The so-called Balkan Route was officially closed exactly a year ago. Up until March 9th, 2016, thousands of refugees moved from country to country on a daily basis, trying to reach Austria, Germany and other countries in the north-western part of the continent. They came from Greece or Turkey, and moved through Macedonia and Serbia to Croatia and Slovenia. From there, it was easy to get to Austria and Germany, at least back then.
Hungary had been part of the route as well, until the country started building huge border fences in the fall of 2015. The Budapest government under Victor Orban kept on setting up new rules and pushing laws through their parliament. First they let the Hungarian Army monitor the borders. Then they refused to adhere to E.U. rules regarding the acceptance of refugees. On Tuesday, the Hungarians decided to detain all refugees in container camps, located close to their southern border to Serbia.
Bulgaria was never part of the official Balkan route. Information about the unacceptable treatment of refugees in Bulgaria quickly spread among them. It included being hunted by racist vigilantes in the Strandzha mountains. According to NGOs, many refugees in Bulgaria were robbed and beaten by border police officers. Asylum seekers were trying to bypass Bulgaria for those reasons, but when the Balkan Route was closed, the country became part of an alternative route, which refugees tried.
Today, border fences are making movement difficult. The southern borders of both Hungary and Slovenia are completely fenced off by now. The same applies to the Turkish-Bulgarian border, part of the Bulgarian-Greek border, the Greek-Macedonian one and part of the Serbian-Bulgarian border.
Illegal border crossings still happen all the time in all of south-eastern Europe. But they are being countered. According to NGOs, illegal push-backs happen on a regular basis. The organization bordermonitoring.eu, says, refugees still arrive in Serbia every day. With the help of human traffickers, many still manage to cross borders. In some countries, including Hungary, arriving refugees were often beaten up. The latter violence is supposed to deter more asylum seekers from choosing the same path.
But, when the borders were closed a year ago, many refugees got stuck in the countries they were in at that moment. According to bordermonitoring.eu, some 7,800 refugees are present in Serbia right now. Around 1,000 of them had to survive the tough winter in an unheated warehouse located close to Belgrade’s central station. A total of 60,000 refugees, a huge number, are stuck in Greece, waiting for their chance to move towards western Europe.
Due to the situation, human traffickers are still in business. They demand huge amounts of money for illegal transfers per person and border. In some areas, they cooperate with corrupt border police officers.
At the same time, the so-called E.U.-Turkey Deal is shaky. Yet another argument has erupted between the Erdogan regime and the government in Berlin. This time it is connected to election campaign events of Turkish politicians, including Erdogan himself, in Germany, where millions of Turkish voters live. Whether Erdogan is actually considering to open his northern border for refugees, is still unclear. The latest argument with Berlin could have that kind of effect, at least in theory.
The E.U. border agency Frontex has counted 180,000 border crossings, between countries which were part of the former Balkan Route, in 2016. In January of 2017, 4,400 crossed the Mediterranean, in spite of the harsh weather during that month, Frontex said.
In Bulgaria, where 5,000 to 7,000 refugees are present at this stage (estimate on the basis of the latest official numbers), one of the problems is blunt racism. Ultra-nationalist parties and groups keep on stirring up hatred towards asylum seekers. But also many Bulgarians, who are not part of those extremist circles, want all refugees out of the country. A few days ago, priests in the town of Belene, who were helping and housing refugees, were pressured to end those activities, by a municipal councillor.
At this stage, it is unclear what might happen this year. One thing is pretty certain: Now that the weather is improving, more refugees will arrive in Europe. Again.
By Imanuel Marcus
Photo: A Syrian father with his daughter in eastern Croatia, Sept. 2015, taken by Imanuel Marcus.