• A recent investigative report by EUobserver has revealed that migrants on the Balkan route are getting addicted to tranquillisers due to over-prescription and unbearable living conditions.
  • The number of officers from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) along the Bulgaria-Türkiye border has been tripled despite Bulgaria’s record of human rights abuses.
  • Asylum seekers in Serbia continue to live in rough conditions and face pushbacks from the authorities that are “protecting” the country’s EU borders.
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina to begin EU accession talks amid concerns over rule of law issues.
  • A 65% decrease in the number of migrants along the Balkan route in January and February 2024 has been reported compared to the same period in 2023.

Migrants are at a major risk of becoming addicted to tranquilisers as they travel along the Balkan route, a new EUobserver investigative report has revealed. According to the report, the extensive and unregulated distribution of psychotropic drugs in reception centres is not documented in official figures. However, many migrants and activists who have worked and travelled in the main cities along the route, including Athens, Belgrade, Sarajevo and Trieste, have raised the alarm about the over-prescription of such drugs which often leads to dependency. In addition to the fact that migrants often receive prescriptions in languages they do not understand and are given prescription drugs without even basic accompanying information, many people have reported being prescribed tranquilisers without even having complained about any mental health issues. “I received a medical examination without knowing what it was about. The doctor told me that Xanax was very suitable for my situation. But I did not understand why he thought I needed help. I had not reported any mental distress or asked for support,” said one migrant who stayed at a Greek camp. “The situation in the refugee camp was catastrophic. The people who did not take drugs were few,” he added. “In the camps, if someone complains of a headache or insomnia, doctors immediately respond by giving them powerful antidepressants and anxiolytics [anti-anxiety medication],” said Nawal Soufi, an independent activist who has been helping people in distress along the Balkan route for years. Another source said: “People wait for an answer for weeks or even months, brooding all day about the violence they suffered at the border. They feel ashamed of their living conditions,” she explained. “In such a context, taking medicine is a way to forget reality”.

Bulgaria and Romania are preparing to partially join the Schengen Area and, as of 31 March, any person crossing the internal air and sea borders will no longer be subject to checks. This development has been accompanied by a rise in anti-migrant and xenophobic misinformation campaigns. Euractiv has reported that politicians posted videos on social media claiming to show “migrants beating up young Bulgarians” in the capital Sofia, although police have described the incident as an altercation between two rival Bulgarian groups. “There is no migration crisis, but a crisis narrative that poses a real threat to security,” said Ildiko Otova, a migration expert and lecturer at Sofia University. Meanwhile, a joint operation to triple the number of EU border guards on the Bulgaria-Türkiye border has also been launched by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) and the national border police. The operation reportedly aims to increase “protection of one of the most sensitive and busy external borders of the EU”, which is also the scene of systematic brutality by Bulgarian authorities. Both developments have come after internal documents showed that Frontex and the European Commission (EC) have ignored Bulgaria’s dire human rights record on its border with Türkiye in favour of expanding the Schengen Area.

According to a new report by the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), various NGOs have been providing regular services to a group of people sleeping rough outside the Obrenovac Asylum Centre (AC) near Belgrade, Serbia. People living outside the camp reported violence and harassment by police and other authorities throughout February, as well as forced relocations to state-run camps in southern Serbia. Pushbacks were also carried out by the authorities. According to a man from Afghanistan who had been living outside the camp, in the evening of 14 February, 45 people were effectively trapped by the police and the commissariat security and later pushed back into Bulgaria after being told to move from to the quarantine area. “The actions of the authorities seen and reported outside the Obrenovac AC during the past month demonstrate a continued state effort to keep people on the move south of Belgrade,” underlined the report. Meanwhile, ECRE member organisation the Asylum Protection Center reported on 22 March: “69 refugees remained in the camp [Reception Center in Bujanovac] despite regular fluctuations. Due to the unavailability of public transportation, many refugees rely on taxi drivers to reach Belgrade and continue their journey. Some refugees mention finding a truck in Belgrade for transit to Germany”.

On 21 March, EU leaders gave political approval for the start of accession talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) whilst also noting that the Western Balkan country needed to make further reforms before moving forward. In an X post, President of the European Council Charles Michael noted that the decision was a “key step forward” on the EU path”. ECRE member organisation Vasa Prava X posted: “In light of the EU’s decision to open negotiations with BiH, it is crucial to focus on the rule of law. There is an urgent need to fill the Constitutional Court and improve the judicial system in order to restore public trust and effectively fight corruption”. Meanwhile, according to the BVMN report, almost 32,000 people on the move crossed BiH in 2023, the highest since the opening of the Bosnian route in 2017. Reportedly, the number of border police officers deployed to monitor the country’s borders is lower than the number deemed necessary according to the 2005 ‘Border Security Assessment’. Elsewhere, BVMN reported that in Una-Sana Canton, the number of people transiting is reportedly decreasing but violence against migrants in the area is increasing. “More and more people, often including unaccompanied asylum-seekers, report having been heavily beaten up and pushed back by the Croatian police. Many show multiple signs of this violence that also testify to the practices of the authorities, such as contusions, broken bones, or dog bites,” the organisation revealed. Separately, in a meeting with his Italian and Slovenian counterparts, Croatian Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic highlighted that more than 50 per cent of asylum seekers in Croatia were citizens of countries such as Türkiye, Russia and China which have visa-free agreements with BiH and/or Serbia. He called on BiH to tighten its visa rules to curb the flow of migrants. “Unless there is a really individual case that can be proven, [the citizens of those countries] do not meet the conditions for international protection on the territory of the EU,” he said.

Meanwhile, according to data from Frontex, in January and February, authorities reported 3050 irregular border crossings on the Western Balkan route, a decrease of 65% compared to the same period in 2023. The highest number of migrants had Syrian, Afghan or Turkish nationality. According to the agency’s preliminary calculations, the number of irregular border crossings into the EU reached 31,200 in the first two months of 2024, similar to the level in 2023.

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