The key role of the Western Balkans in the management of EU-directed migration flows
The Western Balkans represent a strategic region for the European Union, which is engaged in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia in the perspective of their accession to the EU.
From 2015 on, the region has played a specific strategic role to manage (and possibly reduce) EU-directed migration flows. The EU has gradually consolidated the outsourcing of migration management, resulting in more people on the move staying in the region. This has benefited EU member States with regards to their security concerns while increasing the pressure on the still-fragile systems of countries in the Western Balkans.
European agencies have stepped up their activities and influence in the region to improve asylum processes (EASO) and tackle international crime through policy cycles and specific national agreements (EUROPOL and EBCG, Frontex). Such a security imperative is reflected in the externalisation and increased militarisation of European borders that reinforce the image of the “Fortress Europe”.
The EU and the Western Balkans are engaged in a do ut des relationship that seems to satisfy both parties in terms of security and development but that fails to take into account the needs of people on the move.
The Western Balkans, namely Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, are located in a strategic region whose geographical position inevitably implies shared challenges and opportunities for cooperation with its European neighbours. The EU has thus committed itself to engage significantly with the Western Balkans since 1999, when the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) was launched to promote peace, development and stability in the region. In the perspective of a “credible future enlargement” (European Commission, 2018), over the last fifteen years these countries have undergone a series of institutional, economic and societal reforms in order to try and comply with the strict requirements set by Article 49 of the Treaty of the European Union. In addition to that, they have accepted the positive conditionality in terms of visa facilitation, readmission agreements (Saide Liperi, 2019) and trade incentives put forward by the bloc to engage in an enhanced cooperation across several fields. This would not only benefit local partners, but also positively affect EU member States.
However, new seats at the European Council’s table are not likely to be added anytime soon. Despite the intensification of EU projects and agencies active in the region and the recent reiteration of the Commission’s commitment to accession negotiations (European Commission, 2020a), the lack of unity within the EU bloc and the several steps and reforms that are yet to be taken by countries in the region (Madhi, 2020) make it so that the Western Balkans continue to be conceived more as strategic partners to solve European ‘issues’ than as future members states. This is especially evident with regards to the field of migration management.
When, during the so-called 2015 migration ‘crisis’, the Western Balkans route started to gain momentum because of its relative ‘safety’ compared to the Central Mediterranean route, historical regional countries of emigration witnessed an increase in migration flows mainly directed at northern Europe. As mere transit countries that provided no appeal for asylum seekers because of their less favourable legal frameworks and living conditions, in some occasions, they even organised transfers to their northern borders to facilitate migrants’ journeys (Greider, 2017). However, the trend soon changed, borders were closed and people were encouraged to file an asylum application in the countries they found themselves in, for local initiatives and EU-funded projects launched before 2015 and aiming at reforming regional migration management systems had started to deliver their first results.
Based on the socially constructed link between migration and security that turns migration into a security issue and migrants into a threat, the European Union had thus decided to adopt a twofold approach: to increasingly support migration management projects and programmes outside of the EU while enhancing security measures and strengthening external borders. Both of these approaches will likely have significant impacts on the Western Balkans. Such a greater local engagement would not only foster the consolidation of the set of values promoted by the EU in the perspective of the enlargement, but also actively contribute towards the European externalisation strategy by way of outsourcing the management of migration flows. This would relieve the pressure on the most ‘popular’ European countries of arrival.
Financing migration away
The most straightforward example of funds being made available in exchange for preventing migrants from reaching European territories is the EU-Turkey Statement signed in March 2016. Albeit no such agreement has been reached with countries in the Western Balkans, the EU allocated a budget of more than 11 billion euros to each cycle of its Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA), the means by which reforms in the “enlargement countries” are supported (European Commission, 2020b). After the conclusion of the first IPA cycle during the period 2007-2013, IPA II came into force to cover the period 2014-2020.
Several migration-related projects and initiatives have been funded under this framework, among which figures the ‘Regional Support to Protection- Sensitive Migration Management systems in the Western Balkans and Turkey’ project, implemented in partnership with EU agencies, international organisations such as IOM and UNHCR as well as with MARRI, the Migration, Asylum, Refugees Regional Initiative. Whereas the main objective of the project is “to develop and operationalise a comprehensive migration management system focused on protection, resilience and human rights promotion” (EASO, 2020a), the enhancement of local practices and capabilities also indirectly supports EU accession and EU “security”. Improvements in identifying and registering irregular migrants as well as the increased efforts in fighting human trafficking, the development of Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) mechanisms and of a yet to be launched Regional Platform for Migration Data Exchange in the Western Balkans (WB-MIDEX) will most likely result in more people staying in the region instead of continuing their journeys towards the European Union.
This has de facto allowed for the establishment of a ‘buffer zone’ at Europe’s doorstep, which primarily benefits European countries in reducing the number of arrivals while increasing the pressure on the still-fragile systems of countries in the Western Balkans. Such a dynamic, in turn, contributes to the deterioration of the local overall situation and, as a consequence, it fuels the spread of anti-migrant feelings across the region. The Covid-19 outbreak confirmed this. Albeit the situation was generally better in EU-funded temporary reception facilities, in Serbia, the deployment of soldiers outside the Sid camp reinforced the criminalisation of refugees, asylum seekers and people in transit (Stojanovic, 2020); in Bosnia, people living in Bihac have been relocated in an isolated area where there are no shops, infrastructure, water or sanitation (Tondo, 2020); in Albania, at the peak of the pandemic the situation in the national reception centre in Babrru was so appalling that guests affirmed to have been forced to exit the centre and beg for food while escaping increasing violence (Karaj, 2020).
Open influence, closed borders
EU-funded projects in the region are complemented by an increasing involvement of EU agencies such as the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), EUROPOL and the European Border and Coast Guards Agency (EBCG, better known as Frontex). Such cooperation, through training, policy cycles and specific national agreements, is considered extremely important by European member States, as confirmed on 5 June by the Council of the EU (2020). While EASO’s (2020b) training and workshops aim at “supporting the quality of the asylum processes and decisions in the Western Balkans” by way of promoting and sharing European expertise and providing tools to strengthen local capabilities, the roles of EUROPOL and Frontex are more security oriented.
EMPACT (European Multidisciplinary Platform against Criminal Threats), the multi-annual policy cycle set up by the EU in 2010 and continuing until 2021, has allowed EUROPOL and other EU agencies to cooperate with the Western Balkans to tackle “threats of organised and serious international crime” around four priorities: firearms trafficking, document fraud, drugs trafficking and illegal immigration (EUROPOL, 2019). The EBCG has been an important partner in such missions, for its main goal is to tackle migratory challenges and cross-border illicit activities by way of surveilling and managing European external borders. This is operated under the framework of the integrated border management strategy, which focuses on “national and international coordination and cooperation among all relevant authorities and agencies involved in border security and trade facilitation to establish effective, efficient and coordinated border management at the external EU borders” (European Migration Network, 2020).
The increased security concerns linked to migration explain the gradual but steady evolution and expansion of the EBCG as well as the new practices adopted in the field, such as the status agreements signed between Frontex and ‘third countries’. The Western Balkans have been the main target of such practices, which deepen the already-existing collaboration in the field of migration and security by allowing joint operations and the deployment of Frontex officers outside of the EU to provide the technical and operational assistance required to securitise the Union’s pre-border areas. Despite being heavily criticised because of the level of immunity offered to agents deployed in the field and for their lack of transparency, such agreements have been signed with Albania, where the first operation of this kind was launched in May 2019 (Frontex, 2019), Montenegro and Serbia. They are still under negotiation for Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia (Council of the European Union, 2019).
In addition, the creation of the Agency’s ‘standing corps’, which will be fully operational by 2027 with 10,000 staff, together with the strengthening of available technological tools for border surveillance, will increase the militarisation of European external borders. This will de facto reinforce the image of the “Fortress Europe” already questioned by academia and proven by the several ‘incidents’ that have occurred at European borders with the Western Balkans, like the one separating Hungary and Serbia (Fotiadis, 2020). Covid-19 will once again play a pivotal role: the increased diffidence towards non-European countries with regards to the management of the sanitary emergency will most likely result in stricter border controls and a higher emphasis on security within the regional schedule of cooperation in the field of migration.
The regional do ut des
Security and migration represent one of the six ‘flagship initiatives’ put forward by the European Union within the framework of its renewed strategy to engage with the Western Balkans in the perspective of their future accession. EU-funded projects and initiatives have grown in number in the past years, as have the influence and sphere of action of EU agencies. The goal being to improve regional systems and practices in the field of migration management, these actions have a twofold implication: while they are useful in developing new tools and capabilities that comply with human rights’ standards, they also significantly reduce the number of people reaching the EU through the Western Balkans route. Migration management is thus outsourced to local partners as a consequence of the externalisation of European borders, now placed in a region with strong aspirations for membership and that is ready to step up its engagement in the perspective of the benefits that accession to the EU bloc would bring. However, such a do ut des relationship that seems to satisfy both parties has its shortcomings. Prevented from reaching the European Union and stuck in countries undergoing a structural and social transition, people on the move are, once again, the ones to sacrifice their aspirations, quality of life and level of protection on behalf of others’ desires for security and development.
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