Large-scale migration flow and border management/security
The numbers of non-regional migrants transiting the Balkans reached unprecedented and extraordinary levels during 2015 with over 2 million illegal border-crossings reported by all the countries in the region. For comparison, this was roughly 30 times more than in 2014.
For several years, the main routes have remained the same: Turkey-Greece-former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia-Serbia-Hungary/Croatia and Turkey-Bulgaria-Serbia-Hungary/Croatia.
This extraordinary situation resulted in the largest migratory crisis in Europe since the Second World War.
The steep increase in migratory pressure in the Eastern Aegean brought about a range of political decisions from attempts to prevent irregular migration to inter-governmental agreements on facilitated transit across the region towards the main destination countries (e.g. Germany).
The countries in the region adapted to the rising migratory flows in response to the decisions taken by their neighbours or the main destination countries. The aim was to avoid a situation where people would become stranded.
These high-level decisions also reflected the enormity of the challenges as numbers started to rise to several thousand people per day. This resulted in temporary inability of some countries to perform border-control tasks as stipulated by relevant legislation, including the Schengen Borders Code and the EU- RODAC regulation.
At the end of 2015, the European Commission initiated an infringement procedure against Greece and Croatia for failing to implement the EURODAC regulation.
Uncoordinated measures and shift of focus resulting in displacement/redirection of the flow
After a summer of chaotic scenes when many migrants forced their way across different borders and thousands of people walked along the main highway between Budapest and Vienna, the Hungarian government decided to erect physical barriers along the entire border with Serbia. As a consequence, the flow shifted towards the Croatian-Serbian and then the Croatian-Hungarian border. After the latter was also fenced off by Hungary on 15 October 2015, the flow was redirected towards the Croatian-Slovenian border.
During the entire period, the flow continued to accelerate as migrants were taking advantage of the organised transportation. The acceleration was also supported by confusing media messages regarding restrictive or welcoming measures planned by the main transit and destination countries (as migrants were attempting to reach the destinations which would welcome them ahead of transit restrictions in the region or policy changes in their destination countries).
Proper verification of the country of origin remained almost impossible
Even later decisions to restrict passage for migrants who did not originate from conflict areas (i.e. not Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan) were difficult to implement. Verifying the country of origin of persons at the moment of the crossing remained very limited. Most authorities were confronted with a lack of interpreters and screeners, and mainly relied on the documents that migrants presented to attest their nationality. None of these documents bore security features, which made them easy to abuse.
More coordination after October 2015
At the end of October 2015, the European Commission organised a mini summit where leaders representing Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia agreed to improve cooperation and step up consultations between the relevant authorities along the route. The also agreed on a 17-point plan of pragmatic operational measures that eventually made it possible for the countries to start reapplying national border-management legislation and the EU law in this field.
Main lessons learned
The unprecedented massive flows of people along the Western Balkan route proved to be unmanageable for the border authorities involved. These flows also exposed clear limits of border controls in the absence of uniform EU-wide migration and asylum policies.
All contingency plans were designed with lower numbers in mind and with a presumption that the arriving people would not refuse to follow the existing procedure.
Some people also refused to be registered and wanted to continue their journey by crossing to the next country as quickly as possible. Clashes with the authorities and between different ethnic groups were regular occurrences in such circumstances.
Perhaps the biggest lesson is the fact that perceptions and rumours matter a lot. Many would-be migrants from Syria, Iran, Iraq, North Africa or Pakistan decided to travel to Greece en masse after they became convinced that the Western Balkan route was open, fast and cheap and that some EU Member States would accommodate them. These perceptions proved to be very difficult to dispel.
In conclusion, the 2015 migratory crisis resulted from a mixture of compounding factors, including the prolonged war in Syria, advancing Daesh and a growing threat from Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. However, by far the most influential factors allowing for the astonishing daily figures were the introduction of a facilitated transport corridor across the Western Balkans and a temporary suspension of national and EU border-management legislation.