At the beginning of April, the Greek police near the northern city of Thessaloniki used tear gas to prevent refugees from heading towards the border with North Macedonia. The refugees were heading towards central and western Europe, driven by a series of false reports on social media that border crossings to North Macedonia and Albania had been opened. Around 2,000 people believed the rumor and headed to northern Greece. After three days, the last of them gave up and returned to the refugee shelters.
Many of the estimated 70,000 refugees in Greece and the Western Balkans want to travel further north, but many obstacles stand in their way. North Macedonia and Hungary erected barbed wire on their southern borders years ago. Meanwhile, Bulgaria is known for its harsh treatment of refugees. Human rights organizations and the European Commission have accused the country of violating European Union asylum laws.
Undeterred, the refugees established an alternative route through the Balkans.
The starting point of this route remains Greece. According to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM), around 60,000 refugees live in residences or refugee camps in Greece. Humanitarian organizations have criticized conditions in shelters on Greek islands near the Turkish coast, saying there is not enough space and refugees do not have access to clean toilets or drinking water.
Far fewer refugees have reached Greece via the eastern Mediterranean since the 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey on better surveillance of the maritime border. According to the European Border Protection Organization, Frontex, 34,000 refugees nevertheless arrived in Greece last year, while 5,600 have already entered the country this year according to the IOM. As temperatures rise, more people are at risk of making the dangerous crossing: 174 people died in 2018 and at least a dozen have already died this year. This month, three bodies were washed up on the island of Rhodes.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Refugees can no longer cross the borders from Greece to North Macedonia or from Serbia to Hungary without an entry permit. So people took an alternative route to Croatia via Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to an IOM report, there are around 10,000 migrants in the Western Balkans, of whom almost 4,000 in Bosnia and Herzegovina — it is clear that the refugee route has changed towards the north.
The Bosnian government expects a further increase in the number of refugees crossing the country towards the EU. The “migratory problem” has worsened, Bosnian Security Minister Dragan Mektic told the AFP news agency. Last year, the EU provided Bosnia and Herzegovina with around 9 million euros ($10.16 million) to house refugees.
A long, partly mountainous land border separates Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. Amnesty International has criticized the way Croatian border police treat refugees, saying they are being returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina without access to an asylum procedure. “Many described how they were beaten and intimidated, how their travel documents and cell phones were stolen or destroyed,” the group said in a report published in March. Croatia has always rejected previous similar allegations.
Albania, one of the poorest countries in Europe, lies on the route from Greece to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Every year, around 20,000 Albanians apply for asylum in the EU. Since people have been taking the alternative Balkan route, Albanian police have arrested many more undocumented migrants: about 3,400 in 2018, compared to about 750 in 2017, according to the IOM.
Media reports of a reception camp in Albania for refugees rescued in the Mediterranean have not been confirmed. Instead, Albania ratified an agreement with Frontex intended to help stop migrants without entry permits at the Albanian-Greek border. Montenegro has a similar agreement with Frontex.
North Macedonia and Bulgaria
North Macedonia’s refugee shelters have remained mostly silent since the country closed its border with Greece to migrants, DW’s Macedonian service reported. According to the IOM report, 35 migrants are currently housed there.
Bulgaria is strengthening border protection due to clashes between refugees and police in Greece, the Bulgarian Interior Minister said. The country tough stance towards refugees had a deterrent effect: in 2015 and 2016, around 20,000 people applied for asylum in Bulgaria. By 2018, that number had fallen to 2,500, according to the national refugee agency.