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Why do Serbia and Macedonia want help with migrants?

Refugees in a train station in Macedonia on  22 August.
Refugees in a train station in Macedonia on 22 August. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski
Text by: Fabien Jannic-Cherbonnel
4 min

The foreign ministers of Serbia and Macedonia called for European Union action on the migrant crisis at a summit attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Vienna on Thursday. In recent months the two Balkans countries have become major transit routes for thousands of migrants. What is going on?


Why are migrants heading for the western Balkans?

Serbia and Macedonia have become major transit countries for tens of thousands of migrants from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan trying to reach the European Union in recent months.

The number of migrants travelling through the western Balkans has increased dramatically in recent weeks.

Some 181,000 refugees landed in Greece last month -  3,000 are expected  to cross the Macedonian border every day. Refugees will then reach Serbia and then the nearest EU country, Hungary. From there, they'll move to other EU countries, such as Germany.

“Migration flows and refugee flows is nothing new for the region due to the war for Yugoslavia succession in the 1990s,” Dušan Reljić, the Head of Brussels office of German Institute for International and Security Affairs told RFI. “A lot of migration and refugee movement happens in the area. Serbia took in about 700,000 refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo.”

What are the Serbian and Macedonian authorities doing?

“These countries are not handling the migrants or the migration crisis,” Olsi Vullnetari, a migration specialist with the Albanian Migration Network told RFI.

“They are just taking ad-hoc measures. Both countries are poor, they lack the resources and the only thing they can do is deploy police or military forces. To do what? There’s nothing they can do, so without the help of the European Union, these countries will collapse.”

Last week Macedonia declared a state of emergency. But its army was so overwhelmed by the number of people that it ended up letting them through anyway.

“The mechanisms [put in place to handle refugees] are known in the region,” says Dušan Reljić. “The problem is money of course, and there is some money coming from the EU but I think more substantial funds are needed to achieve proper effect.”

Are people from Syria and Iraq the only ones trying to reach Europe via the Balkans?

No, they’re not - people from the western Balkans are also trying to reach richer European countries. Almost 40 per cent of asylum-seekers in Germany are from the western Balkan countries.

But most of their asylum applications are denied, because Serbians and Macedonians are mostly judged to be moving out of their home countries for economic reasons.

That why the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged the Balkan countries "to help manage the expectations of your citizens and provide them with a realistic picture of their virtually non-existent chances of being granted asylum in Germany”.

What is the European Union doing to address this crisis?

There have been talks around the topic but for now no answer has been found. Germany, which took a lead in solving the crisis, is pushing for a revision of the asylum rules, as well as quotas. Angela Merkel met Balkan leaders on Thursday but no promises were made.

“The only thing to do is to organise some sort of transportation for the refugees,” says Olsi Vullnetari. “The EU needs to help Macedonia, Albania and Serbia to organise the registration and the processing of these people.”

Other countries, such as Hungary, are taking a tough stance against migrants. The authorities are rushing to finish a wire fence across the border with Serbia.

“Hungary is not at all the only EU country in the region,” says Dušan Reljić. “Croatia is very close, so people who have been via Hungary to central Europe will change their route and go via Croatia and Slovenia. Migration flows are not going to be terminated by fences; they will be stopped through the politics of fostering peace and development in those countries that have huge security problem at the moment.”

Europe remains divided on the subject. European ministers met Thursday in Vienna to talk about the situation. But even there, politicians couldn’t escape the reality of the plight of refugees: at least 20 migrants were found dead inside a truck on a highway earlier today near the Austrian capital.

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