Overall, 2013 was a year of records. Starting with more than 40 000 detections for illegal border-crossing at regional and common green borders*, the number was 27% higher than during 2012.
Half of all detections occurred at only one border section: Serbia-Hungary, mostly in the period between January and July 2013. The sharp rise of irregular flows at this border section clearly indicated how a change in asylum procedure of one Member State (Hungary in this case) can cause massive shifts and displacements of irregular flows. At one point during May 2013, this border section accounted for almost half of all illegal border-crossings at the external borders of the EU (a 43% share). Following Hungary’s reintroduction of detention for asylum seekers in July 2013, the flow dropped considerably. Croatia’s accession to the EU in the same month had no effect on the flow.
As a region surrounded by Member States, the Western Balkans continued to be largely a transit area for irregular migratory flows between different Member States and Schengen Associated Countries.
Compared to 2012, detections of transiting non-European irregular migrants stayed at roughly the same levels (22 000); however, significant differences emerged in terms of countries of origin. Namely, the region saw a sharp decline of migrants from Afghanistan (-44%), North Africa (-36%) and Somalia (-58%) and an unprecedented increase of detected West Africans (+1 316%). In fact, West Africans (mostly from Mali, Nigeria and Ghana) increased their share of the regional total to almost 8%, up from less than 1% during 2012.
The region also re-emerged as an important source of would-be irregular migrants after three years of constant declines. However, with 18 000 detections of illegal border-crossing by migrants from the Western Balkans, the number was still far below the levels prior to visa liberalisation in 2009 (62 000 detections of illegal border-crossing).
The most commonly reported modus operandi for irregular movements was still crossing of green borders by foot and subsequent ‘rendezvous’ with the facilitators that provided onward transport. Almost as a matter of standard practice, if detected, migrants claimed asylum. During 2013, the authorities from the region managed to dismantle several groups that were providing such service to the transiting migrants.
Two groups of migrants stood out in this respect: nationals of Albania whose numbers increased across all indicators used to measure irregular migration developments. These include a 60% growth in detections of illegal border-crossing, 29% rise of illegal stay detected in the EU and almost identical increase in asylum applications submitted in the EU. Furthermore, Albanians were the top nationality detected for document fraud in the EU for the second year in a row.
Roughly 16% of all detections of document fraudsters or 3 200 cases for all travel types during 2013 were linked to Albanians. Other Western Balkan nationalities were detected in significantly lower numbers compared to Albanians.
The second most notable group driving this re-emergence of the Western Balkans as source region were persons coming from the territory of Kosovo.* Their numbers increased even more compared to Albanians, mostly during the first half of 2013. In fact, there were six times more illegal border-crossings (+542%) by persons from Kosovo* and three times as many asylum seekers (14 300 or 209% more) compared to 2012.
This worrying development was largely driven by regional factors such as the mentioned changes in asylum policy of Hungary and the regime governing movements across the Administrative Boundar y Line between Kosovo* and Serbia. As such, the influx from Kosovo* started to decrease after Hungary reintroduced detention for asylum seekers.
Continuing with the notion of a record year, abuse of visa-free travel through subsequent mostly unfounded asylum application in the EU remained at the same high levels as during 2012. Namely, nationals of the five visa exempt Western Balkan countries** submitted almost 33 000 asylum applications in Member States and Schengen Associated Countries during 2013. This represented 9% of the total EU asylum intake.
Seven out of ten claims were submitted in Germany alone with nationals of Serbia still accounting for a significant 45% share of the total for the five visa-exempt Western Balkan nationalities.
All Western Balkan countries and neighbouring Member States continued to implement a plethora of measures to minimise the visa liberalisation abuse. Our analysis shows that in the case of nationals from Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, refusals of entry and refusals of exits helped to prevent an even larger asylum intake during 2013.
The 33 000 asylum applications from five Western Balkan countries represented a staggering 97% share of the total for all visa-free countries. For comparison, nationals of El Salvador submitted only 125 asylum applications during 2013.
A comparative analysis of regular passenger flow at Hungary-Serbia borders, refusals of entry issued to Serbian nationals and asylum abuse in the EU demonstrated that visa-free travel option is by and large used by bona fide travellers for the intended purposes. Namely, there were more than 4.5 million entries of Serbian nationals to Hungary and Croatia during 2013 compared to roughly 15 000 Serbian asylum applications in the EU and Schengen Associated Countries.
Cross-border criminality, mainly related to the trafficking of stolen vehicles and the smuggling of illicit drugs and weapons, rep-resents a sizable threat to border security in the Western Balkans. New trends of drug smuggling across the Adriatic are a worrying development.
* 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
** Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia