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09 Mar 16

Balkan States Close Borders in Domino Effect

As Slovenia effectively closed its border to migrants on Tuesday night, its southern neighbours, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia, rushed to follow suit, furthering the risk of a refugee pile-up in Greece.

Belgrade, Zagreb, Skopje
As Slovenia effectively closed its border to migrants on Tuesday night. Photo: UNHCR

"Balkan refugee route is no more," Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar said on television late Tuesday, after his government wired Balkan capitals that it was closing the border to "irregular migrants".

The Slovene move followed the conclusion of a landmark deal between the EU and Turkey in Brussels aimed at ending the flow of Middle Eastern migrants to Western Europe through the Balkans, which will see failed asylum seekers returned en masse to Turkey. The European Council is expected to approve the deal next week.

Cerar explained that the path used by most Middle Eastern migrants was being closed not only because of risk it poses to the EU's passport-free Schengen system but for the sake of refugees themselves, who will be closer to home once they are returned to Turkey.

Slovenia said it would remove its fence on the border with fellow EU member state Croatia once the right conditions are in place, meaning that no migrants enter Croatia unchecked.

In a sign of the "domino" effect of Slovenia's decision, Croatian Interior Minister Vlaho Orepic on Tuesday said that since Slovenia had now introduced stricter controls on its own border, only people with valid passports and visas will be allowed into Croatia.

Croatia "won't take any extraordinary measures on the border" but the authorities are ready to react, he said.

Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki on Tuesday meanwhile said that Macedonia would also stop allowing new entries on its own border with Greece.

He said this rule would remain effective for at least as long as some 1,500 migrants remain stranded in Macedonia on the border with Serbia.

Poposki accused Greece of deliberately piling up more than 13,000 refugees on the border with Macedonia in order to apply pressure on the country to let them in.

"Putting people in tents near the Macedonian border as a way of applying pressure to re-establish the illegal flow is definitely not an answer and also not in Greece's interest," Poposki told Sitel TV.

The coordinated moves of the Western Balkan states in the aftermath of the Brussels summit mean more refugees face the prospect of an indefinite wait in Greece.

At the main Greek refugee camp at Idomeni, some 13,000 people are stranded in tough weather conditions. On top of that, Greece expects about 100,000 more people to reach the Greek islands by the end of March.

More than a million people have crossed the Aegean Sea to reach Greek territory and move on to the EU over the last year.

The closure of borders elsewhere has implications also for Bulgaria,which is preparing for an increased flow of migrants through the country as a result of the closure of the Balkan route, Bulgarian Interior minister Rumyana Bachvarova told National Television on Wednesday.
The whole region is facing a new situation, after “Serbia closed the borders”, she said.

She noted, however, that Bulgaria is already taking “correct and strict measures” to prevent illegal and organized entries into the country.

Meanwhile the Austrian newspaper Die Presse reported a fresh surge of refugees crossing into Bulgaria and Hungary on their way to Western Europe.

Human rights watchdogs have condemned the new rules adopted the Balkan states, saying they violate core EU principles.

"The European Union outline deal with Turkey announced on March 8, 2016 contradicts EU principles guaranteeing the right to seek asylum and against collective expulsions," the international rights organisation Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch also said Turkey cannot be regarded as a safe country of asylum for refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other non-European countries.

In the Balkan states themselves, human rights NGOs have also criticised the new rules, claiming they violate the rights of refugees and will revive people-smuggling.

"By closing the borders, the possibility of continuing one's life is closed and put into the hands of smugglers," the press release of the Croatia-based NGO Welcome Initiative reads.

Emina Buzinkic from the Initiative told BIRN that "not a single train with refugees entered Croatia in the last four days".

She added that around 400 refugees remain in a camp in Slavonski Brod in eastern Croatia, who were denied entrance into Austria and Slovenia. They will reportedly all be returned to Serbia. Some 400 people are also in the Serbian town of Sid, close to the Croatian border, waiting to cross over.

Croatian police told BIRN on Wednesday that currently there are 320 migrants in the refugee centre in Slavonski Brod, who will be deported back to Serbia. The police said that there are no migrants on the Croatia-Serbia border.

According to UN refugee agency some 2000 people are at the moment in Serbia, most of them in south Serbian town of Presevo, close to the border with Macedonia.

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