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

Europe’s Late Responses to the Refugee Crisis

By Lana Pasic

Balkan Route Migration, by the Numbers

Since the late 1990s, some 25,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to reach Europe, according to the EU. This year alone, almost 3,000 people have lost their lives in the European waters. As the border patrols increased and the journey across the Mediterranean became more crowded and dangerous, people began crossing the Aegean and then continuing by land, making the route through the Balkans more popular than ever before.

By conservative estimates, some 3,000 people are making their way through the region every day. Since the beginning of this year, 250,000 have passed through Serbia, of which 200,000 crossed into Hungary, while about 100,000 reached Croatia in barely one month.

Mixed Reactions

European reactions to the arrival and transit of refugees have varied. Like Macedonia, Serbia decided that as a transit country, it would facilitate the refugees’ journey. It arranged transfers for refugees to the borders with Hungary, and later with Croatia. Croatia at first seemed to have followed the same approach, but then briefly closed its border with Serbia, as they claimed to be overwhelmed with the number of people trying to enter.

The resulting border closure and the nationalist outbursts cost Serbia and Croatia one million euros each as a result of the trade blockade. While the few days of dispute between the two Balkan countries sparked a discussion on the revival of nationalism in the Balkans, the right-wing reactions to refugees in European countries further north have been little commented on (with the exception of Hungary). Besides the proposed quota distribution of existing asylum seekers already in EU states the bloc has, for various reasons, done little to resolve or at least reduce the crisis. This has only recently started to change, with Sunday’s summit between the EU and Balkan countries on emergency measures. This provided some direction for common policy.

How Has Europe Dealt with the Refugee Crisis So Far?

More than half a million people have arrived in the EU since the beginning of the year. If that might seem like a lot, let’s remind ourselves that the European Union numbers more than 500 million people. In contrast to the EU, Turkey is hosting 2 million Syrian refugees and Lebanon, 1.2 million. The truth is that Europe has been resisting action on this question for years. The Union is either ignoring the fact that it has a graveyard at its doors, or they are igniting fears that foreigners will overtake and destroy Europe – and neither of these two are helping.

…Closing the Border

Negative attitudes towards foreigners in the context of migration have been most widely publicized at the Hungarian border since summer. However, they have also been noted across the continent- interestingly, in more liberal countries like Finland, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Austria. Several protests against the EU’s quota system for accepting refugees have taken place in Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and we have also seen protests led by right-wing groups in Dortmund and Dresden, Germany and in Italy.

While Germany’s Chancellor Merkel has publicly welcomed refugees, Germany has at the same time, together with Austria and Slovakia, re-introduced internal border controls, raising fears of a crumbling Schengen agreement across Europe. However, ethnic profiling of foreigners by border police has been present in Germany, Austria and Italy for years, as many of us who have travelled throughout Europe by train can testify.

And while we have all been shocked by the razor-blade fence at Hungarian border, we must remember that Hungary is not the first EU country to introduce fences to prevent movement of people. Bulgaria and Greece already had fences to stop the asylum seekers from entering their territories from parts of their Turkish land borders. Since the early 1990s, Spain has maintained fences and walls in what are considered to be two “European” territories in Morocco, Ceuta and Melilla. Over the last two decades, we have witnessed countless attempts to break these fences, all of which have resulted in deaths of those who have tried to cross them.

…Making Refugees Someone Else’s Problem?

Instead of finding a meaningful solution to the root causes of refugee displacement and migration, Europe has instead tended to act as if these issues do not concern them. In January 2011, the EU promised then-Libyan leader Gaddafi 50 million Euros for three years, in order to prevent the movement of people from the North African country towards European continent. It is now attempting to work out the same deal with Turkey’s President Erdogan.

The most recent EU decision, to seize the smugglers’ boats in order to prevent the movement of people, shows how the Union seems to have learned little from past mistakes. Instead of addressing the causes of displacement and migration, and finding a humane and manageable way to assist both refugees and migrants, a decision to make it more difficult for people to travel is not going to stop either smugglers or asylum-seekers.

…Accepting Refugees?

In a reaction to the recent crisis, EU ministers agreed at the end of September to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers from Italy, Greece and Hungary, thus sharing the responsibility for taking care of both refugees and migrants, contrary to the Dublin regulation. This has encountered resistance from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania, which feel that they are being bullied into accepting a decision from Western countries. The vote was pushed back due to disagreements and a new agreement was made on 25 October.

While Merkel and Hollande called for a change to the rules and humane treatment of migrants, the EU is currently mired in indecision, as rising nationalist rhetoric, and pro-migrant liberal discourse, are dividing public opinion in many European countries on what the right response is to the current situation.

After months of stalling on action regarding the refugee crisis, the EU has finally taken steps to work with the Balkan countries on establishing reception centers in order to facilitate refugees’ arrival and registration. A 17-point action plan has been agreed, and countries have agreed to make space for some 50,000 people at the collection centers in Greece, and another 50,000 who are en route from Greece to Germany – that is, in Macedonia and Serbia.

Although the plan is a welcome move forward in that it shows the EU is in fact capable of a united response to the crisis, some points of the agreement remain controversial. Although the registration system is much needed, a decision to speed up the repatriation of the Afghan, Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals is debatable, as the security situation in these countries still remains difficult.

Where to from Here?

So far, all attempts to find a solution have been short-term and limited, and have failed to take into consideration new international realities in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood, but rather seem to be out-of-fear reaction to the current situation. The latest agreement is a welcome change, but it has come rather late and its decisions are still not looking far enough ahead. The truth is that more people will come, regardless of what the EU decided or will decide. Up to 3 million more people are expected to leave Syria, reports Time– and some of them will make their way towards Europe. Meanwhile, the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea and Yemen is not getting any better either.

Europe’s border closures, limited willingness to accept refugees and attempts to divert migrants elsewhere are not effective long-term solutions to the crisis. There is no border, wall or fence that has not been broken down by sheer human force, due to the whole range of motives. In order to be prepared for this, Europe will have to address its own internal disputes, re-examine its attitudes towards refugees, its involvement in conflicts, resource exploitation and its international relations and economic policies in the countries from which asylum-seekers originate.