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  • on 09.07.2015
  • at 06:27 PM
  • by Naomi Cohen

Western Balkans: a “no man’s land” for refugees 0

Two recent reports highlight the need for new approaches to handle the significant rise in asylum seekers entering the European Union. While Amnesty International identifies multiple human rights violations in the non-EU territory between Greece and Hungary, it stresses that the solution to end the abuses must be a European one.

Migrants seeking asylum in Europe are more likely to fall through the cracks of the legal system than not.

With a 68 percent rise in overall asylum seekers in Europe, Switzerland and Norway since the first half of last year, unprepared and unequipped border states are employing legal loopholes, prolonging the registration process, and overcrowding reception centres to limit the number of registered refugees.

While the most infamous passage for asylum seekers is Italy, the fastest-growing route for migrants is through the Western Balkans. Greece and Hungary have received about as many refugees as Italy (more than 60,000 for each country from 1 January 2015 to 22 June 2015), three times the number from the same period last year. Those transiting between the two EU Member States are likely to be victims of multiple human rights violations, according to an Amnesty International report published Tuesday. Besides Syria, most of the asylum seekers interviewed came from African countries, including Egypt, Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and Tunisia.

“Both in Macedonia and Serbia, there aren’t asylum systems that work,” Sian Jones, Amnesty’s Balkans researcher and co-author of the report, told Afronline. “Even the most asylum seeker has difficulty in getting asylum in Serbia.” Serbia granted asylum to one Syrian refugee last year out of almost 10,000 requests from Syrians. Macedonia granted it to ten. The rest, if they are not “pushed back” across the border, taken hostage for ransom, deported, arrested or, in the case of 28 migrants, struck by trains, may end up in detention centres for months at a time.

“People didn’t understand why they should be criminalized for trying to seek asylum,” said Jones. Some interviewees were detained while waiting for smugglers to go on trial. Others were told to leave the country but could not cross the border. Many were repeatedly beat up by border police, who take advantage of the lack of translators and often demand bribes. Because they’re not registered, they can’t complain to the police.

“While both Serbia and Macedonia can and should be doing more to respect the rights of refugees and migrations,” says the Amnesty report, “the fact remains that they are struggling to deal with the consequences of EU migration policies, over which they have no influence.”

It is because of EU policy that Serbia and Macedonia, which are currently candidate countries to the EU, have become a “no man’s land” unable to handle the influx of migrants that its neighbours push away, said Jones.

More than half of overall applicants to EU member states, Switzerland and Norway were denied refugee or subsidiary protection status—though rates differ depending on country of origin and country of arrival, according to the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) 2014 annual report, released Wednesday. More applicants than ever withdrew their applications. Those that did not bother applying could not be counted, but EASO Executive Director Robert Visser predicts that the numbers are much higher.

Jones’s insistence on “rethinking EU policy” may be beginning, but slowly. In a press conference on Wednesday, Visser did not mention redistributing the burden, though he said that he is in talks with Hungary, Sicily and Kosovo to develop specific operations.

“We are in close cooperation and are supporting their process—provided the process they do is within the EU frame of law,” he said.

He added that policies like Hungary’s announcement last month that it will build a fence on its border with Serbia would not prevent migration, but instead redirect hotspots. On Monday, Hungary also passed the second part of an asylum law that would accelerate the process by applying blanket recommendations, precluding the consideration of individual needs and adequate legal representation. Applicants coming from Serbia will also be rejected on the grounds that it qualifies as a “safe country.” Serbia is also in the process of reforming its asylum law, but it is focusing mostly on capacity and efficiency in reception centres.

While Greece went from having “vitually no functioning asylum system” in 2008 to a “well-functioning asylum service that I can say is upstanding,” according to Visser, its current economy and generally deficient resources for migrants have motivated unprecedented numbers to risk the trek through Macedonia and Serbia.

Jones insisted that the problem is not the growing wave of migrants, but the policy that fights against it.

by Naomi Cohen

Photo Credit: Flickr/Halmos Krisztián

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