Along the Balkan Route: Refugees and Migrants’ Plight to the European Union

By Caitlin Ayre

For the past several years Europe has been gripped by a refugee crisis, where the continent has seen an influx of refugees and migrants reach its shores. Fast forward to 2021 and the refugee situation in Europe, coupled with the pandemic, is only becoming worse with no signs of improvement.

In 2015 Europe witnessed staggering new levels of migration along its borders and shores as more than 1 million arrivals by sea reached the continent at the end of the year. This unexpected influx of refugees and migrants exposed serious flaws in the European Union’s asylum system as they were unable and unprepared to process the inundation of asylum requests. As European countries and governments grappled with this crisis, more and more people were losing their lives with 2016 being the deadliest year on record for migrant deaths. Six years on since this crisis initially began and European governments have still not learned from their previous mistakes. This begs the question; how many more refugees and migrants will lose their lives trying to reach Europe’s borders due to several governments’ lack of adequate resources and indifference?

Recent reports have indicated that the Balkan route, a path that consists of countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia is once more crowded despite the ongoing pandemic. Faced with border closures and violent, illegal pushbacks, the current situation for refugees and migrants remains bleak as they are trapped in a seemingly never-ending limbo.  So, what is the present-day situation like in these countries and what will migration routes in Europe look like in 2021?

The winter months in Bosnia and Herzegovina are long and harsh, bringing new challenges to refugees and migrants with temperatures dropping to a bittering low of -10 °C. Those who used to rely on aid and refuge from the Lipa camp in north-western Bosnia have been completely stranded and isolated by local authorities as the camp was deemed unsafe by aid workers and subsequently abandoned. Against the backdrop of the ashy, uninhabited camp approximately 700 people are currently living in squalid conditions, lacking electricity, water, winter clothes, and tents. Despite the Bosnian Ministry calling on the local authorities to relocate these people, their actions have been met with growing hostility from the local populations. Peter Van der Auweraert, the chief of mission in Bosnia for the International Organization for Migration stated that dozens of people, alongside the mayors of two towns, are protesting the relocation of the migrants, and as a result, the state, whose mandate is to relocate those migrants, bows to pressure and decides not to move. This is just one of many examples that further exemplifies the growing division and internal struggles between central and local Bosnian authorities regarding refugees and migrants in the country. Although this is the latest example of the Bosnian government’s struggle to provide aid to those hoping to reach the European Union, it unfortunately will not be the last. What was once viewed as merely a transit route and a stopover destination in order to enter the European Union has become for many an inescapable nightmare.

Across the border the situation is just as dire. Both humanitarian groups and media outlets have reported numerous incidents and cases of violence and abuse by border police on Croatia’s border with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Not only are these acts of violence inhumane, but they also violate the European Convention on Human Rights as many refugees and migrants are illegally pushed back into Bosnia and Herzegovina. This resulted in The European Ombudsman’s Office announcing that it will open an inquiry into the possible failure of the European Commission to ensure that Croatian authorities respected fundamental rights while conducting EU-funded border operations against migrants and refugees.

Unfortunately, the European Union is not innocent in this. Several reports have emerged stating that Frontex, Europe’s border security agency, has been involved in several illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers crossing the Aegean Sea, thus what happened on the Croatian border is not an isolated incident. With increasing calls to reform Frontex and make Europe’s borders more secure, we must question to what expense will this further harm refugees and migrants and reinforce the harmful stereotype that these people are criminals? Not only are refugees and migrants afraid of their living conditions, but they also now fear what awaits them at the European Union’s borders.

As the New Year began with more border closures due to the pandemic, the situation remains bleak for those on the move. As restrictions hopefully begin to ease later this year, Nicola Bay from the Danish Refugee Council predicts that it is highly likely there will be a surge of arrivals to Bosnia and Herzegovina, a scenario for which the country remains unprepared for.

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