Photo: Austrian Chancellor Karl Nechammer, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić during the meeting in Budapest. Credit: BKA/Dragan Tatic - Photo: 2022

Combating the Migrant Crisis Along the Balkan Route in Europe

A Special Report by Aurora Weiss

VIENNA (IDN) — The flow of refugees is unceasing. According to the European border agency Frontex, between January and September this year, 228,000 people “arrived illegally” in the Schengen area, which is 70 per cent more than last year. The vast majority still come from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

This number does not include millions of Ukrainian citizens who are not considered asylum seekers. As agreed within the EU, they can simply come to any country in the European Union as long as the Russian aggression continues.

We asked the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, during his visit to Vienna on January 26, 2022, what the EU’s defence policy is and what they are doing in regard to the protection of the EU’s borders.

”Speaking about security policy and migration, Europe will connect with third countries in the coming months to establish how illegal migration takes place, through which channels they come to Europe.”

In the meantime, the number of illegal migrants has skyrocketed in Austria! Daily, around 600 asylum seekers are entering the country. Therefore, the Austrian government called for the EU border protection to be strengthened and thereby to deprive smugglers of their basis for business, as well as to create faster procedures and efficient repatriation agreements.

“Austria is currently massively burdened by illegal migration. The solidarity contribution we make in Europe is disproportionately high. The asylum policy has failed. There is still no strong protection of the EU’s external borders, and the reality is that the problem is being ignored,” Austrian Chancellor Karl Nechammer warned about the issue during the meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić in Budapest, where they discussed the increase in refugee flows via the Balkan route early October 2022. They met again on November 16, 2022. in Belgrade and signed an agreement on cooperation. Namely, Austria and Hungary will invest in repatriations so that illegal migrants from Serbia can return to their home countries by flight.

“Balkan route” is a common problem in Serbia, Austria and Hungary. The number of migrants has exploded, and they are illegally crossing the borders. It is no longer a humanitarian crisis but rather a business profiting from criminal gangs.

According to the three state leaders, the EU asylum system no longer works, and the EU Commission has not been active in matters of illegal migration for years. Asylum and migration are increasingly being mixed up, and thousands of people are coming to Europe from countries without a right to stay, which completely misses the goal of an orderly asylum and migration policy.

“As long as the EU does not intervene with efficient measures, we have to help ourselves”, pointed out Karl Nehammer.

Due to the lack of reaction to solving this problem by the EU administration, the government leaders of Hungary, Serbia, and Austria agreed to “combat illegal migration together”.

“We suffer from illegal migration, it costs time, money and energy.”, stressed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. He also sees the illogical application of double standards regarding the pandemic. While migrants crossed borders without tests and vaccines, EU citizens had to comply with pandemic protection measures.

The situation is becoming more and more difficult, and the numbers are more and more alarming. Given the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis, not enough attention is being paid to the issue of migration. Hungary is burdened with migration from both the south and the east now due to the Ukraine war. In the south, the route across the western Balkans is particularly problematic. He pointed out the organized criminal groups that operate between Serbia and Austria.

SERBIA – Traffickers do not hesitate to shoot at each other or at the police

Aleksandar Vucic explained that Serbia is a poorer country than Austria and Hungary, so they are particularly affected by the current problems of the energy crisis and migration: “I think this winter will present us with special challenges.”

Serbia also agreed to lift the visa-free regime for Tunisia and Burundi, which Austria’s government sees as a “first step towards tightening visa rules in the Western Balkans and aligning these regulations with the EU” what president Aleksandar Vucic promised to establish until the end of 2022.

The reason is the increased number of asylum requests from citizens from countries such as India, Tunisia, and Burundi who can travel to Serbia as tourists without a visa—but then many continue their journey via refugee routes to the European Union. Most complaints seem to have come from Belgium and Austria. But that is not the biggest problem connected to Serbia.

The biggest problem has become organised criminal gangs of smugglers who do not hesitate to draw their weapons on both their migrant clients and the police who try to stop them. According to the evidence of investigative journalist Saša Dragojlo from the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), it is suspected that they cooperate with a whole network of corrupt police officers who provide them with protection in exchange for money. He told us that the bigger groups are also racketeering smaller smuggling groups and use violence against competitors as well as illegal migrants and refugees who do not use their “services”. One of these groups is allegedly led by Alen Basil, a Serbian citizen of Syrian origin, and his first associate named, Abu Omar, who is known for leading the group. On July 2, in Subotica, on the border with Hungary, a larger armed conflict between two smuggling gangs erupted in which Kalashnikov rifles were used. The authorities announced that one person died, while eight were wounded, including a 16-year-old girl.

Photo: The Minister of Internal Affairs of Serbia Aleksandar Vulin, FOTO: Serbia MUP

Aleksandar Vulin: Serbia will not be a parking lot for migrants!

The Minister of Internal Affairs of Serbia, Aleksandar Vulin, expressed his views clearly in front of the international colleges at the meeting early this month in Belgrade. He was clear: ”Serbia will not be a parking place for migrants”.

He points out that it is necessary to send a clear message to migrants while they are still in their home country before they sell everything, and go on an exhaustive journey in order to confront the weight of the reality that awaits them at their destinations. However, then they have no way back, nor do they have anything to go back to. According to him, they have no future here, and smugglers make money on them.

It is good to point out that many terrorist and extremist organisations used the opportunity to radicalise migrants who were detained for a long time in buffer zones on the way to promised Europa, such as Turkey or Bosnia and Herzegovina. The vulnerable situation and poverty made individuals more labile and less resistant to radical groups. After that, the migrants were helped to move to the European Union. This is just one of the reasons why it suits the Serbian security authorities that migrants on their way to the EU are not detained inside the country. But it is not all about safety. Actually, there is a lot about profit, as journalists from Balkan Investigative Reporting Network claim. 

Aleksandar Vulin also spoke of financial support from Hungary and Austria to strengthen the existing police patrols on the Serbian border. However, there should not be any new hotspots or reception centres for migrants. ” In view of the “explosion” in the number of migrants, which can certainly be compared to those in 2015, this is “no longer a humanitarian crisis; it’s about criminal networks”, Vulin concluded.

The situation changed middle of this year because Hungary has an interest in preventing the illegal crossing of the border. Greece is no longer a country to which other European countries can return asylum seekers because the European Court of Human Rights found that Greece cannot provide adequate protection. If Hungary is the first safe country where immigrants entered the EU, even though they are found in other EU countries, they are returned to Hungary. Because of this, Hungary and Frontex secured the borders and developed the concept of Serbia as a third safe country, so they significantly slowed down migration. In Subotica, near the Hungarian border, the number of migrants waiting has become greater due to increased control at the border crossings. They emigrated in thousands through Serbia before, but no one noticed, our sources claim.

The border between Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo has not been controlled: the terrain is hilly and wooded, the police are understaffed, and the local population participates in the smuggling. There is an organised criminal group, which has a family structure, and their work is organised on both sides of the border, and it is very difficult to infiltrate.

In Jan-Sep 2022, authorities reported 84,512 new arrivals to Reception centres for asylum seekers (which is a 97% increase compared to the same period in 2021).

There have been about 3,100 asylum applications in Serbia this year. Most of them are from Afghanistan (56.2%), Somalia (18%) and Pakistan (10%), followed by Palestine, Iran, and the North African countries. In most cases, they come from Turkey and Greece. They used to take ferryboats to Italy from Greece from the Patras port. The fact that they managed to stop them on this route, most of them now emigrate through Macedonia or Kosovo to Serbia and then cross the Hungarian border to reach the European Union. In addition, some people migrate across Albania, and Montenegro and cross the Adriatic Sea, while others choose to cross through  Romania or Bulgaria. In the last weeks of July,  the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration (SCRM) recorded a refugee/migrant influx of some 3.000 persons per week, compared to 1.000 per week in the same period in 2021.

Hungary on migration: This is not a question of human rights, but a question of violating the laws!

Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Minister Péter Szijjártó put it similarly, speaking of a “siege” of its southern border by migrants and people smugglers who have armed themselves. They do not shy away from using weapons against border guards and police.

“For us, this is not a question of human rights, but a question of violating the laws of our country,” said Péter Szijjarto.

So far this year, 250,000 border violators have been apprehended. While Hungary remains committed to border security, the EU’s refusal to implement effective border security and increase deportations is only encouraging many to make the difficult journey to Europe.

Péter Szijjártó said that this year the number of migrants “increased tremendously” to 195,000 people and that this number is expected to grow in view of the global situation, stating that the majority of migrants used to arrive via the Mediterranean Sea and that now most of them arrive via the Balkans routes.

According to its national statistics, Hungary was hosting around 194,000 foreigners with legal resident status as of the beginning of 2021. This number includes more than 57,000 EU citizens, around 32,000 Ukrainians, 18,000 Chinese and 35,000 other nationals from Asian countries, according to the news agency DPA.

As an immediate measure, state representatives of Hungary, Austria, and Serbia agreed that the border fence on the Hungarian-Serbian border would be strengthened. This is currently 175 km long and 4 meters high; it is now to be extended by 11 km and increased by one meter. Austrian and Czech police officers are supporting the Hungarian police at this border, and additional technical equipment in the form of drones and thermal imaging cameras is also to be used there. Austria will also support Serbia with the repatriations.

Photo: Migrants on Tomislav Square in Zagreb, Credit: IDN-InDepthNews

Croatiamigrants are waiting for a train to go.

We checked the situation in neighbouring Croatia to see if the Balkan route is branching. On Tomislav Square in  Zagreb, around the railway station, migrants gather every day. At the beginning of October, we found about a hundred of them. As the week drew to a close, their number decreased. The people of Zagreb were appalled by the situation taking place in the very centre of one of the city’s most beautiful parks. Locals do not feel safe.

“It’s never been like this before, but it’s been like this for the last few weeks. Strangely, the media didn’t report about it, and no one asks who these people are and where they’re going,” a woman who lives near Tomislav Square told us. However, talking to several people, we soon got the answer to why no one is interested in illegal migrants: “We don’t care where they go. It’s important that they don’t stay.”

After the administrative procedure has been carried out in accordance with the Schengen Borders Code and the Law on Aliens, illegal migrants are issued return decisions with a deadline for leaving the European Economic Area within seven days.

We spoke with a group of young men between the ages of 15 and 30 at the beginning of October. They say they are coming from Afghanistan and have been on the road for five months. The lack of democracy, lack of education and perspective under the Taliban regime pushed them to travel thousands of kilometres. From Zagreb, they will go to Italy. They have five friends there who have established a life and who will help them to do the same. When asked which mode of transport they will use, they say ”train”. One of the stops is the city of Rijeka, from where migrants travel to Italy. Some also travel by trains from Serbia that are registered for freight transport. This was demonstrated by the crash of two trains, a passenger and a cargo train from Šid, in September of this year near the town of Novska, when eight illegal migrants were injured in one of the colliding trains. Most of the migrants who flooded one of Zagreb’s most beautiful squares were young men. When we spotted a group of several women, two of them with small babies, we asked them where they were coming from. They were the few who came from Africa but were on their way to Italy.

According to UNHCR and Eurostat data, 2,930 people applied for asylum in Croatia in 2021. This year there is a significant increase. In the first nine months of 2022, Croatia received 7,258 requests from people for international protection, which includes asylum and subsidiary protection, and this is the largest number of such requests in recent years, three times higher than in 2016 at the height of the migrant crisis. Citizens of Iraq (1,554), Turkey (1,150), Afghanistan (1,123), and Burundi (1,007) lead the way in applications for international protection. However, Croatia was not the final destination for none of them. As we have found out from informal sources, about 80 per cent of people who apply for asylum in Croatia then go to Germany, where they want to repeat the procedure.

 Photo: Minister of the Interior of Austria Gerhard Karner and Head of Central Service Combating Human Smuggling and Trafficking at Criminal Intelligence Service Gerald Tatzgern , FOTO: BMI/Jürgen Makowecz

Austria: “It is threatening to be worse than in the year 2015.”

As the asylum statistics of the Austrian Ministry of the Interior (BMI) show, the number of refugees in basic care reached an all-time high. Austria could have more than 100,000 asylum requests by the end of the year 2022, compared to around 40,000 people who applied for asylum in 2021.

With 89,867 people, it was already considerably more than in the years of the refugee crisis in 2016 and 2017, when under 80,000 people were sheltered per year.

By the end of October, it was already 89,867 asylum applications from the beginning of this year. It threatens to become “worse than in the disaster year 2015”, which makes this a “national security risk”.

Austrian Ministry of the Interior thinks that it will rocket with an additional 24,000 to 30,000 asylum seekers’ applications until the end of 2022. With that number that will be approximately 100,000 asylum seekers at the end of this year. This number will score an asylum record in Austria! In the year 2015, the authorities recorded 90,000 asylum applications.

To be noted is the fact that, according to the basic care database, in Austria, 91,000 people are already living with basic care, including 56,000 Ukrainian refugees.

If we consider that the majority of asylum applicants are men between 20 and 40 years of age, this represents a national security risk. Namely, in Austria, a much smaller number of men and women are militarily prepared to protect the country. This means 30,000 policemen and 55,000 soldiers including reservists are responsible for the safety and security of the Republic of Austria. Altogether they are less than the number of asylum requests this year.

Half a Billion for asylum care in one Yeara threat to National security, a threat to Institutions 

For taxpayers, the financial burden increases with every additional migrant that arrives: all arriving asylum seekers are getting basic care program comprising of health insurance, food, pocket money, money for clothing and accommodations. The federal government spends 230 to 500 million euros a year on care and accommodation for asylum seekers and other foreigners who are entitled to basic care.

The Republic of Austria currently spends around 425 euros per month on each asylum seeker – that means that for 91,000 people in basic services costs approximately 38.700 million euros per month and about 464 million euros per year, i.e. almost half a Billion.

The care and accommodation of asylum seekers after admission to the procedure (after the first few weeks in federal care facilities) take place in the federal states. In order to balance the burden of looking after and accommodating asylum seekers, a federal-state quota is specified based on population figures.

What are the consequences for illegal migrants who abuse the European asylum system?

In the worst case, after spending time in basic care, they can be returned to their home country at the expense of the Austrian state with additional financial compensation. Only people after a legally binding negative decision, for whom there is no reason for protection after the conduct of the procedure, receive a return decision and must leave the country.

In the first eight months of this year, 32,000 rejections were issued to asylum seekers in Austria. More than 7,000 people were transported out of Austria; 60 per cent left the country voluntarily, while 40 per cent were forced to do so.

A large number of asylum seekers come to Austria from countries such as India, Tunis and Morocco. Austrian public safety institutions expect that the number of asylum seekers will decrease when Serbia tightens controls on its southern border at the end of the year and imposes additional visa requirements for Indian and Pakistani citizens.

– People from India have no chance of asylum in Austria despite paying smugglers between 3 to 7 thousand euros to bring them to Austria – points out the Minister of the Interior of Austria Gerhard Karner in his speeches.

at the beginning of May, the Ministry of the Interior launched focus checks against smuggling and asylum abuse. Since then, according to the Austrian Director General of Public Safety Franz Ruf, police have caught more than 68,800 migrants, most of them – 46,000 – in Burgenland. The immigrants came primarily from Afghanistan, India, Syria, Tunisia, and Pakistan.

More than 2,500 special operations have been organised. Since the beginning of May, 440 traffickers have been arrested, 172 of them in Burgenland. In the whole of the previous year, there were a total of 441 traffickers and 311 across Austria in 2020.

In order to enable migrants to reach EU countries, human smugglers charge from 3.000 to 20.000 euros per person. Austrian Director General of Public Safety Franz Ruf also highlighted an example in which criminals operated at a high level. It is about the “chart dream” operation, where smugglers took 20 thousand euros from clients. This included organizing the creation of fake passports and flights on private planes that transported them to the EU, some of which were also discovered in Austria.

Head of Central Service Combating Human Smuggling and Human Trafficking at Criminal Intelligence Service Austria Gerald Tatzgern describes traffickers as people who make a criminal profit at the expense of migrants. They don’t care what happens to these people, whether they will stay alive or die during the often risky transports. The traffickers always refer to the migrants as boxes, bags, or cargo.

”According to Austria, the largest number of migrants arrives from Serbia via Hungary. But neighbouring countries are also affected. Through the Czech Republic and Slovakia, migration leads to Germany, and through Switzerland, further to France and Spain. Organized crime like human trafficking is often underestimated. They are connected internationally and can include even 10,000 people. These same gangs transfer money to Afghanistan and Syria, and we are talking about millions in profit”, stated Gerald Tatzgern the Head of Central Service Combating Human Smuggling and Human Trafficking.

Austrian criminal police say that they are paying special attention to armed smugglers groups who established their centre in Northern Serbia. In addition to posing a danger to police officers, these armed groups force migrants to follow only their rules, depriving them of all dignity and human freedom. These traffickers are often armed, and they tend to shoot at the police if they try to stop them while smuggling migrants.

Hoping for a solution, Austria shifts the threat of its own national security to neighbouring countries.

When it comes to migration, there is no European unity, just as there is no protection of the Union’s external borders. Every country is looking out for their own interests.

While Austrian politicians are only talking about the problem, Viktor Orban has built a protective wall worth €800 million, and under Aleksandar Vučić’s government developed a business model of charging migrants for crossing into the EU and at the same time cleaning the country of potential threats.

Vulin said it openly: “Serbia will not be a parking lot for migrants.” In order to achieve this, individuals, with the protection of the police, found the perfect business model for smuggling migrants into the EU.

Sarcastically, the Serbian Minister of the interior also sent a strong message to the Austrian security authorities, pointing out their interests in international criminal affairs. He noted that the same criminals who work in Serbia like to launder money in Austria through investments and illegal trade. In doing so, he indicated the flow of money in organised crime that includes people smuggling network: every migrant that is stopped at the border with Serbia is also one less migrant in Vienna. That means every migrant returned from Serbia to their country of origin is one less migrant who will need to be returned from Vienna. It was a point when Austria was ”motivated” to provide financial support for the repatriations of migrants from Serbia.

It is good to be realistic about playing ping-pong with migrants between EU states since there is no European solidarity. If they want to move further to the EU, Serbia will certainly allow them to do so in order to remove them from their territory and reduce the safety risk. One option is repatriations, and the other is to let irregular migrants go where they want to go— because the only important is that they don’t stay. The situation is black and white; you let them go towards their desired destination or return them to the country of origin –  their starting point.

Repatriations cost money, and smuggling migrants to EU countries cost Serbia nothing—there is even a chance to do business and make a profit with smuggling. So, why invest money in migrants if you can make money on them? The first EU country is Hungary, however, like Croatia, it does not offer many privileges and opportunities for asylum seekers because these countries themselves are economically weak. When they have already travelled such a long way, asylum seekers will prefer to go to destinations such as Sweden, Germany, France, Spain, and Austria. No amount of propaganda about how they hold the strings in their hands and cooperate with Serbia and Hungary will help the Austrian government in this. The reality is quite different, and it is clearly proven by statistics.

But  Austria’s view of the migrant crisis, things can get even more bizarre. The Austrian Ministry of the Interior is running ads on Google, Facebook and Instagram, for which they paid 260,000 euros. The addressees are young people in countries that have little or no chance of obtaining asylum: Morocco, Tunisia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Lebanon, Pakistan and India. Potential migrants are warned in their respective national languages that they are risking their lives and have no chance of asylum. You will fail,” reads one of the ads. “You can’t stay” and “There’s no getting through”. The information campaign is primarily being carried out on social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, as well as on the Google search interface. We are sure that people who carry the most modern mobile phones and have access to the Internet in urban cities will not head to the promised land of Europe with plastic bags in hand.

We should not forget to note that the Geneva Convention prohibits punishing for crossing borders illegally. People are often considered migrants, who, as opposed to refugees, were not in danger of being persecuted in their home countries and who left their homeland voluntarily, such as for the purpose of work or education or other personal reasons. There is a difference in decision-making regarding refugees and irregular migrants. It is obvious that the EU demands a clear policy regarding the protection of external borders. It is also obvious that Brussels bureaucrats refuse to establish this and that they are not afraid of any system of bearing the consequences in this matter. Maybe it’s time for all countries to follow Viktor Orban’s policy and ask their citizens what they want through a referendum. [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 November 2022]

Photo: Austrian Chancellor Karl Nechammer, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić during the meeting in Budapest. Credit: BKA/Dragan Tatic

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