The Western Balkan route continues to be the most active migratory route as the Council opens negotiations with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia to broaden agreements on Frontex cooperation. The European Commission endorses Croatia’s accession to the Schengen zone while NGOs continue to document testimonials of violence towards people on the move along the country’s border. Austria, Serbia and Hungary, have signed a deal to “beef up Balkans border security” in the Western Balkans.

The number of arrivals at the external borders of Europe is on the rise with the Western Balkan route continuing to be the most active migratory route to Europe. 22,300 irregular entries through the Western Balkan route were detected in the last ten months of this year. This number is triple of 2021 and the highest since 2015. According to European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), “The high number of irregular border crossings can be attributed to repeated attempts to cross the border by migrants already present in the Western Balkans, but also to persons abusing visa-free access to the region. Some migrants use visa-free access travel through Belgrade airport and then overland towards the EU external borders”. Meanwhile, the Council of the European Union announced on 18 November the opening of negotiations with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia “to broaden agreements on Frontex cooperation” under the framework of “border management”. These new agreements with the four Western Balkan non-EU countries will allow the agency to assist these countries “in their efforts to manage migratory flows, counter illegal immigration and tackle cross-border crime throughout their territory”. They will also allow “Frontex staff to exercise executive powers, such as border checks and registration of persons”. “Migration challenges in the Western Balkans route don’t start at the EU borders. Cooperation with our partners, including through the deployment of Frontex staff, is essential to detect and block irregular migration movements early on. This will improve the protection of our EU external borders and contribute to efforts by countries in the Western Balkans to stop smugglers from using their territories as transit stages”, says Vít Rakušan, Minister of the Interior of Czech Republic currently holding the Presidency of the Council. NGO State Watch had previously critisized the European Commission’s document during the preparation phase of the negotiations as there is no mention of “the controversy the agency is mired in for its failure to uphold fundamental rights standards within the EU, in particular at the Greek-Turkish border” as most recently confirmed in a report by the European Anti-Fraud Office.

The European Parliament and European Commission have endorsed Croatia’s accession to the Schengen area while waiting for the final decision from the EU Council expected to be given on 8 December. An MEP from the European People’s Party and rapporteur on Croatia’s file says this move would help in improving “the protection of migrants’ human rights at the EU’s external border” while NGOs continue to express their concern over Croatia’s past and ongoing illegal pushbacks of people on the move. Sara Kekušfrom from ECRE member Centre for Peace Studies (CMS) said that Croatian police continue to conduct pushbacks, adding: “What we fear the most is another escalation of pushbacks. A lot will depend on EU migration policies, which are not going in the right direction, and we see proposals to legalise internal pushbacks,”. NGO No Name Kitchen recently shared a testimony of a group of 8 people who were beaten and threatened by Croatian police dogs. However, Croatia denies these “allegations”. Prime Minister Andrej Plenković said: “We train our police in accordance with national and European legislation, and we have looked into all incidents that were not in line with that.” Meanwhile, Austria clarified that it does not support the accession to the Schengen Zone for Croatia, as well as Bulgaria and Romania pending Council approval due to “the current migration figures and the lack of border protection”.

Austria, Serbia and Hungary, seeing themselves as the “frontline” of the Western Balkan route, have signed a deal to “beef up Balkans border security” and “show migrants that they cannot cross” as “the EU’s asylum system has failed”. “We have come to the point where individual EU countries are looking for new forms of partnership outside what is possible in the EU”, said Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer. The Chancellor further stated that Austria could have more than 100,000 asylum requests by the end of the year, compared to around 40,000 people who applied for asylum in 2021, while Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said his country has recorded some 250,000 attempts at irregular border crossings this year, noting: “We do not need to manage migration, we need to stop it”, and continuing: “We need to show them (migrants) that they cannot cross”. “We are ready to move further south together with North Macedonia and thus protect both Europe and our own country,” Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic amid the installation of high-tech surveillance equipment including cameras and drones on the North Macedonian border.

Meanwhile, migrants in Serbia continue to attempt crossing into Hungary by paying for smugglers “whose authority in the region is very predominant” despite potential pushbacks and surveillance equipment along the border. Nearly 70,000 migrants have entered Serbia so far this year, and according to Asylum Seekers Protection Centre (APC), between 600 and 1,000 people have been pushed back violently by Hungarian authorities every day since spring. The majority of migrants settle in informal overcrowded places in poor living conditions along the Hungarian border instead of being controlled by smugglers in overcrowded centres. As temperatures are dropping, a group of collectives has launched a fundraising campaign to improve the living conditions of people on the move living along the Hungarian, Croatian, and Romanian borders. Frach Collective, one of the organisers, told ECRE: “Hundreds of people on the move are still living in squatted areas made up of abandoned houses, tents and other makeshift shelters. The conditions, especially as temperatures in the region drop, are dire and are exacerbated by police violence and the dangerous “games – attempts to cross the border fence with Hungary”.

ECRE member the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) published new research to bring attention to “the worrying practices of non-implementation of judgments in the field of asylum and migration in Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia and the implications on the rule of law”. The research confirms that the “politicised nature of asylum and migration” has led to non-compliance by relevant EU legislation, UN Conventions, the European Convention on Human Rights and even domestic legislation. Common areas of non-implementation range from access to the procedure, through personal liberty and judicial review: immigration detention, EU relocation scheme, collective expulsion and access to asylum, access to classified data in national security cases, statelessness, effective remedies against expulsion, and disregard of court’s instructions in repeated asylum procedures on the merits. Meanwhile, the European Commission concluded that Hungary had failed to adopt 17 rule-of-law reforms that are needed to access the €7.5 billion in EU funds, putting the country at risk of losing billions of EU cash. On 24 November, EPP Group tweeted that the European Parliament announced a resolution that might result in “a partial freeze of EU funds” for Hungary. “This is certainly one of the most important issues in the history of the Union as a whole”.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.