The refugee crisis brought to the fore the realisation that the EU can not act alone. Arriving via Turkey, migrants first enter the EU, then cross into non-EU countries and re-enter the EU again to reach the Schengen area. Therefore, in seeking solutions, the EU defined as a high priority the cooperation with these third countries. It has recently stepped up its efforts to enhance cooperation with its neighbours involved in the crisis, especially Turkey and the Western Balkan countries. In a key debate during Parliament’s October 2015 plenary session, concerns were raised that the ongoing situation, apart from undermining the EU, might turn into a geopolitical crisis with a destabilising effect on the Western Balkans whose capacities to respond have been exceeded. The debate concluded that tighter cooperation with the Western Balkans was necessary to prevent further crisis in the region.

In 2015, the Western Balkans illegal migration route became by far the largest among the main migratory routes in Europe. According the European border agency FRONTEX, 850.000 irregular crossings on the Western Balkans route were registered over the course of 2015 compared to just 43.000 in 2014. Thanks to the agreement between the EU and Turkey in March 2016, the Balkan route was gradually closed. By May 2017, among the 40 000 illegal arrivals by sea to the EU reported, 90% went through the West Mediterranean route.

Migration systems in the Balkans:

National migration systems broadly in line with the EU

Through the enlargement process to the Western Balkans, national migration systems have been put in place in line with international norms and European standards. Albania, Russia, Ukraine, FYROM, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Moldova, Georgia, and Armenia have all signed readmission agreements with the EU. Technical assistance and financial support have been provided notably through experts coming from EU agencies to establish new legislation, institutions and build up their capacity in handling migrant flows. ICMPD has been quite involved and after Slovenia; Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia have joined the organisation. In 2016, the EU’s role consisted more precisely in enhancing its reception and asylum processing capabilities, and stepping up cooperation to fight organised crime responsible for migrant smuggling. Its support to the Western Balkan countries remains mainly in line with the traditional capacity building support approach, thus for instance with increasing financial support.

Illegal migration outmatched national capacities

As explained by Mr. Genetzke, when speaking about national migration systems, it is not only about the legal and organisational framework, but also about planning and resources needed to cope with the situation countries are dealing with. The extraordinary dimension of the crisis in 2015 and early 2016 made the difference. National systems were conceived to deal with the usual migration flows mostly focused of their nationals. Suddenly, they had to process 100 times more illegal migrants of all types (refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, human trafficking, extremists and criminals). Under this pressure the functioning of national systems was greatly undermined. The limited human and financial resources at country level was outmatched by the needs. Incidentally, it is the same in every country and a similar phenomena was also observed among the EU member states.

The migrant hurricane forced the attention of the EU on its neighbourhoods, in particular the Balkans. The council adopted in October 2015 the second implementation package of the European Agenda on Migration including a number of measures intended to alleviate the pressure on the countries along the Western Balkan migration route. The refugee crisis led to an important question: “which scope and scale can these systems handle ?”.

According to Mr. Genetzke, it is more the scale of the phenomenon that put the main constraints to the response by EU countries and the Balkans.

“The hard test to pass is when you actually have to deal with such huge crisis only by using the resources you have”.

The figures show that these systems have worked, although not to a wide extent. There are more successful cases, like Serbia and Moldova, and less successful ones.

Moldova, for example, has been considered as the “best child”. Moldova did so in the framework of the 2008 Mobility Partnership Agreement (MPA), making a link to the visa liberalisation negotiations and the good use of available cooperation instruments. MPAs were created in a very specific moment when the European Commission was pushing Member States to act on the issue of legal migration. They triggered progresses such as the way Poland dealt with seasonal migrant workers. These partnerships established cooperation structures on legal mobility between the EU and the country. They are not tailored to tackle illegal migration or the transit of third country nationals through the partner country.

Eastern partnership countries have been among the first signatories of MPAs with the EU. These partnerships, are the most complete framework for bilateral cooperation between the EU and its neighbour countries, and they are based on mutual offers of commitments and project initiatives covering mobility, migration and asylum issues within the Global Approach to Migration and Mobility (GAMM). These instruments are now extended to the Southern neighbourhood (Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan).

At the beginning of the MPA, an issue was the lack of support measures for helping implementing the commitments taken by the country. Indeed, without this support, it remains a dead document. The role of the Mobility Facility Partnership is now to fill this gap for the effective implementation of these agreements.

In Moldova, ICMPD has contributed to the consolidation of the national system in different ways. The project « Strengthening and development of the institutional capacity of the Bureau of Migration and Asylum – strengthening legal and institutional framework for better governance of migration and asylum system (SIR) » was officially launched on 1 October 2013. The project is being implemented by ICMPD with the financial support of the government of Romania. Another project has enhanced the knowledge and skills of the Moldovan Bureau of Migration and Asylum (BMA). It helped establishing the first integration programme for foreigners in the Republic of Moldova, thus strengthening the country’s migration management system. During the project, BMA staff was trained in topics related to illegal migration, legal migration, and integration.

Other projects have been put in place for improving the social security benefits for Moldovan migrant workers. These actions aimed at enhancing the capacity of the Moldovan government in negotiating, adopting, and implementing bilateral social security agreements with major destination countries of Moldovan migrant workers. It is difficult to measure the level of success, although some positive outcomes are self-evident. The Moldovan case clearly shows the huge impact of this system on the capacity building of the administration to deal with the migrant flows.

Despite limits, a constructive response by the Balkans countries

The migration challenge has had a significant impact on the Western Balkans. Good neighbourly relations in this region are fragile and latent tensions from past conflicts are easily re-ignited. The pressure from large illegal migrants transit flows has exacerbated xenophobia, ethnic tensions and nationalist opinions. This impact, however, has not been limited to non-EU countries. EU Member States have also been overwhelmed and tensions have built up across Europe, leading governments to resort to individual ‘ad hoc policies’. Despite the fact that travel within the Schengen area should be unrestricted, some states have reintroduced internal EU borders and tightened controls even further in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris. Overall, the EU’s reaction has been qualified as ‘ad hoc’, with a strong focus on security. Divided national interests are hindering a common EU approach.

The EU commitment with Turkey: a positive outcome

The EU-Turkey deal came into force in March 2016. The deal aimed at returning the migrants to Turkey if their asylum claim was rejected, thus forcing Turkey to hold back a very large proportion of migrants on its shores. It establishes a “one-for-one” principle, where the EU takes one Syrian migrant for every other Syrian returned to Turkey. All the others migrants will be returned to Turkey. In return, Turkey got a promise that its EU bid would receive more attention, that Turks will eventually be able to access the Schengen zone visa-free, and received a €3bn allocation from the EU to tackle the migrant crisis.

Following the deal, the flow of illegal immigrants to Greece has been dramatically reduced, although  there are only few returns of migrants from Greece to Turkey as envisaged by the agreement. This result is quite an achievement since in 2015 smuggling refugees and other illegal migrants was probably the most lucrative Turkish industry. By late 2015, Syrians represented less than 40% of the total number of people registered entering Greece from Turkey. The ‘3 plus 3 billion euros’ package agreement also stopped the fast-growing migration industry in the country.

As experienced by ICMPD, there is a serious commitment by the Turkish side to implement the agreement. From working with the Turkish authorities and especially with the central authority dealing with migrants (DGMM), the Turkish side has taken the measures required to stop the Aegean route and has directed the EU funds to partners (public administrations, NGOs) for activities to the benefit of migrants as foreseen  in the agreement.

The long term viability of the EU-Turkey agreement also depends on the efficiency of the returning process from Greece and the EU commitment on receiving asylum seekers. As foreseen in the agreement: “for every Syrian being returned to Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU taking into account the UN Vulnerability Criteria”.

The burden of over 3 million refugees could be unmanageable. The focus on the migration control has to be seen alongside domestic priorities. The EU has a key role to play to ensure that the refugee population is well taken care of to promote economic and social stability in a democratic context. At the same time, the EU has to deliver on its commitment to grant Turks citizens a visa free access to its territory. A failure on that topic could be a deal-breaker.

Our discussion with Ralph Genetzke on the situation in the Balkan and in Turkey reminds us that migration is currently not only a single part of foreign policy, but that it can be one of its most crucial elements. Connecting the dots, a positive message seems to come from the Western Balkans and Turkey. The recent refugee crisis lead these countries to be overwhelmed because it went far beyond their capabilities and resources. And it was to a large extent the case in some EU countries as well, like in Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, and Bulgaria. It is the magnitude of this problem that made the national migration systems overwhelmed. On the contrary, national migration systems in the Balkan and Turkey were, and still are, successful in managing the mobility of their own nationals. Third country nationals were not always in the minds of the negotiators when the systems were designed, and no one in the EU or in the partner countries could predict such a combined flow of third countries refugees fleeing war and persecution, or hoping to get out of poverty by moving to another country. Despite many efforts, vulnerable groups can not receive the special care they need because of these countries simply lack the resources and the knowledge to provide them such a treatment.

This alleged powerlessness to tackle this crisis with the national systems lead to social tensions in these countries as well as in many member States, Genetzke points out. This crisis changed the way the local population perceives and tolerates migrants. To prevent tensions and xenophobia, the local communities in the Western Balkan countries should be encouraged to address the essential need for  migrants and refugees in the region, and receive financial resources adequate to the good management of migration flows. It is only when their national migration systems will be adequately strengthened and equipped to cope with such a situation that these negative feelings towards migrants will fade out. This is an international crisis, and these partners countries need a strong European action to help meet the stakes. EU countries should not try to shift the responsibility on third countries and their national migration systems.

Zana Çanaku

Rémi Petitcol

Alice Poidevin

Sabrina Terentjew

With the assistance of P. Borgoltz