While all eyes are on the crisis in the Mediterranean and the thousands of Syrian and African refugees, the EU also experiences an increased influx of migrants from the Western Balkans. Coming on top of the large number of refugees from global crises zones, asylum applications from Balkan nationals have become a major political issue. EU Member States work on a simple answer to this challenge: They aim to declare these states ‘safe countries of origin’ (SCO), allowing for quicker returns and thereby reducing ostensible incentives for migration. As a main destination not only for Syrians but also for Western Balkan nationals, Germany is a driving force in the process. However, this approach is not only questionable because democratic transformation in the Balkans is suffering setbacks, but also because it simply doesn’t deliver results. It’s another example for political action in the field of migration aiming to demonstrate ability to act rather than to provide a solution to the problem.
Back in the nineties
Nationals from the six Western Balkan countries (WBC) – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia – have little chance to be granted asylum in EU Member States. EU-wide recognition rates are very low ranging between 0.9 per cent for Macedonia and 7.8 per cent for Albania. Nevertheless the number of asylum applications filed by Balkan nationals has continuously risen since visa free travel was introduced in 2009 and 2010. Applications from the six countries make up the largest share of the overall number of applications in the EU (and in Schengen-associated countries). Only in 2014 they were topped by Syrians that accounted for 19 per cent of the asylum requests as compared to 17 per cent from the Balkan countries.
More than 80 per cent of these applications are filed in Germany, which has traditionally been a main destination for migrants from that region. In the first half of 2015 requests from Balkan nationals made up some 40 per cent. Many of these asylum seekers already stayed in Germany in the 1990s as refugees during the wars on the Balkans, some of them were even born here. They can rely on well-established diaspora networks. And, of course, Germany’s current appeal and positive image also has to do with its flourishing economy and political clout in Europe.
The Germans’ image of the Balkan migrants, however, is less positive. A majority thinks they abuse the German asylum system, wasting resources that ought to be invested in ‘proper’ refugees from the global crises zones. Germany, which receives one third of all asylum requests in the EU, is expecting an all-time high of 450.000 applications this year. Public authorities are struggling to accommodate the influx; resentment is growing steadily and violent assaults against refugees, hostels for asylum seekers, local helpers and supportive politicians have become daily news. This recalls a dark period of modern German history when massive violence against refugees and migrants erupted in an unprecedented fashion in the 1990s. Back then the number of asylum seekers had risen to levels similar to those of today. Just as in those days, migration from the Western Balkans is a focal point in the political debate and in social conflicts over immigration.
The SCO approach doesn’t work
AS mentioned before the simple answer of European and German politics to the migration challenge is to declare the WBC ‘safe countries of origin’. Based on the presumption that citizens of these states are safe from persecution, applications can ─ as a rule ─ be declared unfounded and dealt with faster, allowing for quick returns. According to the European Asylum Support Office more than half of EU Member States already apply the SCO approach and one third has declared one or more WBC as safe. Germany, for example, has added Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Macedonia to its list of safe countries of origin in November 2014. A similar move is now being discussed for Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania. At the European level governments want to coordinate national practices so that in future more countries would be considered safe by all member states. In the longer run full coherence could be achieved by a common EU list of SCO.
In the face of the current climax in asylum applications the SCO-approach increasingly finds support across the political spectrum. Earlier criticism that the accelerated procedures make it extremely hard for applicants to make their case for persecution has evaporated. This is already highly regrettable as there are enough examples that give reason to question the general absence of persecution in the Balkans. But what makes the lack of serious criticism just plain tragic is that the SCO-approach is little more than window dressing. There is good reason to doubt that these measures will have significant impact.
In fact, it is simple logic. Recognition rates for most WBC have already been low in recent years and thousands of Western Balkan nationals were returned in the past decade. They know they’re not welcome. Yet the number of those setting sail for the EU has risen. Many even try it several times. In fact, the two trends run in opposite directions: while recognition rates have been decreasing, asylum applications have gone up. It shows how weak the link is between the likelihood of claiming asylum and the chance of being accepted. Also, a number of EU states have already applied the SCO approach and other kinds of accelerated procedures for a while. None of it led to a substantial decrease in overall numbers. Germany offers a recent example. The statistics for the first half of 2015 show that the number of first time applicants from Serbia and Macedonia has been rising by more than 60 per cent compared to the first half of 2014 despite those countries being declared safe in the meantime. Sure, the measure may need more time to unfold full impact, but it will certainly not put a secure brake on migration from the Balkans.
Democracy in retreat
A more appropriate and sustainable answer to migration from the Western Balkans has to address its roots and admit that the EU’s efforts to foster economic and political transition in the region have failed. The EU has to head for a fresh start in promoting democratic state-building and transforming the fragmented societies. People flee this region because the states are increasingly dysfunctional and the economies are run down. State institutions are captured by corruption and organised crime, unemployment and poverty have culminated in many regions, nationalism is thriving, and political tensions are increasing rather than decreasing. For years the EU has played nice with the ruling elites for the sake of stability in the region and has actually achieved the opposite. Macedonia’s massive political crisis is only the most recent symptom of the region’s fragility. Migration motivated by poverty, unemployment, political instability and a general lack of perspectives in the EU’s backyard will not be halted by increased border controls, faster asylum procedures or quicker returns. What is urgently needed instead is increased and concerted European diplomatic efforts and economic investments in the Western Balkans where democracy is in retreat.
Chart Asylum claims by the six Western Balkan States:
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