(Photo Credit: Mustafa Khayat, Flickr Commons) Proposals currently being floated in the EU to set up screening centers for migrants traveling through the Western Balkans are a dangerous idea. Yet, when faced with the magnitude of the current migrant crisis, these screening centers might be unavoidable. Should the EU move forward on this proposal, a number of necessary conditions would have to be met for screening centers to be viable.

Setting up EU-sponsored screening centers in the Western Balkans presents a potential threat to the principle of non-refoulement. Article 33 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is clear on the subject. [1] Individuals seeking to obtain refugee status should be able to lodge asylum applications at all times, including with member states of the European Union. It is unclear, however, whether they could potentially do so from EU screening centers. None of these individuals would be physically located within the territory of an EU member state. EU-sponsored screening centers would open a Pandora’s box for international humanitarian law.

The question of the migrants’ legal status would be rather complicated. Those who did not cross an internationally recognized border would technically be Internally Displaced People (IDPs). The number of IDPs, however, is close to zero, as most migrants did in fact cross state borders to arrive in the Western Balkans. Migrants from the Western Balkans themselves would stand no chance of seeing their asylum applications approved. They would be classified as economic migrants from “safe countries” and prevented from entering the European Union. Those migrants who both crossed an international border and did not hail from the Western Balkans would stand a reasonable chance of having their asylum applications taken seriously. Now that the Dublin Convention is in tatters, the challenge has become one of determining which EU member state is both willing and able to process those migrants.

Screening centers in the Western Balkans run the risk of turning into semi-permanent refugee camps. Should no long-term solutions to Europe’s migrant crisis be found, screening centers could end up hosting migrants for long or indefinite periods of time. [2] The region could quickly become a “bottleneck of desperation” for migrants wishing to move further north in Europe, but unable to do so. Within such a context, migrants would easily become victims of regional criminal networks that could take advantage of the migrants’ desperate situation. The Western Balkans also risks becoming a hotbed of long-term instability in the heart of Europe. Hundreds of thousands of destitute migrants stranded in a legal no-man’s land for a prolonged period is a recipe for chaos.

In geopolitical terms, the establishment of EU screening centers in the Western Balkans could decrease the political pressure on key stakeholders to find long-term, comprehensive solutions to the migrant crisis.[3] Screening centers could slow down efforts by final destination countries within the European Union to quickly establish a coordinated pan-European migrant and asylum refugee framework. Final destination countries might feel that, as long as “the problem is kept outside their borders,” an acceptable solution has been found.

Establishing screening centers in the Western Balkans could also lead Greece to think that its EU partners do not consider the Hellenic state responsible for securing the EU’s external borders. Should this notion take hold in Athens, it would become increasingly difficult to push the country’s authorities to act to secure Schengen’s external borders and to register migrants entering the Union.

The reality of Europe’s migrant crisis is stark. The Western Balkans face tremendous challenges in dealing with the continuous flow of migrants streaming through the region from Greece to Germany. [4] Belgrade is key to the stabilization of the situation and an orderly management of the crisis. As the largest country in the region, and with a relatively vibrant economy, Serbia is crucially located between all other transit countries. Belgrade is Europe’s “migration highway” for the hundreds of thousands of migrants traveling from Macedonia and Bulgaria to Hungary and Croatia.

Indeed, Zagreb is also struggling. Now that Hungary has effectively closed its border, Croatia is the first entry point to the EU after Greece. Although the region is outside the free-movement of people and goods of the Schengen area, Croatia is pivotal in allowing refugee flows to move up further north to Slovenia. Skopje, meanwhile, is the entry point to the “Western Balkans limbo.” Undetected after entering Greece, the vast majority of migrants begin their trek across the region via Macedonia.

Hellenic authorities can be forgiven for resenting the challenges imposed upon them by their country’s geography. The sheer number of Greek islands and their proximity to Turkey make it virtually impossible to patrol the country’s borders. The Greek state’s administrative and operational capacity has also been severely affected by the financial and economic crisis of the last few years. With 647,581 migrant arrivals between January and November of this year alone, Athens simply cannot manage current migrant flows on its own. [5]

Further north, the final destination countries where migrants aim to lodge their asylum applications are also not coping well with the influx of people. [6] Germany is increasingly victim to its own schizophrenic and unilateral policy approach. Having welcomed migrants with open arms without first consulting its European partners, it is now overwhelmed by the numbers, and Berlin is backtracking on a number of decisions hastily taken since the summer. Similarly, Sweden, with a history of welcoming migrants and asylum seekers, is now making it clear that there is a limit to its reception capacity.

Should EU-sponsored screening centers be deemed necessary to better manage Europe’s migrant crisis, a number of necessary conditions would have to be met to ensure the wellbeing of the migrants and to allay the legitimate concerns of their temporary host countries. To begin with, all transit countries in the Western Balkans would have to agree to a common position in their negotiations with the EU over their rights and responsibilities within the crisis. This would give them greater diplomatic leverage and help them secure a fair deal, whereby Brussels would still take ultimate responsibility for the decision to set up the screening centers. Secondly, each transit country would have to appoint a single contact person with ad hoc extraordinary powers (and the full backing of his/her government) to manage the country’s efforts in dealing with the on-going flow of migrants, to liaise with fellow transit countries, and to interact with the European and international agencies involved. Finally, Western Balkan states would have to be provided with adequate financial and logistical support through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. [7]

With adequate support in place, the centers in the Western Balkans must be temporary in nature and limit themselves in function to screening migrants. In order to ensure that migrants are not abandoned to an indefinite stay in the region while waiting to be screened, the logistical support in place would have to be of a “travelling through only” nature.[8] It would be necessary to create centers that, while assisting migrants in their journey, do not become quasi-refugee camps. Concurrently, the screening centers would need to see the presence of two sets of actors: EU agencies (FRONTEX, EASO, Europol, and Eurojust) and international organizations (ICRC, IOM, and UNHCR). The former would be deployed for coordination and security purposes, while the latter would be on hand to guarantee the rights and wellbeing of all migrants.

One final and crucial element is a clear commitment from all states involved to a defined timeframe. This is essential to reassuring Western Balkan countries that they will not become a “buffer zone” for the indefinite future. Within this context, screening centers would be disbanded at the end of the 2016 / 2017 winter. This timeframe would support migrants over two consecutive winters and give the EU over one year to come up with a long-term and comprehensive answer to the crisis, while still making it clear that transit countries will not pay the bill for the EU’s policy failures. [9] The timetable should be set independently of Greece’s readiness to better handle the migrant crisis and patrol the EU’s external borders. Knowing that Western Balkan countries will withdraw their support by the spring of 2017 will also provide EU member states with an incentive to seriously support Greece in its efforts.

Establishing EU-sponsored screening centers in the Western Balkans to manage migration flows into Europe poses some very serious questions. As unappealing as they sound, it may be necessary to further explore their possible set up. But for screening centers to meet both the interests of migrants and EU countries, a key set of conditions must be met. These would entail, at the very least, upholding the right to non-refoulement, protracted administrative, logistical, and financial support for the Western Balkans by the European Union, and the establishment of a realistic yet firm timetable for all parties to adhere to.



[1] http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html

[2] http://frontex.europa.eu/assets/Publications/RiskAnalysis/WBARA_2015.pdf

[3] http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/european-agenda-migration/background-information/docs/communicationontheeuropeanagendaonmigration_en.pdf

[4] http://frontex.europa.eu/trends-and-routes/western-balkan-route/

[5] http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/country.php?id=83

[6] http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/File:Asylumapplicants(includingfirsttimeasylumapplicants),Q22014Q2_2015.png

[7] http://europa.eu/rapid/press-releaseIP-15-5958en.htm

[8] http://europa.eu/rapid/press-releaseIP-15-5904en.htm

[9] https://euobserver.com/migration/131053