The geographical position of the Western Balkans, extensive regional trade and good road infrastructure regularly produce large cross-border flows of people and goods.
Regular flow in both directions at the Slovenian-Croatian border, for example, exceeded 47 million persons and 21 million vehicles in 2011. The two numbers represented roughly 6% and 5% increases, respectively, compared to 2010. The Slovenian-Croatian border was also clearly the busiest EU external land border section.
Irregular cross-border flows evolved further during 2011. The evolution was driven by (a) the extension of visa liberalisation to cover biometric passport-holders from Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina (b) progressively increasing irregular migration pressure at the Greek-Turkish borders and (c) expanding direct air links between the Western Balkans and Turkey.
(a) The extension of the visa liberalisation
By the end of 2010, visa-free travel was extended to biometric passport-holders from Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Unsurprisingly, the new legal option led to a significant reduction in detections of illegal border-crossing at the Greek-Albanian borders (6 472 in 2011, down from 52 700 the year before) and subsequent increases in refusals of entry, as seen already in the case of Serbia one year before. Worryingly, asylum claims from nationals of both Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the EU rose by almost 70% during 2011 compared to 2010.
Despite a 20% decrease in relation to 2010, Serbian nationals continued to be the single largest visa-exempt nationality claiming asylum in the EU during 2011. Combined, asylum applications from the five visa-exempt Western Balkan nationalities amounted to roughly 95% of all asylum applications submitted by visa-free nationalities in the EU.
(b) Progressively increasing irregular migration pressure at the Greek-Turkish borders
Increasing irregular migration flow at the Greek-Turkish borders continued to have a negative knock-on effect on all Western Balkan countries, as already seen during 2010. Starting from the second part of 2011, the situation further deteriorated. This was in particular the case for Serbia’s borders with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, where detections rose more than four times compared to 2010.
Other border sections were experiencing a similar trend. Importantly, contrary to the situation in 2010, the Romanian border with Serbia was increasingly under pressure during the second half of 2011.
In terms of nationalities, with almost 7 400 detections, or 28% of the total, Afghans dominated at the common borders between the Western Balkans and the EU. As in the case of the Greek-Turkish border, they were closely followed by Pakistani nationals (a 25% share).
(c) Expanding direct air links between the Western Balkans and Turkey
Turkey has successfully negotiated free- trade agreements with all Western Balkan countries. The agreements with Montenegro and Serbia were the last to enter into force in 2010. In combination with visa-free travel with Turkey (all Western Balkan countries including the territory of Kosovo), these agreements helped boost both trade between Turkey and the Western Balkans and regular passenger flows to unprecedented levels.
Turkish regular passenger flow to the Western Balkans increased as a result and with it refusals of Turkish nationals at all regional air borders, particularly in Serbia. Consequently, Turkish nationals remained by far the most refused nationality at regional air borders (63% of the total).
Somewhat connected, Slovenia, Hungary and Croatia reported a significant increase in detected illegal border-crossings of Turkish nationals trying to enter the Schengen area from Croatia or Serbia. Most have arrived legally to the Western Balkans by air.
The main risks
Analysis of both regular and irregular flows (the context) formed the basis for identification of the main risks. The risk assessment was done through examination of three main components of risk: threat, vulnerability and impact. However, vulnerabilities are not discussed in the present report meant for public release.
The risk of secondary movements of non-European irregular migrants from Greece through the Western Balkans was considered the most elevated because the current mitigating measures remain largely ineffective in terms of deterring new arrivals from Greece.
Worryingly, the attractiveness of travel through the Western Balkans increased during 2011 after it became more difficult to exit Greece by intra-Schengen ferry links to Italy or by air to other Member States.
As long as illegal entry to the EU in Greece is perceived as relatively easy, new migrants will continue to arrive from Turkey. A substantial proportion is likely to use the Western Balkan land route to continue to their destination EU Member States.
Importantly, Croatia’s EU membership (1 July 2013) will probably not impact the composition or the size of the transiting flow through the Western Balkan region, despite Croatia’s long sea borders in the Adriatic Sea.
On the other hand, should both Bulgaria and Romania join the Schengen area (not likely before 2013), Greece will no longer be a Schengen exclave. This would create new travel options for both migrants staying illegally in Greece and new arrivals from Turkey. Consequently, a general bypassing of the Western Balkans route could be the result.