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Tusk on tour: statements from meetings in Bulgaria, Macedonia and Slovenia ignore the reality of the Balkan route
5.4.17
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Donald Tusk, the recently re-elected President of the European Council, has recently been in Bulgaria, Macedonia and Slovenia where he emphasised the important role those countries have to play in guarding the "Balkan route" to central and northern Europe. The route has been followed by thousands of migrants and refugees and despite its official "closure" in March 2016, it remains in use and continues to be a lucrative business opportunity for people smugglers. Numerous countries have recently committed to working together more closely to try to ensure control.

See: Remarks by President Donald Tusk after his meetings with President of Bulgaria Rumen Radev (pdf):

"Bulgaria is perhaps the best example of how to protect our borders. I witnessed this myself today during the briefing on the situation at your borders with both Turkey and Greece. Thankfully, the situation is under control and it proves how efficient the Bulgarian border services and its political leadership are. Unfortunately, there will be a need for vigilance for a long time to come.

We are determined to keep routes of illegal migration in this region closed. And we remain committed to the full implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement. The EU is honouring its commitments, just like we expect Turkey to continue keeping its part of the deal."

What exactly being "the best example of how to protect our borders" means in practice has been highlighted in an in-depth article in The Intercept: Over the Line: Bulgaria Welcomes Refugees With Attack Dogs and Beatings (link)

Tusk in Macedonia: Remarks by President Donald Tusk after his meeting with President of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia Gjorge Ivanov (pdf):

"In 2015, you were in the frontline of the crisis, facing an unprecedented inflow of migrants and refugees coming from Turkey through Greece. You are best placed above all to say how important it was to close the Western Balkan route and to regain control of the borders and as a result, the stability in the region. We have developed a comprehensive strategy to tackle migration crisis and today, the Western Balkans route remains practically closed. Also thanks to your efforts.

We want to make sure that this mutually beneficial cooperation continues in the future. We will therefore stand ready to respond to your needs on the ground, be it humanitarian support to local communities, or in the form of equipment or manpower, including through the EU Border and Coast Guard."

And in Slovenia: Remarks by President Donald Tusk after his meeting with Prime Minister Miro Cerar in Ljubljana (pdf):

"First on migration. Since I last visited your country, we have made visible progress. From the start of the crisis, I shared your views and had no doubt that the key to its resolution was, and is, the effective control of the EU's external borders. Obviously, an essential precondition for achieving this goal has been close cooperation with our partners in the Balkans and Turkey. That was the main reason for my many visits to and consultations with this region in the last two years.

Today, thanks to our common efforts, we have almost stopped illegal migration through the Western Balkans route. The number of arrivals from Turkey to the EU remains low. In fact, with a reduction of 98%, the route has virtually been closed. We have effectively managed to end the 'wave-through approach' and regain control of our external borders. But I am aware that to keep the situation under control requires our constant vigilance and efforts.

This is also why we discussed today how we can further improve the effectiveness of our actions. We need to keep the Western Balkan route closed for good. And we need to achieve the same result on the Central Mediterranean route."

"Managing Migration Challenges Together"

Bulgaria, Macedonia and Slovenia were three of the many countries that in early February this year signed a further statement that:

"AGREED on the elaboration of a Joint Action Plan including a Crisis Response Plan to be drawn up by the responsible civil, police and military authorities of the participating partners taking into account their responsibilities and jurisdiction according to their national legislation as well as the civil responsibility for protection of borders by April 2017."

See: Managing Migration Challenges Together - 8 February 2017, Vienna - Declaration (pdf)

The Balkan route: closed?

March 2017: Balkan migration route is ‘not closed’ (EurActiv, link):

"Despite the Balkan migration route having been officially closed for 12 months, Austrian Interior Minister Hans-Peter Doskozil and his Slovenian counterpart, Boštjan Šefic, have complained that it is still being used as a gateway into the European Union.

As weather conditions improve, refugees stuck in Greece are expected to make their way north. Doskozil also said people would continue to arrive from Turkey “unhindered”, despite the EU’s agreement with Ankara."

January 2017: Closed Balkan route means lucrative times for traffickers (Deutsche Welle, link):

"Smugglers are currently offering to take people a short distance to the Hungarian or Croatian border, a service that costs between 200 and 300 euros ($214-321). They've also got wire cutters for the Hungarian border fence. Hundreds of people a day try to leave Serbia in this way, desperate to make it onto EU soil. Most of them are immediately picked up by police. Many are robbed, humiliated or beaten before being sent back to Serbia, according to the dozens of refugees DW reporters have spoken with in recent days."

August 2016: Tens of thousands migrate through Balkans since route declared shut (The Guardian, link)

"At least 24,000 people are believed to have made the journey along the Balkans migration trail since European leaders declared the route shut in early March, highlighting how migration continues despite the construction of several fences along borders in eastern and central Europe.

On 9 March the president of the European council, Donald Tusk, declared that “irregular flows of migrants along western Balkans route have come to an end”, after the closure of a humanitarian corridor that funnelled asylum seekers from Greece to Germany and the erection of fences along parts of the Macedonian, Hungarian and Austrian borders."

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