Austria: Balkan Route should remain closed to migrants

Austrian interior minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner says the Balkan immigration route should remain closed, after Slovenia, Macedonia, Serbia, and Croatia closed borders this week to all migrants except those planning to seek asylum within their borders.

Mikl-Leitner told the German daily Die Welt Thursday that the Balkan route through those countries should stay closed permanently – saying “the clock will not be turned back.”

Meanwhile Turkish news agencies say five migrants, including a three-month-old infant, have drowned off Turkey’s western coast after a boat taking them to Greece sank on the way to the island of Lesbos.

Nine people were reported rescued from the boat, which was carrying Afghan and Iranian migrants. Two migrants are still missing.

Thousands of migrants from Syria and other countries are now stranded in Greece, blocked from their goal of reaching northern Europe after Macedonia closed its border Wednesday.

Macedonian police closed the border one day after Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia declared their borders are closed to almost all transiting migrants, with exceptions being made only for asylum-seekers.

These actions effectively close the so-called “Balkan route” many migrants have taken to reach wealthier nations in western Europe. Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar said, “The [Balkan] route for illegal migrations no longer exists.”

The border closures follow a European Union decision at a meeting in Brussels Monday that EU members must return to enforcement of the alliance’s Schengen agreement, which nominally guarantees open borders across Europe but also says nations can refuse entry to any migrants who are in transit and not seeking immediate asylum.

Despite the Balkan states’ border enforcement, the European Union and its neighbors face increasing pressure to handle the large number of migrants who already have reached EU states beyond the Balkans, and in Turkey, where 2.7 million migrants are waiting to continue their journey.

‘Dire’ border conditions

Meanwhile, the situation near the Greek-Macedonian border is described as dire. Authorities say nearly 36,000 migrants and refugees are stranded in Greece, including more than 14,000 refugees – mainly Syrian and Iraqi nationals – stuck in a muddy, unhygienic camp near the Idomeni border crossing into Macedonia.

Others are stranded in Macedonia near the Serbian border, and in a “no-man’s-land” between the two countries’ frontiers.

In Slovenia, 478,000 migrants are believed to have entered the country on their journey westward, but only 460 have applied for asylum in the country, according to Reuters news agency.

Croatia, an EU member but not part of the passport-free Schengen zone, says it will only allow entry to people with valid documents and visas.  And Serbia, which is not an EU member, has said it will is following Slovenia’s lead.

EU-Turkey agreement

EU leaders and Turkish government officials in Ankara said Tuesday they had reached a possible deal that would return thousands of migrants who arrived in Greece from Turkey.

After months of disagreements and increased bickering among the 28 EU nations, the leaders said they agreed to give Turkey more than $3 billion to help with the costs of hosting nearly 3 million Syrian refugees. The EU leaders also agreed to swiftly ease visa requirements for Turks and speed up Ankara’s EU accession talks in exchange for its help in stemming migration flows to Europe.

The deal calls for the EU to resettle one Syrian refugee from Turkey in return for every Syrian refugee Turkey takes back from Greece.

However, UNHCR refugee coordinator for Europe Vincent Cochetel, who said he did not know the details of the proposed deal, told VOA he worries it may lack safeguards to protect asylum-seekers.

“Collective expulsion of foreigners is prohibited under the European Convention of Human Rights,” Cochetel said. “An agreement that would be tantamount to a blanket return of any foreigners to a third country is not consistent with European law, is not consistent with international law.”

March 17 summit

All eyes are now on March 17 and the start of a two-day summit to finalize the commitment and agree on a deal that the leaders hope will allow for a return to normalcy along their borders by the end of the year.

Europe is struggling to handle its largest refugee crisis since World War Two. Last year, more than 1 million refugees and migrants made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to Europe, and roughly 142,000 have arrived so far this year, most of them arriving in Greece.


(Main photo: Children at Idomeni refugee camp on the Greece-Macedonia border: Jamie Dettmer/VOA)