The migration flow continued to decrease remaininglargely under control; coordination and cooperation remain crucial
An array of response measures, ranging from coordinated enhancement of border-controls by the most affected countries to policy actions supported by the EU, introduced at the end of 2015 and maintained throughout 2016 and 2017, contributed to a marked reduction in the volume of the non-regional migration flow observed in the Western Balkans.
Overall, on the Western Balkan route, the number of illegal border-crossings by non-regional migrants at and between border-crossing points (BCPs) decreased in 2017 to roughly 19 000 (down from over 260 000 in 2016). The decreasing trend observed during the last nine months of 2016 was mirrored in 2017. Each quarter of 2017 saw lower figures as the migratory pressure remained relatively stable and returned to manageable levels.
The closure of the Western Balkans transit corridor in Q1 2016 was a crucial step towards tackling the migration crisis and bringing the pressure down to manageable levels.
As regards enhanced border-controls, specific measures were implemented at key transit points in the Eastern Mediterranean, at main entry points at southern common borders of regional countries with EU Member States, as well as at main exit points in the north of the region, especially at EU Member States common borders with Serbia.
At the southern common borders between the region and EU Member States the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia maintained their efforts both on their own (internal re-deployments) and with international support in the framework of either EC-funded interventions (in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia) or Frontex-coordinated JOs (in Bulgaria and Greece).
In the north of the region Hungary strengthened border-controls by re-enforcing police presence, erecting technical obstacles while also redefining working procedures. Romania also implemented an array of measures aimed at deterring migration from Serbia, among which it increased its detection capabilities through redeployments of staff and equipment from other border police units or other national law enforcement structures. Croatia also continued to devote resources to maintaining enhanced controls at its common border with Serbia.
In terms of policy responses, the EU‑Turkey Statement on Stemming irregular migration together with the implementation of the Hotspot approach on the Greek Aegean islands reduced and kept the migration flow from Turkey from re-escalating while preventing further movements towards the Western Balkans.
The migration situation stabilised but coordination remains necessary
As coordinated restriction measures were maintained in the Aegean Sea, in the south and north of the Western Balkan region, as well as in destination countries, the non-regional flow of irregular migrants considerably declined and stabilised throughout 2017.
The enhanced restrictions, however, led to a number of migrants becoming stranded in different locations along the route (i.e. on the Aegean Islands, the Greek mainland, in Bulgaria and in Serbia). These persons maintained a certain pressure at specific border sections as they repeatedly attempted to cross them, in spite of the decrease in the volume of irregular migrants transiting the region.
Considering that the underlying conditions for a rapid increase in migration pressure are still in place (i.e. large pool of would-be migrants in neighbouring regions or within the Western Balkans, signs of continued search for travel alternatives along other sub-routes such as the Albania-Montenegro-Bosnia and Herzegovina–Croatia corridor), continued cooperation and coordinated response measures remain of crucial importance, especially considering the precipitous growth of the migration flow in previous years.
Generally stable regional migration flow mainly observed at the region’s southern common borders with Greece
Most detected illegal border-crossings of regional migrants (around 76%) occurred in the south of the region (at the common land borders between Greece, Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) and were, by and large, associated with Albanian circular migration to Greece.
In the northern part of the region (Hungary, Croatia and Romania’s borders with Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro) only approximately 16% of the total illegal border-crossings by regional migrants were registered; for the most part they involved Kosovo* citizens attempting to reach Western European destinations and to a lesser extent Albanian and Serbian.
A slight increase in the number of detected illegal border-crossings by nationals of Kosovo* was observed between August and October. This likely resulted from media rumours (i.e. articles alleging massive outflows from this area, which may have encouraged some nationals of Kosovo* to attempt migration). The authorities implemented prevention measures similar to those successfully used to tackle the 2014/15 Kosovo* migration crisis (e.g. through checks on exit, profiling, refusals of exit limited number of licenses for transport companies etc.) which kept the situation from escalating.
Cross-border criminality – firearms and drug smuggling
Small-scale firearm detections at the borders; continued presence of small and light weapons (SALW) in the region
Overall, the number of detections reported within the general area of responsibility of the regional border police forces continued to reveal generally small quantities of firearms and ammunition, mostly obtained for personal use. Detections involved both legally owned firearms used in illegal circumstances (e.g. hunting without a licence or out of season, ammunition forgotten in luggage while travelling across borders etc.) as well as illegally owned weapons.
A number of cases involving the transportation of relatively large quantities of weapons (especially gas-powered ones) were detected during 2017, indicating the possibility of a cross-border dimension of the phenomenon. Most of these detections however occurred on entry to the region showing that a demand for gas-powered weapons exists.
The estimated high number of firearms in the region following past conflicts and the gun culture remain some of the main drivers behind the illicit possession of such goods. Moreover, the potential profits are likely to be an incentive for criminal groups to engage in selling firearms and distributing them in neighbouring regions and the EU.
Given the possible security impact of illegal firearms possession, closely monitoring the situation in the region is necessary.
Locally produced cannabis – the main smuggled narcotic substance
Local groups in Albania appear to have regained and further developed cannabis production capacity that was lost following police operations in 2014. Specifically, if the second half of 2014 and the whole of 2015 saw fewer detections of cannabis at the borders coupled with higher prices for the product, in 2016 and 2017 a re-saturation of the regional market with this type of narcotic substance could be observed (record quantities seized at the borders, lower prices on the black market).
The fact that the climate of some of the countries in the region is conducive to cultivating cannabis plants outside (on vast swaths of land) without the need for special incubators makes producing and trafficking this type of drug an inherent vulnerability in the Western Balkans.
Project ‘Special measure supporting the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to manage its southern border in the context of the European migration crisis’; a similar measure was later implemented at the