that in order to maintain Schengen, “there’s still time until May, for technical and political reasons.” But a three-month deadline is a very brief span of time, especially when the upcoming spring weather will likely bring new waves of refugees to European shores.

There is also the long-term risk that migrants could decide to cross the sea, coming from Croatia, Albania and Greece to Italian shores. As Alfano recalled in the same press conference, it is still early to advance any possible forecast: “there are too many variables at play. To all those who think that the best solution for Italy would be to close Schengen, I say that they don’t realize that we can’t lay barbed wire in the Mediterranean, nor in the Adriatic, and that they are not taking into account the economic backlash of this decision”.

Unfortunately for Minister Alfano, the decision will probably not be in the Italian government’s hands. Thus the primary goal would be to reinforce Frontex, the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders, to make it able to guarantee a proper answer to the potential arrival of thousands of asylum seekers from the sea.

Moreover, there is another major concern about the consequences of mass migration to Italy. Threatening mass expulsions of migrants who have no right for asylum is something different from effectively expelling them. As underlined by the deputy interior minister Bubbico, “a proper repatriation demands that the starting country has a working embassy, willing to cooperate with our identification request.”

Obviously, this would also assume that said country even wants to take back a citizen who had illegally arrived in Italy. “Otherwise, what should we do [but keep them]?” said the deputy minister. “Should we throw them in the sea?”

No Power for Sovereign Decision-making

Unlike non-EU members in the Balkans that have sovereignty over their own affairs, or like fellow EU members that have stood up strongly for their rights (like the V4 countries), Italy has followed the Greek political behavior of dependency on Brussels: the so-called desire for ‘European solidarity’ on the migrant issue. This means the government has limited its options and (as elsewhere in Europe) opened up political opportunities for its rivals.

While opposition parties thus spread fear of what they call an “invasion by migrants,” the Italian government has little power to influence the German-led EU’s decision-making on big-picture issues that underpin the entire issue: these include the ongoing wars in Libya and Syria, the future of unstable countries like Egypt and Nigeria, and the tenor of EU-Balkan relations. All of these are either states that are sources for new waves of migrants or ones that will affect their movements.

The Impact of Macedonia Border Closure on a new Albania-Adriatic Route

It has become clear that Turkey is both unable and unwilling to stop the flow of refugees passing through it to the Greek islands. As the EU is placing its bets on Macedonia to guard the European borders, Albania (and also Montenegro) are watching the developing events with a worried eye.

If tighter border controls along the Balkan route create problems for Greece, with migrants having a harder time moving north, most will look for alternate routes. Since Bulgaria is beefing up its defenses (and anyway is further east), Albania could then become the main option.

Migrants could either try to cross into Albania to reach Montenegro, Bosnia and Croatia, or to use the Adriatic Sea crossing to reach Italy. According to Albanian authorities, the former military base in Bilisht, close to a Greek border point, is already ready to accommodate some 500 refugees. Other abandoned military bases are also being prepared for a possible influx of refugees coming from Greece. But it is still early to conclude if these decisions are part of a long-time plan.

Italy is also concerned that a bottleneck in the Western Balkan migrant routes could also boost the central Mediterranean route, which connects North Africa to southern Italy. Migrant smugglers could opt to open new routes from Egypt and Libya as the expected Western raids against ISIS intensify in the latter country, as predicted almost one year ago.

Terrorism Fears

In the background indeed lies the second main subject of the recent international meeting, which is the fight against international terrorism. As reported by many past reports, migration and terrorism are two issues that frequently intertwine in the Balkans, mostly because both connected with the presence of solid and enduring criminal organization (which not by chance are growing stronger on both shores of the Adriatic Sea).

In this regard, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve recently proposed the creation of a common database of stolen passports from Syria and Iraq, and Europol presented its last conclusions, stating that the ISIS terrorist threat is still high in Europe, especially in France. According to the Italian Interior Minister, at the present time “there are not specific or concrete menaces for Italy.”

In the current scenario, recent police operations in Northern Italy showed at least three different terrorist cells active in the country: one connected with Kurdistan (amongst them, the members of the Rawti Shax network, dismantled last October), one linked to Kosovo and Albania (four people were arrested last December upon the charge of being member of the terrorist group led by the notorious Lavdrim Muhaxheri), and one headed by Bosnian citizen Bilal Bosnić, the informal leader of the Salafi movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

All these groups were located in little towns of the most productive area of the Italian north (Pordenone, Merano, Chiari). This choice should not surprise us, since the persons involved were mostly focused on propaganda and recruitment, and in these towns they enjoyed fast and easy connections throughout Europe, and good technology and facilities. Also, they found there a growing presence of foreign workers, mostly Muslim from Northern Africa, employed in the factories of these regions.

That is why the concerns about possible attacks in Italy are still low: Italy grants a lot of logistical advantages to jihadist networks, which are more interested in using this country as a bridgehead for penetrating further on in European borders.

However, the subtle presence of these jihadist groups, still lacking common goals, guidance and interests, does not guarantee a safe future. The security services will certainly remain on high alert for the foreseeable future, as ISIS has pledged to take its war all the way to the Vatican.

Possible Geopolitical Impact of a Developing Trans-Adriatic Migrant Route

It is also possible that migrants will become used as a tool to exercise political leverage on neighboring countries. Greece is angry with Macedonia over the border deal breakthrough with the EU, and is now making plans for handling the backlog. Athens thus could use Albania to exercise pressure on Macedonia, for closing the border, worsening conditions in a country still weighed down by a chronic political crisis.

This pressure would be exerted obliquely, through challenges to ethnic Albanian parties in Macedonia. This is one way of understanding Edi Rama’s recent comments when, in the presence of visiting US Secretary of State Kerry, the Albanian leader said that Macedonia should finish implementation of the Ohrid Agreement. It is well-known that this agreement (which ended the war of 2001) has been implemented long ago, so when the topic is occasionally raised, it is inevitably with an implicit desire to raise ethnic issues.

The second point of possible future geopolitical intrigue is that the migrant crisis is becoming an opportunity for some entities. NATO is heavily involved in both the West’s military operations in North Africa and the Middle East, and in liaising with anti-trafficking measures. The military alliance’s mandate was expanded to the Greek-Turkish maritime border and, even when it is not directly involved, tends to share facilities with EU-run operations (such as Operation SOPHIA)

According to the BBC on February 11, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the Greece-Turkey mission would not be about “stopping or pushing back refugee boats” but to provide “critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks.”

Looking at things in the bigger picture, the migrant crisis has allowed NATO to increase its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Russia is also operating in Syria.

On the Eastern Adriatic coast, only the absence of Montenegro is preventing this sea from becoming a ‘NATO lake.’ Russia of course opposes Montenegro’s invitation (and likely membership) into the alliance this summer.

Perhaps, a sudden and large influx of migrants operating along a new trans-Adriatic corridor could be regarded by pro-NATO activists as another reason for the tiny country to enter the alliance. In that case, NATO will fill in the last ‘missing square’ of this strategic chessboard- something that would have more symbolic than practical value, given the small size of Montenegro’s fighting force.

In whatever case, any NATO deployment up and down the Adriatic coast to counter migration would also be beneficial to the overall Western policy goals for the region we have discussed in The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans (available also in Italian here).

2004-2009 Back Archives