Expert Voice

Q&A: How closed borders detour migrant routes

15 March 2016

All eyes were on Hungary when it constructed the first border fence on the Western Balkans route in summer 2015 in an attempt to stop migrants and refugees from entering its territory. The fence, however, did not stop the flow, it detoured the people - and so did several other fences built along both the external EU borders as well as within the Schengen area. Despite the limited effect of physically closed borders to stem the flow or solve the migration crisis, countries along the so-called ‘Western Balkans route’ keep on introducing similar measures.

By Martijn Pluim and Veronika Bilger

This overview with frequently asked questions about the effect that borders have on migration flows in the current crisis is based on interviews that ICMPD has given to various media outlets in the past months.  

How could the EU ‘close’ the Western Balkans route?

It will be impossible to close the route hermetically - and this should also not be the objective. Refugees fleeing war and persecution will continue to traveling to the EU on different paths and Europe needs to provide more safe and legal ways towards protection. Border controls or closures can slow the movement down, make the trip more expensive and will redirect the routes migrants and refugees are taking. But it will not stop them. The journey will be more difficult, dangerous and costly for individuals. And as we currently witness at the Greek-Macedonian border: it leads to more suffering.

Ironically, to some extent the new obstacles are putting people smugglers back into business. Since summer 2015 until recently, much of the transportation along the Western Balkans route was provided by the authorities of the countries, often free of charge. This is no longer the case and refugees will have to arrange everything themselves, opting for services of people smugglers  if they have the financial means.  

Will Turkey also shut its borders?

Turkey has committed to reduce the outflow from its harbours close to Greek islands. As a consequence, we can expect Turkey to take measures to reduce the number of refugees entering its territory through its southern borders with Syria and Iraq. Turkey has introduced new travel restrictions, including visa. Many Syrian refugees are prevented from entering Turkey and are hosted in refugee camps at the Syrian side of the borders. Moreover, Turkey will put pressure on countries of origin of irregular migrants not in need of protection to take back their citizens. At the same time, we have to realise that Turkey’s borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria are very long, and in some areas porous and very difficult to monitor.

What can Turkey do to support the EU in dealing with the current crisis?

Turkey is already doing its utmost: the country hosts 3.2 million refugees (approximately 2.6 million are registered) and the authorities are stretched to the maximum as they are trying to provide accommodation, food, basic care and schooling for children. Turkey will need to prepare for hundreds of thousands refugees who will come in 2016 from Syria, Afghanistan or Pakistan and Iran, which host many Afghans who have fled their country.

What’s in the latest EU-Turkey deal and will it work in practice?

There are two different agreements: The EU-Turkey Action Plan, agreed upon end of last year, and the European Council conclusions from this month, which build upon said Action Plan.

A thorough assessment will be possible after the next EU-Turkey summit on 17 March, which is supposed to shed light on how the agreements are supposed to be implemented. The devil is in the detail and there are many open questions, especially about the practicability of the ‘1-for-1 exchange’. Under the proposed deal, Ankara would agree to take back all migrants who leave Turkey's shores for Europe, on the condition that one Syrian refugee is resettled to Europe for every Syrian returned to Turkey.

Only applying to Syrians, this ‘refugee swap’ creates mixed incentives, both for governments and for refugees. If the number of people being orderly resettled from Turkey to Europe depends directly on the number of people attempting to cross the Aegean see irregularly, there are few incentives for Turkey to disrupt this movement. On the individual level: for non-Syrians seeking international protection there is no perspective for resettlement from Turkey to Europe under this framework. This means that leaving Turkey irregularly is the only way to the EU. Iraqis and others who might have fled their country years ago to Syria, might now try to obtain Syrian papers in order to be eligible for resettlement. Assessing such cases will put additional burden on overstretched authorities and humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR.

Furthermore, human rights advocates rightly point to legal concerns related to the measures proposed in the draft EU-Turkey agreement. Can the EU simply send asylum seekers back to another country without an individual assessment of their cases? Can Turkey, which applies very uncommon geographical limits to the Geneva Convention, be regarded as a safe third country? Present case law clearly shows that the answer to both questions is no.

Which new migrant routes will emerge?

As travelling along the Western Balkans route has become more cumbersome, other paths are becoming more popular. Small numbers of refugees and migrants have begun travelling from Greece to Albania and then Italy by boat. But the journey across the sea - popular with Albanians crossing to Italy in the 1990s - is risky, with rough waters. Some people will opt for traveling through Bulgaria instead of Greece. There are also reports of movements via Odessa in southern Ukraine from Turkey across the Black Sea and increasing numbers of people move from Russia into Finland.

We have been providing data and analysis about migration routes to Europe for the news outlet Reuters, which has created a great infographic based on our input. 

Will the European Border and Coastguard Agency help to manage the current situation?

This will depend on its exact mandate and staffing, but it could help to harmonise the goals of different operations (we saw a number of ad-hoc one-off operations as Mare Nostrum or Sophia in the past).
When it comes to surveillance, it is fair to say that the situation in the Western Balkans and the EU is the result of an overburdened border and coast control system. Seriously overstretched systems had and have to let people pass because they cannot cope with the large numbers of people arriving at the external borders of the EU.

Migrant smugglers have taken advantage of these weaknesses. Improved border management capacities, whatever they might look like, are an important element in curbing one of the "assets" of migrant smugglers. Thus, a new European Border and Coastguard Agency can have an impact in this area - but only when its operations are embedded in a much broader strategy  to address the current migration crisis. 

Is Schengen seriously in danger?

The Schengen area of free movement was a major achievement of European unity. It is under stress, though it will not collapse. The price, including economic costs, would be too high.

At the same time, we can expect EU member states to invest in modern border control technologies that do not pose physical barriers to travelers, as opposed to classic passport controls. This can include automatic systems to scan number plates of cars crossing borders and intercept suspicious vehicles inland. However, it is important that with every new control measure, we will need to raise and answer questions regarding data protection and privacy.


Martijn Pluim, is Director Eastern Dimension and Veronika Bilger is Programme Manager of Research at ICMPD. 

Photo: Rob "Berto" Bennett on Flickr