ZOiS Spotlight 25/2018

The Western Balkan route and European border policies

by Jelena Tošić 04/07/2018
Refugees in Croatia just behind the Serbian border in September 2015. Nils Bröer, n-ost

In summer 2015, the world’s gaze was directed towards Southeast Europe. The reason: the large number of people crossing the region’s borders to reach Western European countries, most notably Germany. Suddenly, and although people had been dying in the Mediterranean for years, observers proclaimed the start of the European refugee crisis.

There followed months of interrelated and conflicting activities, processes and events. The dynamics along the Western Balkan route shifted as border regimes changed. The closure of the Hungarian-Serbian frontier in September 2015 redirected the route to the Serbian-Croatian border, and the closure of the whole route in March 2016 left many people stranded in countries they merely intended to cross on their way to their final destination.

Reassessing Europe at its borders

A highly diverse array of humanitarian and civil-society activism developed in places such as Idomeni refugee camp at the Greek-Macedonian border, Belgrade bus station, and Keleti railway station in Budapest. People fleeing from countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia; local citizens and activists from across Europe; and police and border officials came together in packed public spaces near border crossings and urban mobility nodes. These spaces harboured surprising alliances and joint actions by activists with opposing ideologies, such as left- and right-wing activists, as well as humanitarian volunteers from pensioners nostalgic for Yugoslavia to children of former students from the Middle East who settled in Belgrade during Yugoslavia’s non-aligned times.

At the same time, there were competing claims and notions of what a European answer to the refugee crisis was supposed to look like. On the one hand were calls for a welcoming culture, the right of free movement, and human dignity. On the other were violent arguments and policies to protect national state borders from the Muslim other and from ‘undeserving migrants’, whose search for a better life was seen as illegitimate and an additional burden on shrinking social-welfare conditions in Western European countries.

Media images of tear-gas operations at the Hungarian border and human faces covered with blood flooded TV screens and framed the public’s image of borders in twenty-first-century Europe as a contested space.

The real Europe in its own “backyard”

Countries along the Western Balkan migration route joined the arguments over what should constitute a European response. One of the most interesting political effects of the route I observed during my stay in Belgrade in summer 2015 was how politicians used Serbia’s open-border policy to frame the country’s supreme European character, in contrast to the balkanizing image of the Western Balkans as Europe’s violent and uncivilised backyard. ‘I seem to be the only one left in Europe who is against walls and fences,’ the then Serbian prime minister stated during his visit to Paris in August 2016. Aleksandar Vučić, one of the most vocal ultranationalists of the 1990s and now Serbia’s pro-European president—aptly characterised by Serbian sociologist and politician Vesna Pešić as a ‘populist without an ideology’—skilfully navigated the European refugee crisis. Meanwhile, the bulk of the humanitarian work done in Belgrade and Presevo, in southern Serbia, in the heat of the refuge crisis was conducted by volunteers and civil-society organisations.

In the Western Balkans, the division between EU members and countries not yet in the bloc manifested itself as Croatia accused Serbia of transporting migrants to the border and temporarily suspended passenger traffic between the two countries in September 2015.

The new Western Balkan route?

In late May 2018 a new Western Balkan route through Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia made headlines in several European countries. Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, one of the main political advocates and beneficiaries of the closure of the first Western Balkan route in 2016, recently stated that closing the new route was ‘a matter of will’ and announced talks on the issue with officials from Western Balkan countries.

Although the rising numbers of refugees along the new route are not comparable with those in 2015 and in fact reflect regular seasonal fluctuations, an ability to show decisiveness when it comes to controlling migration through the Western Balkans is still a powerful political ace in Central Europe. For people on the move, the route represents a constant source of uncertainty, as they are made to navigate changing and ever more restrictive border and migration/asylum regimes along the way. As European countries have yet to implement the new consensus on migration that leaders reached at the June 2018 EU summit, the Western Balkan route looks set to remain as a space of uncertainty, immobility, and lives on hold.

Jelena Tošić is researcher and lecturer at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Vienna.