02 November 2022
On 28 September the Council of the EU's Working Party on External Aspects of Asylum and Migration (EMWP) discussed migrant smuggling in the Western Balkans. Representatives of Europol, Frontex and the EU Asylum Agency were there to give presentations, which we are publishing here.
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The discussion in the EMWP is one of many in recent years that has focused on the movement of people through Western Balkans states towards 'core' EU countries, with the EU keen to increase border controls and to encourage Western Balkans states to serve as host, rather than transit countries, for refugees and migrants.
Ironically, Europol, Frontex and the EUAA have themselves previously concluded that because people on the move "need to bypass reinforced borders several times... the demand for facilitation [smuggling] services in the Western Balkans region is high."
The Europol presentation (pdf, extracted from original document, below) given on 28 September includes a section entitled: "Potential abuse of visa policies of Western Balkans Countries".
This is a topic being actively discussed in the Council of the EU, with the Czech Presidency of the Council recently stating that "intensified diplomatic outreach is needed to address the lack of alignment of the WB region’s visa regime [with the visa regime of the EU] in the short term."
It also notes that an "Operational Task Force" is "under construction", for "combating violent migrant smuggling networks operating along the Western Balkans Routes".
Whoever produced the Europol presentation also decided to illustrate the slides with an image of three people holding hands - presumably a refugee family - with one of them holding a briefcase marked with a large € symbol.
The Frontex presentation (pdf) indicates the expansion of EU funding programmes in the Western Balkans.
A project on "protection-sensitive migration management" ran from 2016-21. This will be continued from 2022-25, when it will also be joined by a project specifically dealing with "border security", both funded by the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA).
The EU is set to launch negotiations with four Balkans states on expanded Frontex deployments, and has just signed such an agreement with North Macedonia.
The EUAA presentation (pdf) looks at the number of asylum applications in different states, and from people of different nationalities: "Afghans and Syrians continued to lodge the most applications along the Western Balkans (Jan-Aug 2022)."
The figures show a marked increase in asylum applications in Austria, which the renewed attention on "border security" in the Western Balkans is presumably intended to reduce.
Europol and Frontex have produced a joint report on the "digitalisation of migrant smuggling", intended to provide state officials with in the EU and Western Balkans "with a comprehensive intelligence picture on the use of digital tools and services' [sic] in migrant smuggling and related document fraud, in order to raise awareness, consolidate existing knowledge and enforce opportunities to take appropriate measures to tackle emerging threats."
The EU’s Pact on Migration and Asylum reiterated the long-standing priority for the EU and its member states to work more closely with “third countries” to control migration. In practice, this has led to serious abuses and even deaths, as smugglers engage in increasingly-complex and dangerous circumvention of border controls and police operations. Nevertheless, the EU is pushing ahead with new initiatives seeking to formalise cooperation with Balkan and African states on anti-migrant smuggling operations.
An internal Council survey of EU member states' assistance for Western Balkans countries shows that the emphasis is very clearly on migration control measures, with "the majority of bilateral support... provided in two areas, namely border management and combating the smuggling of migrants (over 50% of all MS activities)".
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