Capital Belgrade
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 381
Mobile Codes 60,61,62,63,64,65,66,67
ccTLD .rs
Currency Dinar (1EUR = 101RSD)
Land Area 88,361 sq km
Population 7.3 million (excl. Kosovo)
Language Serbian
Major Religions Orthodox Christianity, Islam

The Migration Phenomenon and the Balkans

By Chris Deliso

Misconceptions characterize public awareness of the current migration phenomenon affecting the Balkans. This is partly due to established context (looking at the issue as an exigency, caused by war and so on) and also because of the dramatic photos in Western tabloid accounts design to embellish the human-interest aspect of the story, reifying this concept of a one-off, event-driven phenomenon.

Rather, the migration phenomenon should be understood more in terms of, well, migration. The way birds migrate every year, the way the first American Indians migrated across the Alaskan land bridge, the way that wealth migrates between economies. Human migration into Europe today is a predictable, long-term process with its own rules and operative conditions.

The current trend that sees masses of people travelling to Europe via Turkey and the Balkans is of course going to have long-term effects on life on the Continent. Balkan locals, who are historically good at adaptation and survival, are dealing with this reality much faster than are their northern neighbors, who in any case will have to deal with the bulk of the migrant flood in years ahead.

But the EU cannot stop or even slow the flow of migration- it can only make small changes to the territorial route it follows. However, it is not a given that the EU even wants to stop migration, since the migrant industry is extremely lucrative in terms of reallocations – we could say, migrations – of European public funds to deal with the issue.

That said, we should also think of migration variously as economic commodity, political organizing force, factor in instability, and experiment in mass communications and logistics. Much can be learned from the current experience Balkan-route migrants are having.

Present and Future Migrant Routes

Migrant flows are determined by physical borders and efficiency, like any other form of travel. Until Greece and Bulgaria erected fences on the Turkish border in Thrace, that land route had been popular. The existence of these barriers has not stopped, but only diverted traffic to the maritime route, between the Turkish Aegean coast and the nearest Greek islands. This is a more dangerous and thus more lucrative operation, which presents unique challenges for the Greek state.

Greece has for years been assisted by Frontex with border policing, which has proven too effective; migrants who would have passed undetected were caught, filling Greek migrant centres. The current inundation on far-flung islands that also lack capacity, even as the country remains in its economic crisis, has forced the government to concentrate migrants into one stream heading north. From the islands they are ferried to Athens, and from there by bus to Thessaloniki and then to Idoumeni, near the Macedonian border.

Faced with over 1,000 migrants a day, Macedonia and then Serbia had to change the law this summer to allow temporary stays and legal transport of migrants. This change has simply concentrated the flow of migrants, and increased the viability of the whole trip in the eyes of other prospective migrants. Thus overall numbers will go up considerably in months ahead regardless of other factors.

A security official notes that only eight (8) migrants have crossed into Albania from Greece recently, and that migrants trying to reach the EU from Greece through Bulgaria is also greatly reduced. The Hungarians, of course, are on their way to completing a long fence on the Serbian border.

However, experts like György Kakuk, who recently made the daring journey to document migrants’ experiences, believe that the Great Wall of Hungary will simply shift the route again. After the fence is built, migrants are likely to head from northern Serbia eastward into Romania, and then back into Hungary- making Orban’s effort perhaps in vain. For reasons unknown, migrants seem to be avoiding the Serbia-Croatia option for entering the EU.

Social Stratification of Migrant Society, ‘Fake Syrians,’ and the Entitlement Issue

As has reported in past about immigrant society in Athens, and as experts like Kakuk are noting now, there is a clear social stratification within the migrant ranks. There are not only differences of nationality and race, but also socio-economic differences. For every war refugee or Afghan villager without other prospects, there is an educated teacher or engineer with desirable skills for the European job market.

An ironic problem Syrians are facing now, noted the Hungarian source, is that migrants from other countries are claiming to be Syrian as they think it will qualify them for greater benefits or increase their chances of staying in Europe. That the issue of ‘fake’ Syrians irritates the ‘real’ Syrians is another interesting dynamic.

As in Egypt on the Libya-Italy route, migrants are also coming to Turkey and the Balkans from places like Eritrea- not because of any war, nor because of any burning desire to go to Europe. Rather, ‘human resources’ scouts are visiting local families and convincing them of the viability of the idea. The more migrants that successfully reach Europe, the more this phenomenon will increase.

Also, while breathless media reports concentrate on the poorest and most downtrodden migrants, as this fits a classic stereotype, there are plenty of migrants who have enough money to fly to Turkey, to stay in hotels, to go to a hair salon, to take selfies in front of historic sites. In fact, most of the visuals in recent days, confirmed by ground sources, indicate fairly well-dressed and well-organized people.

This leads us to one of the strangest aspects of the migrant experience, that can be attested from the comments of people of all social classes: the sense of entitlement, that it is their right to move to Europe without following any legal procedure, that everything should be given to them, and that Balkan countries should pick up the pace on executing their wishes.

This is leading to a bizarre symmetry of behavior from both the European and migrant sides. When English tourists complain that seeing dirty migrants is ruining their vacation in Kos, the tone is exactly the same as when a Syrian complains that ‘third-world’ Greeks have ruined their own trip to Kos; in both cases, it is a story of visitor experience not matching their expectations. Neither ask why they had made the trip in the first place, as opposed to going literally anywhere else.

Contradictions in the Network/Group Intelligence of Migrants

This remarkable similarity leads to one of the most baffling contradictions: while today’s migrants tend to be extremely well informed about tactical travel challenges, they are not always so informed about the reality of their overall ambitions.

Citation after citation in the media has migrants from all strata and society expressing the view that Europe is the promised land and that they will be welcomed with open arms, employed, housed and fed. At least some of that may have been the case in certain countries, but the expected quantitative migration increase in the next six months will severely test the patience of even the most liberal states. It remains unclear how migrants, while still in their own countries, are being so misinformed. Perhaps believing in the myth just provides inspiration and courage.

Then there is network aspect, which multiplies travel efficiency and group intelligence. As NGO advocates are fond of saying, migrants are not animals, they’re humans. But they’re much more than human- they’re also profiles.

Coordinating logistics and gaining constantly updated information on local conditions via Facebook groups and other social media accessed on their smart phones, today’s savvy migrants process huge amounts of real-time situational intelligence. Benefitting from the experience of those who came before them, they end up knowing more about the geography, topography and local happenings of Balkan countries than do the locals.

This information helps migrants decide where to eat or sleep, which border crossings are best at any particular time, and so on. In other words, they are as active and as organized as any other online community. The network-based structure of migrant intelligence gives them an advantage over local law enforcement.

This also means that information (and, disinformation) can and will cause sudden movements of people, reactions or other events. Used by a dedicated adversary, the simple manipulation of situational intelligence through using these open-source networks represents a major vulnerability that cannot be countered by Balkan authorities, since they cannot interact with the social media and languages used in any meaningful way.

This is why Hungary’s justification for using billboards and advertisements to dissuade migration in the source countries is so strange. According to Hungary Today, the government has done the following:

“after examining the possibilities of advertising in the war-torn countries and conflict zone, the cabinet came to to the conclusion that only very small groups can be reached through the Internet and social media, and opted rather for placing advertisements in public spaces and in newspapers. Under the decision, the posters will be installed in September, parallel to the completion of the temporary fence on Hungary’s border with Serbia, in several local languages and dialects.”

Hungary’s desire to lead an infowar campaign to dissuade migrants from leaving their home countries is probably tacitly supported by other EU countries, though the latter would not like to say so. But that is not the issue. Rather, the government’s justification is suspect. All evidence currently suggests that the internet is a major organizing factor for migrants, both in terms of social media and regular news. If the EU states are really serious about limiting migration, that is something to start with.

Collapse (and Re-emergence?) of Organized Crime

The legalization of temporary transit for migrants in Serbia and Macedonia has forced a partial collapse in income for the human trafficking gangs that had been mostly concentrated in the Lipkovo and Presevo Valley ethnic Albanian villages. The current situation finds a more ad hoc attempt by local people along the migrant route to sell small items to passers-by at inflated prices.

The organized crime aspect appears to be more serious in Serbia, where Belgrade is the organizational hub. Syrians in constant contact with small groups of organizers at the Hungarian border. Cumulative spending by migrants per day is over 600,000 euros, according to some estimates, though it is impossible to know how much the actual traffickers take of this.

We expect that as the Hungarian wall complicates movements for migrants, the role of organized crime will increase. Migrants will be forced to stay longer in the Balkans and, if afraid of police or if overstaying their permits, will be forced to stay under the protection of traffickers. Also, as the exit routes become more complex and diversified due to the wall, the traffickers will again have the upper hand, and migrants will become more vulnerable still.

If this phenomenon continues to develop, the human trafficking mafia run by foreigners can become integrated with the mainstream of Serbian organized crime. This is what has happened in Athens over many years, leading to turf wars, composite industries, and not incidentally, the rise of far-right movements like Golden Dawn as an abreaction.

Migration, Border Issues, and Erdogan’s Nuclear Option

Another surprising aspect of contemporary Balkan migration is that no states, neither the major EU powers nor Greece, have put any pressure on Turkey – the ultimate source of the whole traffic – to stop migration at its borders. By the time migrants have reached the Balkans, it is already rather late in the game to criticize their presence.

In May, Greek defense officials floated the idea of building a new NATO base in the eastern Aegean islands. While countering terrorism and migration were listed as reasons for this idea, it seemed more than obvious that the Greeks would like to use such a base as a place where NATO allies could observe Turkish Air Force overflight violations for themselves. In other words, it was a political concept never meant to have any real relation with migration.

Greece has never explained why it does not criticize Turkish maritime migration to the same extent that it criticized territorial migration, before the Thracian wall.

Although it has not been widely reported, we consider that the Greek reticence to involve Turkey with maritime migration might be due to the two countries’ long-standing disputes over territorial waters, the continental shelf, and possession of numerous small islands. As Greeks recall only too well from the Cyprus invasion, ‘possession is nine-tenths of the law.’ Any requests for joint maritime patrols, even if they result in Turkey detaining migrants and sending them back to wherever they came from, might not be desirable from the Greek point of view, if such missions were to involve Turkish vessels or helicopters entering Greek waters or islands.

If this theory is correct, it represents an argument on migration management from a point of view of territorial integrity- but one completely different from the conventional understanding of migration as a threat to the safety of states without maritime borders.

Another reason why European states may be avoiding (at least public) criticisms of Turkey is because they are aware that the country is the porous gateway to everywhere else. The Syrian war has left Turkey hosting over 1 million refugees. At the same time, Erdogan has opened a war on two fronts, with the Kurds and (sort of) with ISIS, and new elections appear likely as a government cannot be formed by AKP.

At this combustible moment, when the Turkish lira is also being affected, several scenarios emerge, none of them particularly good. While EU leaders have a long list of grievances with Turkey’s leader, they are also aware that he enjoys the nuclear option: over 1 million refugees and counting. The Greek financial bailout controversy is almost irrelevant in terms of social and political issues that could drive Europe apart.