The European Commission is demanding Western Balkan nations do more to prevent migrants entering the European Union.
On Monday (5 December), it unveiled another so-called action plan that involves a greater deployment the EU’s border force, Frontex, while leveraging its visa-free policy on Balkan nationals.
“We’ll be able to bring down the numbers, first by reinforcing border management,” said European Commission vice-president, Margaritis Schinas.
“We need strong EU presence on the ground, and to exploit to the maximum the potential and the new mandate of Frontex,” he added.
The move comes at a time when thousands of prospective asylum seekers, mainly from Afghanistan and Syria, travel through the Western Balkans in an effort to seek protection in an EU member state.
Many lodge asylum claims in Austria, which has seen a sharp increase compared to last year.
Frontex says they detected almost 130,000 irregular border crossings at EU external borders on all Western Balkan routes between January and November this year.
The figures, along with some 90,000 arrivals over the past year from the Central Mediterranean, have spooked the European Commission into shoring up border controls and cutting deals with countries outside the European Union.
It means the Warsaw-based agency will be able to send more border guards to the Western Balkans.
The agency currently has some 500 stationed in the region along shared EU borders. But its new mandate widens those deployments.
“Within the new [Frontex] mandate it will be possible to deploy also internally, so to say, between two different Western Balkan partners,” said EU home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson.
The commission says the agency has secured status agreements with Albania, Montenegro, Serbia and North Macedonia, allowing Frontex guards to be stationed at their borders. Another agreement is set for Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The deals come with some €40m in border management and surveillance equipment for Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo. It also comes with promises to step up returns of unwanted migrants, also from within the Western Balkans.
This includes getting the Balkan states to sever visa-free agreements with countries whose nationals then try to cross into the EU.
Schinas described those agreements as unacceptable and as a loopholes that allow people to gain “illegal access into the European Union.”
Serbia in October cut visa-free ties with Burundi and Tunisia after a number of their nationals tried to enter the EU. India may also soon be on the Serb chopping list, following EU pressure.
The commission’s plans will be discussed on Thursday among EU interior ministers in Brussels.
Poland, Lithuania and Belarus
While the EU continues to focus on the Western Balkans and the Central Mediterranean, NGOs in Poland and Lithuania are sounding the alarm.
They say that people seeking asylum continue to be brutalised by European border guards along the shared Belarus frontier.
Rita Skriadaite, from the Lithuania’s Sienos Grupe, an NGO, said that two young men from Sri Lanka recently had their legs amputated due to frostbite.
“We know that those boys were asking for the shoes and they didn’t get them,” she said.
She said over the past few weeks, her organisation had found families with small children in the forests along the border.
Similar stories continue to surface in Poland, where at least 28 people have been confirmed dead in the border zone amid allegations of beatings and illegal pushbacks into Belarus.
Grupa Granica, a network of Polish activists, says over 1,000 people have asked for their help over the last two months alone.
“We documented 200 illegal push backs, and we registered reports about 21 missing people,” said Aleksandra Loboda, Grupa Granica spokesperson.
She said Poland’s 5.5m-high,180km-long border wall, completed over the summer, has had no effect in stopping people from entering.
“The wall has only been efficient as a tool of inflicting pain to migrants,” she said.
She also noted a rise in the number of people attempting to cross into Poland from Belarus with Russian-entry visa stamps on their passports.
“There is an increasing number of people who have Russian visas as well,” she said.