On Wednesday, February 22, the Globsec Policy Institute (GPI) organised a regional workshop Away from the spotlight: Balkan route and Visegrad approach to refugees in 2017. The workshop presented a regional dimension to the refugee crisis with two subsequent panels focusing on the latest trends on the so-called Balkan Route and recent changes in refugee-related policies in V4 countries.
THE BALKAN ROUTE – LATEST TRENDS
In the first panel, the insights from Kristof Bender from the European Stability Initiative in Vienna, Gordan Paunovic from the Centre for Protection of Refugees ‘InfoPark’ in Belgrade, and Monika Svetlíková from the People in Need Slovakia in Bratislava, together with the chair Milan Nič, Head of Future of Europe Programme in GPI, shed more light on the realities in the region.
Narratives dominating regional political discourse generally portray the Balkan Route as closed and well-handled as a result of the protective measures adopted. The panelists, however, agreed that the reality does not fully conform to this image, and, in fact, thousands still manage to cross.
Firstly, a few kilometers of fence with border guards deployed cannot guarantee efficient protection. Many areas, as is, for example, the Serbian-Bulgarian border, are impossible to survey in its entirety due to their length or difficult terrain. The same applies for the border guards who, despite international and EU contributions, simply do not have capacities to cover the borderlines completely. What is more, instances of corruption are reported regularly. The situation is exacerbated by the presence of powerful smuggler networks.
Secondly, the slow processing of applications and lack of acceptable facilities and capacities to accommodate and process refugees along the Balkan route makes the situation anything but well-handled. Thousands of people are trapped not only in Greece, but also, for example, at the Serbian-Hungarian border. It is not clear how many migrants are crossing or attempting to cross Hungary outside of the official ten-persons-per-day quota introduced by the Hungarian government for accepting asylum seekers on the territory of Hungary. The authorities’ reports on thousands of yearly prevented attempts to cross the border do not reflect the number of actual crossings, as a single person can make several attempts a year and finally manage to cross the border anyway.
And thirdly, participants argued that it is not the closure of borders and fences that lowered the numbers of refugees – it was the EU-Turkey migration deal from March 2016. Related to that, the speakers pointed out the necessity to put the assistance to Greece on the top of agenda. Greek islands are overwhelmed and their capacities are completely exhausted. But the effectiveness of the deal in stopping the migration flow is dependent on the capacity of Greece to keep and process migrants on the islands. Unless other European countries step up their contribution, the Deal will probably unravel. At the same time, more refugees shall be accepted from Turkey while the protection of human rights cannot be neglected. It was also mentioned that if the EU intends to apply the EU-Turkey deal model to cooperation with other countries, capacity and willingness of the third countries to guarantee human rights protection should be properly assessed. The current attempts to negotiate an agreement with Libya are hence misguided. The lack of central government that would be able to effectively control the territory of Libya and general level of violence is detrimental to safety of any migrants passing the country and would most likely be in violation of many human rights principles. Instead, the EU might consider the potential for cooperation with countries with low recognition rates (such as Nigeria or Senegal) where people could be safely sent back after initial assessments.
REFUGEE-RELATED POLICIES IN VISEGRAD COUNTRIES
The second panel, chaired by Alena Kudzko, Deputy Research Director of GPI, examined the V4 perspective on the issue and assessed possible scenarios for the following months.
Tomas Jungwirth from the Consortium of Migrants Assisting Organisations in Prague predicted quite stable development for Czechia, currently the most advanced country in the region when it comes to supporting refugees. The refugee issue, however, might again be used as a political ploy prior to parliamentary elections in 2017.
Jakub Wiśniewski, the Director of GPI, provided an insight from Poland, which has undergone strong ideological changes. The government has been “steadily educating” the society while using security arguments to incite the xenophobic sentiments. While in short-term, no large shifts in narratives are expected, he predicted possible long-term shifts influenced by the Polish tradition in migration and the narrative of the Church. He also warned that going against the EU bloc will, sooner or later, backfire. Central European countries might have to face the cuts in EU funding that is widely beneficial for the region.
While analyzing the situation in Hungary, Edit Zgut from Political Capital in Budapest concluded that the asylum system has been practically dismantled in the country. The government’s securitization of the issue adds up to the radicalization of the society while the tough stance will be probably reinforced in line with the upcoming elections in April 2018. András Léderer from Hungarian Helsinki Committee added that the state measures in fact lessen the security of people – forcing the migrants out from legal channels will only result in more illegal activities.
Zuzana Števulová, Director of Human Rights League in Bratislava, reminded that despite the issue being widely debated across the country, Slovakia has the lowest number of asylum seekers in the EU. Certain steps have been made by the Slovak government during the presidency of the Country in the EU Council – offering 550 scholarships for refugee students, offering 100+100 spots for relocations, hosting asylum seekers applying for asylum in Austria on the territory of Slovakia, among other things. More is necessary to be done, however, including enhancing the cooperation of the government with the civil society on migration issues, developing a proper integration programme, and changing countries mentality from a transition country to a destination country for people who seek safety.
Role of the media was a cross-cutting issue in all discussions. Although the first panel identified media attention as one of the crucial factors in improving the refugees’ conditions both inside and outside the camps, the second panel questioned the framing of the reporting and media tendency towards sensationalization of refugee-related issues in the region with xenophobic tendencies. On one hand, the public should be informed and have the possibility to form the opinion itself. On the other hand, media should pay more attention towards the ways the stories are framed to avoid unjustified public discontent with refugees and organisations involved in the provision of humanitarian aid.
The needs of local businesses and issues of economic migration were also covered during the discussion as an inalienable part of any sound migration policy. Czechia, Poland, as well as Slovakia host thousands of foreign workers from Eastern Europe or Balkan region, mostly to cover the gaps in the labour market. The governments generally do not try to counter negative connotations arising towards the groups. The panel, however, expressed optimism over the role of large businesses and corporations in shaping and, perhaps, shifting the narrative towards more inclusive, tolerant, and cooperative rhetoric.