On 19 February the countries along the “Western Balkan route”, including FYROM, started implementing a new refugee registration and transportation mechanism that significantly impacted the refugee flow in this region – see below “EU Developments”. This new measure reduced drastically the number of refugees entering the country in the past two weeks. According to UNHCR 6,329 asylum seekers arrived during the reporting period, against the over 28,000 of the previous two weeks. IOM reported that between 18 and 25 February 5,060 asylum seekers entered the country.
ECRE member MYLA reported that 5,824 intentions to seek asylum were issued in this time frame, with an average of 448 daily. The people who submitted an application for asylum in FYROM were 50, mainly from non-SIA countries (Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan).
Registration and asylum procedures
With the entry into force of the new measure, Gevgelija, on the southern border with Greece, became the only registration point where refugees are provided with the new registration document. This form, in English, includes personal information, biometric data, and the space for the stamps of the countries that will be crossed along the journey until the destination. According to MYLA the new registration form allows minors to register only on the form of their parents; other family relations will not be recognized, creating problems for separated children who cannot register on the form of their guardian.
Furthermore, Syrian and Iraqi refugees will be required to show a national identity document, indicating personal data which have to match with the data recorded on the Greek document. Asylum seekers unable to display these documents will not be allowed to pass. Documents issued by UNHCR in Turkey will also not be accepted when lacking a picture and stamp.
MYLA offered free legal aid and informed approximately 121 group leaders (reaching therefore 6,205 people) about their rights and obligations and the asylum procedure in Macedonia.
Reception, shelter, assistance
MSF is running a medical tent in Idomeni where they also provide relief items to transiting refugees. The transit camp is provided with six heated rub-halls, 24 showers, wi-fi, distribution of hot meals and toilets. However, the camp’s capacity is not enough to accommodate all the refugees and many of them spend the night outside or at the gas station in Polykastro, where MSF has set up nine heated tents, a mobile clinic and food distribution.
As many rejected refugees resort to unofficial routes and are harder to reach out to, MSF has launched activities in areas known for being populated by “irregular” asylum seekers, where they distribute blankets and food.
Overall MSF have registered an increase of injured asylum seekers requiring their medical services following episodes of violence perpetrated by the police at the border.
Protection at the Greek-Macedonian border
As part of the new measure being currently implemented, Balkan countries started blocking Afghan refugees from continuing their journey northwards. This lead to a significant bottleneck of pushed-back and stranded refugees on the Greek side of the border, with no information or humanitarian assistance being provided.
According to the volunteer group Are You Syrious, camp A and B in Idomeni were full during the reporting period. Afghans have been separated from the other refugees and accommodated in camp B, which was apparently cleared by the police in the evening of Monday 22 February. On Tuesday 23 February Greek police kept clearing the border and taking the rejected refugees, mainly Afghans, to an army-built camp near Athens by bus. MSF reported that in some cases, while forcibly boarding refugees on the buses, police have resorted to violence.
The implementation of the new measure is not progressing smoothly and because of the daily caps imposed by other countries on the “route”, more and more refugees are stuck at the
European external border waiting to be issued with the proper documentation. MYLA reported that on 24 February 120 refugees from Syria and Iraq were stranded at the Vinojug reception centre in Gevgelija, waiting to be issued with the unified registration document.
After almost two weeks from the enforcement of the new measure more and more refugees who do not qualify for the unified document remain stuck on the Greek side of the border, which in itself has created a environment. In the past ten days Afghan asylum seekers stuck at the border have been adding to the rejected refugees from other countries and staged protests holding banners in front of the barbed-wire fence. Tension rose on 28 February when refugees staged a protest on the railway and on 29 February when a group of refugees broke a part of the barbed-wire fence in Idomeni and Macedonian police threw tear-gas to disperse the crowd.
Greek police reported that on Sunday 21 February there were 800 people stranded at the border and 2,750 were waiting inside approximately 55 buses in an area nearby. On Friday 26 February Greek officials reported that nobody was allowed to cross the border to FYROM on that day. As it happened before, the country decided to stop the refugee flow because a similar decision was taken by Serbia. According to MYLA, by the end of February, 7,000 refugees were stranded at the border.
Protection at the Serbian-Macedonian border
Many refugees that were already on the move when the new measure was put into place, found themselves blocked at the northern Macedonian border, where Danish Refugee Council confirmed to ECRE there was a bottleneck of more than 1,000 people. On 22 February 700 Afghan refugees were stranded at the border. According to MYLA, by the end of the reporting period around 800 refugees were blocked at the frontier.
The Macedonia Crisis staff have been discussing the return to the Greek-Macedonian border of around 800 Syrians stuck in Tabanovce because they lack the proper documentation.
National policy development
On Saturday 20 February FYROM started blocking the entry of Afghan refugees into the country. Entry for Iraqis and Syrians has also been restricted: they have to undergo body searches, language tests and a thorough examination of documentation. Macedonian authorities claimed that this change in policy follows a similar decision of the Serbian authorities. On Tuesday 23 February Greece called on FYROM to ease the burden of the refugees’ bottleneck by opening the border and letting migrants and refugees pass.
On 19 February the countries along the “Western Balkan route”, including Serbia, started implementing a new refugee registration and transportation mechanism that significantly impacted the refugee flow in this region. According to the Danish Refugee Council, on 21 February, Serbia stopped receiving Afghan refugees. Further details will be provided in the section “EU Developments”. This new measure reduced drastically the number of refugees entering the country in the past two weeks. According to UNHCR 6,509 asylum seekers arrived during the reporting period of which 928 entered from Bulgaria. In the previous two weeks over 28,000 new arrivals were recorded.
On 28 February 34 Yazidi refugees from Iraq, including seven children and one pregnant woman, arrived in Dimitrovdgrad, on the border with Bulgaria, but were returned by the border authorities. IOM reported that in the period 18 to 25 February 3,825 asylum seekers entered the country, with an average of 546 daily arrivals in Preševo.
Registration and asylum procedures
Registration was slow between 19 and 21 February, following tightened document checks and the introduction of new procedures earlier in the week. DRC reported that some refugees have been diverted to Preševo, Tabanovce and possibly to FYROM to register under the new unified procedure. On Friday 19 February other sources reported that Serbia has closed its southern border to asylum seekers that have not registered at the Greek-Macedonian frontier. In the first days of enforcement of the new measure refugees who did not register in Gevgelija were supposed to go back and register at the appointed site.
Reception, shelter, assistance
MSF is present on the northern and southern borders of the country assisting refugees with medical care, psychosocial support, food and non-food items. Mobile clinics are also operating on the border with Bulgaria and in Belgrade.
In the capital more and more refugees, especially non-SIA, find accommodation in parks, streets and train station while trapped in a legal limbo. The medical organization reported that in Belgrade 5% of medical consultations are unaccompanied children, the highest percentage compared to other locations.
In Šid MSF has set up eight heated tents with a 2,000 persons capacity for refugees waiting to board trains to Croatia. The primary medical issue is respiratory problems.
UNHCR reported that on 16 February the Serbian Minister of Interior, Serbian Minister of Labour, the Norwegian Ambassador and UNHCR visited the Preševo Reception Centre in the south of the country and inaugurated two family pavilions, one child-friendly space in collaboration with DRC, IRC’s coffee shop and a new ambulance.
Protection at the Serbian-Macedonian border
On 16 February ECRE member Danish Refugee Council reported that over 200 asylum seekers have been returned from Croatia to Serbia after “failing” the nationality test. The group were first rejected by Slovenia and sent back to Serbia after spending two days at Slavosnki Brod camp in Croatia. On 18 February around 30 of them have blocked the railway in Šid in sign of protest. More details about the episode can be found on the last issue of the ECRE weekly bulletin as well as testimonies from the group can be found at this link. Later on 21 February the group tried to reach Croatia on foot along the highway but were stopped by the police and convinced to board buses to Principovač Refuge Aid Point.
Hundreds of Afghan asylum seekers are stranded at the border between FYROM and Serbia as the latter denied them entry, as confirmed also by Dejana Nedeljkovic, Macedonian interior ministry spokesperson. Al Jazeera reported that on Friday 19 February 367 Afghan refugees have been forbidden entrance to Serbia. As of Monday 22 February 617 people were stuck in FYROM, not allowed to cross into Serbia and were stationing in a refugee transit centre.
UNHCR operates a shuttle service from the village of Miratovač to the Preševo registration point in the south of the country.
Protection at the Serbian-Bulgarian border
Bulgaria is not part of the “Balkan route” but more and more refugees are using Dimitrovgrad border crossing to enter Serbia. People caught in this part of the country are often returned. During the last week of reporting nearly all Afghan men who entered Serbia via Bulgaria have been arrested and threatened to be sent back.
Refugees who cross the border and enter Serbia can walk to the registration camp, about 20-30 km away or take a taxi. Reportedly if refugees are female of any age or male under 14 and over 60 years of age, they can enter Serbia if they intend to apply for asylum there. In case they apply they are fingerprinted, photographed and given a paper on expression of interest and 72 hours to report to an asylum camp. This paper does not allow one to travel and leave Serbia. Male refugees between 14 and 60 are fingerprinted, photographed and ordered to leave Serbia within 5 days.
Apparently, as they cannot proceed to Croatia without a paper, the aim is to send them back to Gevgelija to obtain a biometric paper or to return to their country of origin. This practice endangers the principle of family unity.
Serbian authorities do not produce biometric documents in Dimitrovgrad which would allow refugees to continue their journey legally to Croatia, but usually send asylum seekers to Preševo and sometimes even south to FYROM.
The Belgrade Centre for Human Rights reported that heads of police of Serbia and Bulgaria met on Saturday 20 February in Dimitrovgrad and agreed that, as of 22 February, the only official entry point to the country will be Preševo, on the border with FYROM and that the authorities of the two countries will cooperate to prevent refugees from entering from Bulgaria.
On February 21 Serbia advised Bulgaria to tighten border control and announced that refugees entering from Bulgaria will be sent back. Authorities will work jointly to prevent Bulgaria from becoming part of the Balkan route.
Asylum seekers arriving to Dimitrovgrad are usually in bad shape, starved, wet and psychologically traumatised. International human rights organizations reported that Bulgarian police often resort to violence against migrants and asylum seekers and other reports informed that Dimitrovgrad and Bulgaria in general are the worst places for refugees at the moment.
ECRE member Belgrade Centre for Human Rights reported that the situation on the Serbian-Bulgarian border is rather chaotic. During the week-end between 19 to 21 February a bus full of refugees was sent to Preševo and then from Preševo to Nis and then to Belgrade. Some refugees have been allowed in the country without registration documents, placing them in a very risky legal situation. Assessing the situation is difficult as the police restrict access to registration centres.
The organization reported also of some returns to Bulgaria and issued a statement calling for the authorities of Serbia to stop returns in respect of the “non-refoulement” principle.
The Bulgarian Parliament voted on Thursday 18 February to let its army take part to the Balkans’ borders patrolling activities. Bulgaria is getting more and more involved in mixed migration related issues as it fears that the closure of the borders north of Greece might affect its own territory. It will deploy armed forces and police along the border with Turkey.
Protection at the Serbian-Croatian border
As Friday 19 February was the first day of enforcement of this new measure its implementation was not smooth and the border has been closed for many hours. MSF reported that no trains have run to connect Serbia to Croatia in the few days after the enforcement of the new measure and that Croatia has been conducting arbitrary triage and leaving many refugees, also Syrian and Iraqi stranded on the Serbian side of the border for allegedly not holding the proper documentation and without giving more information.
Danish Refugee Council reported that at least five buses carrying hundreds of people were rejected during the week-end of 19 to 21 February and moved from the Croatian border to Preševo, on the border with FYROM where they are supposed to get the right documentation.
Croatia is part of the group of countries that have established the new refugee registration and transportation mechanism, which explains the drastic decrease in the number of people entering the country in the past two weeks.
According to UNHCR 11,366 asylum seekers entered Croatia between 16 to 29 February, against the over 28,000 that entered the country in the previous two weeks.
ECRE member Centre for Peace Studies reported that 5,436 refugees arrived in Croatia during the reporting period. They were all transported by bus from Šid, on the Serbian border, to Slavonski Brod transit camp, then transferred to Bodova camp, in Slovenia, by train. According to the Croatian organization children make up to one third of the total number of refugees arriving in the country.
IOM reported that in the period 18 to 25 February 2,492 asylum seekers entered the country, with a daily average of 365 entries.
MSF reported to ECRE that Croatia has introduced a new document and refugees, among whom Syrian, Iraqi and Afghani, are returned from Croatia to Serbia after undergoing what seems a fast-track RSD assessment.
Registration and asylum procedures
The Centre for Peace Studies reported that the registration procedure became longer and more detailed than before. They also reported that on 26 February the Ministry of Interior decided that only one train a day will be allowed to enter the camp in the evening, between 20 pm to 12 am and will leave to Slovenia the following day at 17.30; however, trains are still arriving at Slavonski Brod at different times. While waiting, people would be accommodated in sector 1. The scheduling of the train follows a similar scheduling adopted by the Slovenian authorities.
Reception, shelter, assistance
Refugees are usually swiftly directed from the registration point to tents where they are given food by the Red Cross and other NGOs, and then on to trains. If trains are delayed people are placed in sector 1 of Slavonski Brod camp until departure.
Refugees returned from Slovenia are placed in Slavonski Brod camp, sector 3 which is extremely isolated. Only police can access and usually the Croatian Red Cross provide food, water and hygiene supplies. On February 27 UNICEF could access sector 3 to work with children from 10 to 12 and from 17 to 19. On February 29 the sector was accommodating 299 people.
The Centre for Peace Studies reported that relief organizations are not allowed to access the registration area as only police and translators are allowed. The Croatian Red Cross is allowed to support disabled asylum seekers during registration. The NGO Information Legal Centre disseminates leaflets with information on the Croatian asylum centre in different languages. All the refugees transported through the official transportation are registered.
Protection at the border
In Slavonski Brod translators and police keep carrying out controls for those refugees who do not have documents; sometimes interpreters are erroneously identifying refugees’ nationality.
As reported by MSF, Croatia has established a fast-track RSD assessment by asking refugees a set of questions such as specifics about the country and the city of origin, country and region of destination, whether they have family in a European country and examine their accent.
According to DRC, Croatia has rejected families at the border and stopped train connections to Serbia.
National policy developments
On 16 February Vlado Dominic, chief of police, said that additional riot and border police have been deployed to monitor the border with Serbia. Slovenia and Austria gave authorisation to the army to help manage the migrants’ flow on the border with Croatia.
In an interview published by Deutsche Welle on 17 February, the new Croatian Foreign Minister declared that if Greece cannot secure the EU external borders, Croatia will back the initiative of Slovenia to control the Greek-Macedonian border with a joint operation. He added that cooperation with other Balkan countries will be possible as long as northern European countries continue to receive refugees.
Croatia and Slovenia announced on Friday 26 February that they will now allow only 580 refugees to enter their territory every day. This measure has not been implemented yet but authorities said they will do so in case Austria sets a different cap.
On 17 February leaders of the Western Balkan countries met in Brussels for a working dinner to discuss the details of concerted efforts to step up the provision of resources at the Greek-Macedonian border. The group also discussed about how to improve the exchange of information to avoid refugee bottlenecks at the borders. Non-EU members in the region are reportedly pushing to have access to the EURODAC database. An EU Commission spokesperson has said that they will look into the issue, as technically third countries are not allowed to access the information.
The following day, on 18 February, chiefs of police from Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and FYROM have met in Zagreb and agreed on a joint refugee registration and transportation mechanism. According to this new measure, asylum seekers will be taken from the Greek-Macedonian border, directly to Austria through the Balkan route. They will be registered in Gevgelija and provided with a biometric document and will get a stamp in every country. They will finally apply for asylum only once in the country of destination.
Vlado Dominic, head of Croatian police said the new transportation method will avoid returns at the border and that once the convoy leaves, it will be no longer possible to join it. Once in Austria refugees will choose whether to stay there or continue to Germany.
The joint statement produced during the meeting, which was meant as a follow up of the meeting held in Skopije on 3 February, establishes that police of each country will escort the refugees from FYROM to Austria taking into consideration daily caps and working in close cooperation with the other states involved. The statement also sets out that protection will not be granted to refugees who have spent more than 30 days in a safe country such as Turkey and Iran.
After several warnings, on 19 February Austria introduced a limit of 3,200 entries and 80 asylum applications to be accepted daily. According to Austrian Interior Minister Mikl-Leitner this measure was necessary because the European Union has failed in designing a strategy to cope with the influx of refugees. Austria hopes to cut the number of incoming migrants to 37,500 in 2016, in sharp contrast with last year’s figures. The European Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos reacted saying that “such a policy would be plainly incompatible with Austria’s obligations under European and international law” and European Commission President Junker criticised Austria by remarking that "solo national approaches were not recommended".
On 18-19 February the European Council meeting took place, during which the need for a stronger EU involvement in humanitarian assistance has been underlined. More about the meeting can be found in ECRE’s post.
On Wednesday 24 February, Interior ministers of Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, FYROM, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia and Austria met in Vienna to discuss about a joint strategy to reduce the refugee influx along the “Balkan route” with the aim of protecting their countries from security threats and to preserve their resources. No invitation was extended to Greece to attend the meeting, with the country later describing it as a “unilateral and non-friendly conference”. The following day the country recalled its Ambassador in Austria. Because of the measures adopted by the other countries on the “route” Greece finds itself squeezed, overwhelmed and unable to handle to big number of asylum seekers on its territory.
On 26 February UNHCR issued a press release announcing the launch of the “Blue Dot hubs”. Twenty Child and Family support hubs will be set up by UNHCR and UNICEF in Greece, FYROM, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia to facilitate the identification of the protection needs of the most vulnerable on the move. The project will be finalised in the coming three months.
Disclaimer. The ECRE Western Balkan News Brief uses media and publicly available news sources, published information from international organisations, such as UNHCR and IOM, and information provided by ECRE member organisations present in the Western Balkan countries. ECRE does not claim ownership over the content. The information provided in the ECRE Western Balkan News Brief does not necessarily represent the views of ECRE. If you would like to contribute or subscribe, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.