The Balkan Route for refugees has reopened.
Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, who recommended the following article for translation, sends this prefatory note:
Thanks to Saint Greta and her apostles — the resurgent Greens party — this is a non-story in the Austrian media. Everyone is focused on climate change and its associated disasters, or lack thereof.
Does the youngest ex-chancellor care? Not much. He just wants to be re-elected in September, whether on a climate platform or anything else.
Many thanks to JLH for translating this piece from the Austrian media project Addendum.org:
The Balkans Are Becoming Porous Again
by Georg Gassauer and Benedikt Morak
New figures show that there was a 76% increase in new arrivals in the pivotal land of Bosnia in 2019. More and more people are beginning what is known to immigrants, politicians and authorities as the “game” — the gamble of (illegal) travel along this passage to the EU. We investigated on the spot.
Something is happening again in the Balkans. That is shown by the numbers from inside the Immigration Taskforce of the Austrian Interior Ministry.
By the end of May/beginning of June of 2019, there were an estimated 80,000 persons somewhere along the chaotic Balkan route, between the Bosporus and Spielfeld. At several stations along the way, authorities register clear increases in comparison to the previous year at the same time: up 155% between Greece and North Macedonia; up 76% in the pivotal country of Bosnia; up 31% in Croatia.
More Attacks on the Balkan Route
After Italy was able to reduce passage over the Mediterranean to zero, the passage through the Balkans, called by immigrants, politicians, authorities and the residents of the region the Game, became attractive again. The route ex-chancellor Kurz had once declared closed became porous again. Needed for the game — the word is a play on computer games where it is necessary to pass different levels in order to reach a goal or break a record — are time, luck and a smartphone. Between the Aegean and the Alps, participating immigrants pass through level after level. The goal is Austria, Germany or Sweden. Many make it through; some are stranded along the way; several are killed. Our reporters Georg Gassauer and Benedikt Morak investigated at the most important stations. Encountering participants, major players and minor players, they traveled especially in Bosnia, the pivotal point on the route.
Level 1: Greece
Among those who play the game is Amir (name changed) from Afghanistan. He traveled on a forged Austrian pass from Turkey to Greece, intended to fly from there to Germany, but at the airport had to return to Start. German customs, which checked air passengers from Greece, were alerted. So Amir stayed there: the alternative was the land route.
Why the strictness? March 20, 2016 marked a kind of new beginning of European immigration policy. Because of the pressure from the Austrian government at the time, the borders of four countries on the western Balkan route (Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, North Macedonia) were closed simultaneously. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s diplomacy was being implemented, and the era of close cooperation between EU countries and Turkey began. The official position was that a refugee and immigration crisis like 2015 shouldn’t happen again. And in fact, the number of arrivals from that time was not equaled.
Nevertheless, despite all measures taken, 116,537 arrivals from Turkey to Greece were counted between April 1, 2016 and May 31, 2019. Amir from Afghanistan was one of them. And now, in the summer of 2019, the pressure on the border “is getting stronger and stronger.” So says Gerald Tatzgern, of the section for organized immigration crime in the federal police. He warns that migrants stopped for now on the Balkan route “are slowly losing their patience and want to continue.”
Some of the transiting immigrants starting the Game at the border to Greece — so-called Level 1 — arrive at the Aegean islands in boats. Most common destination: Lesbos. About 100 persons per day. Since the EU-Turkey deal, going on to northern Europe is hardly possible. Only a very few make it to mainland Greece. Registered asylum seekers are under a movement restriction.
The situation in Evros is different. Since 2016, the region has become a hub of irregular journeys to Europe. Authorities have recorded a quadrupling of arrivals from Turkey. While it was 3,784 then, it was 17,473 at the end of 2018.
That also has something to do with the legal parameters. Irregular entry to Greece from Turkey since 2002 has been regulated by a bilateral agreement, and is not part of the EU-Turkey Pact of 2016. It also means that there is neither a reduction of freedom of movement for asylum seekers nor swift asylum procedures which can lead to being deported to a secure third country.
In this far-flung corner of Greece is the Fylakos reception center. In the context of the most recent increases, its capacity of a mere 300 places does not allow for a very long stay. To ease the burden on the facility, immigrants — several days after registering — are sent in long-distance public buses to Thessalonika, for redistribution to their accommodations by the police, who however, are not seriously interested in the arrivals, thus enabling a further journey for the immigrants. The authorities often showed up hours after the arrival at the bus station of immigrant-filled buses. By then, the travelers had been underway for a long time—northwards, toward Central Europe.
Level 2: The Road to Bosnia
Most of those who make their way from Greece on the way to central Europe try their luck in the Game through way station Bosnia. Two routes go that way—one through Albania and Montenegro, the other through Serbia. Amir decided on Serbia, where he had a comparatively long stopover in an overcrowded accommodation for Gamers in Belgrade.
That the paths are becoming appreciably more porous has also been noticed by the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), whose spokesperson, Neven Crvenkovic, gave us figures.
But what do the ways to Bosnia look like?
The Western Route, Through the Albanian Mountains
During the refugee crisis of 2015, the way through Albania was unpopular: landscape too difficult, checkpoints too rigorous, smugglers too expensive. Besides, it was just easier to get through on the alternative route. Albania has become more popular since 2018, both with immigrants and with people traffickers. With increased stringency in border controls along the other routes, immigrants’ risk tolerance rose. The travelers from North Africa especially decided for this Level in the Game.
The increase in the number of illegal border crossings is clear, documented by Albanian authorities. It was 2,800 between January and March of 2019, which is a 22% increase over the preceding year. As early as May 2018, the EU Commission pointed out that a new axis is developing. Albania is the third state since May 2019 with which Frontex the border agency has agreed on a common border operation.
The Eastern Route: The “Easy Way”
Then-Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz wanted to completely close off the Balkan route. That happened at various places in March of 2016. In a short time, the borders between Croatia and Serbia, as well as Serbia and North Macedonia, were, in effect, closed. Several thousand immigrants were stranded along the west Balkan route. Asylum was sought in isolated cases. But most tried their luck further along at the Hungarian border, or just waited. The waiting was rewarded. This route did not remain closed for long , and today is considered the main route north. No one knows exactly how many people are underway here. For example, the UNHCR reports that 10,239 transiting immigrants were arrested in North Macedonia between January and May 2019. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), on the other hand, notes 1,586. The Austrian Interior Ministry says 7,060. But everyone agrees on one point: The number of refugees is rising. All trends are up. The numbers in the next transit land, Serbia, continue the trend.
With all the attendant phenomena, as a volunteer worker, a doctor, related. Criminal networks have long since reacted to the publicly announced closing of the Balkan route in 2016. While it was once classic organized crime that provided the smuggling service, the picture today is different. Small, informal networks of so-called “facilitators” are at work organizing passthroughs for immigrants. Facilitators mostly offer their services online, on Facebook or WhatsApp, and exclusively for their own ethnic groups.
Level 3: Sarajevo
After the border closings in 2016, smugglers had to find new routes and establish networks. The people traffickers discovered the solution in 2018: Bosnia. Because of the weakness of its state institutions, its long, green border with Serbia and its sparsely equipped border patrol, the country was comparatively easy to cross. So, at the beginning of 2018, Sarajevo became the new hub for immigrants to northern and central Europe. And presumably the most important Level in the Game of fateful immigrant travel into the EU.
Amir from Afghanistan, whom we accompanied, also went by way of Sarajevo. While still sojourning in Belgrade, he found reports in a Facebook group about a “Bosnian gap.” A gap he used. But what made the country so porous?
It is the comparatively good public transportation connections, available to anyone, which take the immigrants, mostly by train, from Sarajevo toward the Croatian border.
It is different with the political structures in the country. The migration crisis in Bosnia is also a crisis of the citizens’ trust in the Bosnian state. Bosnia-Herzegovina is not a final goal for refugees and immigrants. Although 30,000 of them have crossed this region since the beginning of 2018, only 6,000 to 8,000 are in the country at one time. However, the €21.7 million which the EU has made available in the past 12 months for care of the immigrants is not enough. This is because the numerous Bosnian governing authorities established by the Dayton Accord of 1995 frequently work against, rather than with, one another. That, at any rate, is what the Austrian Valentin Inzko, High Representative of the UN for Bosnia-Herzegovina, says.
Meanwhile, the attitude in the central Level of the Game is changing. At first, the population was willing to help and was in solidarity with the travelers and refugees. Not so long ago, the Bosnians themselves had been seeking refuge in Europe, including Austria. They formed small groups and offered sustenance and accommodations. As the news of a Bosnian “refugee crisis” spread, the first international volunteer organizations were established. But the Welcoming Culture did not last long.
The Attitude Changes
Today the relationship between aid organizations, authorities, resident population, immigrants and international organizations is extremely tense. More and more, the recognition has prevailed that many of those passing through are not fleeing war, but bad economic conditions. That also soured the outlook of natives toward the mostly foreign EU volunteers whose idealistic activism did not distinguish between literal refugees and economic immigrants who wanted pass through the country as quickly as possible.
The Role of Serbia and the Republic of Srpska
Level 4: Otoka
The small village of Otoka completes a LEVEL in the GAME that is symptomatic of the chaotic conditions that prevail in dealing with refugees and immigrants. At 11:00 P.M. daily an express train from the capital Sarajevo comes by, bringing travelers to the Croatian border, to the city of Bihac.
Because the camp is crowded, the Bosnian authorities in Otoka try to gain some time by inspecting the train and briefly taking into custody everyone who does not have legitimate residence papers.
But that does not end the immigrants’ trip. As soon as the international NGOs leave, the police put the travelers in jitneys and bring them by night into the hinterlands, where they are set free on unused fields. Amir from Afghanistan passed this Level. Like the others, he then made his way in the dark to the Croatian border. We met him afterward at the Start of the next Level: Bihac.
Level 5: Bihac
The nighttime march from Otoka and through the countryside brings the next Level. Also for Amir. He and the baggage caravan of immigrants, in the near vicinity of the Croatian border, are viewed quite critically by the population. UN Representative Valentin Inzko describes the situation:
We have arrived. The situation is tense. In the Canton, Una Sana, where Bihac is located, 6,300 immigrants are sojourning. The second focus point after Bihac is Velika Kladuša. Between them the two towns can accommodate 3,200 persons. The result is that many of the young Pakistanis, Afghans or Algerians who cannot get a place either occupy empty houses that belong to guest workers in Austria or Germany, or sleep in the open outside of the residence camps.
Turf wars and fights become an everyday occurrence.
Level 6: Green Border
The next Level in the Game: The Green Border to Croatia. For immigrants like Amir, sussing out the loopholes has become a game played against the authorities. Crossing into Croatia is important, because it is only meters from there to a Schengen country, Slovenia. UN Representative Inzko notes the porosity of the border.
But the way is dangerous. The immigrants are moving in the forbidding terrain of the Plješevica Mountains. Smartphones and Google Maps as well as information from Facebook WhatsApp groups help in orienteering. One problem these tools cannot resolve: the estimated 80,000 land mines remaining from the Bosnian war. The border region to Croatia is particularly dangerous.
It is an open secret among the immigrants that border police are bribed to allow crossing. But who is bribable, and who is not, is known mostly only to the traffickers. For this knowledge — the ticket to the next Game Level to Croatia — costs between €1,000 and €1,500.
Amir has made the trip several times, before being stopped at Slovenia.
Level 7: Görz
While there was discussion of Italy’s attempts to stem the tide of dangerous refugee crossings of the Mediterranean, the two border cities to Slovenia — Trieste and Görz [Gorizia] — became new hubs for refugees and immigrants. From here, paths divide to the actual goals: France, Germany, Sweden and Austria.
One of the more difficult steps in the Game is directly after the border, in Slovenia. If the authorities catch illegals, they are generally deported directly to Bihac in Bosnia. “Travelers” told us that the authorities confiscated their cell phones to make their further participation in the Game more difficult. That is exactly what happened to Amir: deportation to Bihac. After we separated from him, during June, he finally made entry into his targeted country in Central Europe. From his point of view, he succeeded, after multiple attempts, in winning the Game—the trip by way of the ever more porous Balkans.
The game with the authorities, however, now begins in earnest.