New and unprecedented high numbers were reported across several indicators used to measure regional irregular migration risks during 2014. For example, there were more than 66 000 detections of illegal border-crossing at regional and common green borders, a number 65% higher compared to 2013.
Over two-thirds of all these detections occurred at one border section only: the Hungarian-Serbian, mostly in the period between July and December 2014. At one point during December 2014, this border section accounted for over half of all illegal border-crossings at the external borders of the EU (a 55% share).
As a region surrounded by EU Member States, the Western Balkans continued to be largely a transit area for irregular migratory flows between different EU Member States and Schengen Associated Countries.
Compared to 2013, detections of transiting non-European irregular migrants increased by 35%, while significant differences also emerged in terms of countries of origin. Namely, the region saw a sharp decline in the number of migrants from North and West Africa (-90% and -71%, respectively) and also from Pakistan (-89%). At the same time sharp increases were registered with regard to citizens of Syria and Afghanistan (+363% and +168%, respectively).
The Western Balkans also increased its importance as a source region during 2014 with over 36 000 reported detections of illegal border-crossing by local inhabitants. It has to be stressed that although the number roughly doubled compared to 2013 it still remained below the levels observed prior to visa liberalisation in 2009.
Two groups of migrants stood out in this respect: nationals of Kosovo* and Albania, whose numbers increased across all indicators used to measure irregular migration developments. As was the case in previous years, Albanian migrants were mainly detected in the south of the region as part of the circular migration to Greece and, to a lesser extent, at other regional border sections while nationals of Kosovo* were by and large detected at the Hungarian-Serbian border.
The most notable group contributing to the status of the Western Balkans as source region were the persons coming from the territory of Kosovo.* Their numbers registered the most prominent increase over the entire range of nationalities detected for illegal border-crossing, especially during the second half of 2014. In fact, in 2014 there were almost four times as many illegal border-crossings by Kosovo* citizens (+268%) and over twice as many Kosovo* asylum seekers (33 400, or 134% more) as in 2013.
This development was largely driven by regional factors such as changes in asylum policy of Hungary and also by rumours of a prosperous life awaiting every migrant entering the EU, which were circulating amongst the Kosovo* population. As such, the influx from Kosovo* began to increase after Hungary started accommodating family units requesting asylum in open centres.
The second most important group were Albanians, whose numbers notably increased across various indicators, including a 16% rise in reported illegal border-crossings, a 25% rise in illegal stay detected in the EU, and a 144% increase in the number of submitted asylum applications in the EU. Furthermore, Albanians ranked second among nationalities detected for document fraud in the EU, only outpaced by Syrians. Roughly 14% of all detections of document fraudsters or 3 200 cases of all travel types during 2014 were linked to Albanians. Other Western Balkan nationalities were detected in significantly lower numbers by comparison.
In keeping with the notion of unprecedented highs, abuse of visa-free travel through subsequent unfounded asylum application in the EU increased by 47% compared to the already high levels of 2013. Namely, nationals of the five visa-exempt Western Balkan countries submitted over 48 000 asylum applications in EU Member States and Schengen Associated Countries during 2014, which accounts for a 9% share of the overall asylum intake at EU level.
Almost 77% of the claims were submitted in Germany alone while Serbians continued to account for a significant 43% share of the overall five visa-exempt nationals applying for asylum at EU level.
Asylum applications from the five Western Balkan countries continued to represent a staggering 97% share of the total asylum in take for all visa-free countries. For comparison, nationals of El Salvador only accounted for 0.6% of all asylum claims made in 2014.
However, comparative analysis of regular passenger flow at Serbia’s borders with Hungary and Croatia, refusals of entry issued to Serbians and asylum abuse in the EU by these nationals demonstrated that visa-free travel option is still mostly used by bona fide travellers for the intended purposes. Namely, there were more than 5 million Serbian citizens exiting Serbia towards Hungary and Croatia compared to the roughly 21 000 asylum applications submitted by this nationality at EU level in 2014.
Cross-border criminality, mainly related to the trafficking of stolen vehicles and the smuggling of illicit drugs and weapons, remains a sizable threat to border security in the Western Balkans.
All Western Balkan countries and neighbouring EU Member States continued to implement measures to prevent visa liberalisation abuse. Available data show that in the case of nationals from Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, refusals of exit prevented an even larger asylum intake during 2014.
* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.