A group of migrants waits to enter a makeshift camp at the Austrian Slovenian border near the village of Sentilj, Slovenia on October 26, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters

(Brussels) – A plan agreed to by European Union and Balkan leaders on October 25, 2015, to address the needs of refugees on the Western Balkans migration route, also risks exacerbating suffering and blocking access to protection, Human Rights Watch said today.

The action plan, which seeks to prevent asylum seekers moving on from transit countries and to make those countries responsible for processing their claims, could lead to new bottlenecks. The plan does, however, include steps that could help enhance coordination and aid efforts along the Balkan route.

“It’s good to see the EU and Balkan leaders acknowledging the humanitarian crisis and agreeing to try to avert disaster as the weather turns,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But rather than making the flow more orderly and predictable and the processing of asylum claims fairer and more efficient, the plan could simply divert asylum seekers and block them from getting protection.”

The 17-point action plan was approved on October 25, by leaders from the EU member states Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Romania, and Slovenia, and the EU candidate countries Albania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Serbia. The plan is aimed at improving coordination along the Western Balkans migration route, currently the main route for asylum seekers trying to reach the European Union via Turkey and Greece.

The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, correctly described the stakes for October 25 talks, Human Rights Watch said, when he said that without a solution, “We will soon see families in cold rivers in the Balkans perish miserably.”

The action plan contains a number of positive elements, which if properly carried out, could significantly ameliorate conditions for asylum seekers at Europe’s borders. They include improved coordination by relevant governments and a commitment to establish reception spaces for 50,000 asylum seekers in Greece – 20,000 of them funded by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and an effort to create a further 50,000 spaces along the Western Balkans migration route. The plan also envisions increased capacity to provide “temporary shelter, food, health, water and sanitation” to asylum seekers and migrants on the route, including through greater use of the EU’s civil protection mechanism, which provides coordinated emergency assistance to participating states.

The plan also includes a number of measures for border enforcement and returns. States have the sovereign right to control their borders, and may remove rejected asylum seekers not at risk of human rights abuse provided they follow fair procedures. But some of the measures could deny asylum seekers access to protection, summarily return them to transit countries, or trap them in countries that lack the capacity to receive and process them properly.

Establishing a credible system for responsibility-sharing across the EU through the relocation of asylum seekers remains essential, but this plan could make those efforts harder to carry out, Human Rights Watch said.

Under the plan, European governments agree to “discourage the movement of refugees or migrants to the border of another country of the region.” This suggests a return to the failed Dublin Regulation “country of first arrival” formula, which put the onus for hosting and processing asylum seekers on the countries often least capable of carrying out this responsibility. The plan also contains a raft of intensified border control efforts, including deploying police officers to Slovenia and Frontex border guards to the Croatia-Serbia and Bulgaria-Turkey borders. The plan also states that a country “may refuse entry” to people who “do not confirm a wish to apply for international protection.”

These measures carry two related risks. The first is that countries along the Balkan route, including Greece, could deny access to protection to those who need it by refusing entry or summarily returning asylum seekers at European borders if they do not register an intention to seek asylum in that country. Many asylum seekers are reluctant to lodge asylum claims in transit countries; they do not have confidence that their claims will be fairly heard, because they have experienced poor reception conditions or discriminatory, xenophobic treatment in those countries, or because they have family and other ties to other European countries.

The second risk is that if larger numbers do register an intention to seek asylum in countries that are currently transit countries, including Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece, the numbers may exceed the capacity of those countries to provide proper reception and fair and efficient asylum procedures. That could cause them to follow Hungary’s lead and close their borders to asylum seekers, risking the same chaotic border scenes and humanitarian problems witnessed in recent weeks.

It’s good to see the EU and Balkan leaders acknowledging the humanitarian crisis and agreeing to try to avert disaster as the weather turns

Benjamin Ward

Deputy Europe and Central Asia director

The plan also specifically calls for intensified cooperation with Afghanistan to return and readmit Afghan nationals. But EU member countries granted asylum or some other form of protection to Afghan nationals at a rate of 64 percent in 2014 and the first half of 2015, and the security environment in Afghanistan has been deteriorating in recent months.

It is critically important for governments to carry out this plan in ways that put saving lives and protecting people as the highest priority and protecting borders and sovereignty second, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has documented the human consequences of inadequate coordination and provision of assistance to asylum seekers in the face of cascading border closures that began with Hungary effectively closing its border with Serbia to asylum seekers and migrants on September 15, and then with Croatia on October 16.

In the days that followed the October border closures, entire families – including young children, the elderly, and people with disabilities – suffered on the Croatia-Slovenia border in almost freezing cold and constant rain, with no shelter. Families were separated in border chaos. There were also credible allegations that the police used excessive force.

Similar problems have occurred at borders in Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Macedonia in recent months, Human Rights Watch said.

“The real test of this new action plan will come in the next weeks,” Ward said. “Will it result in people getting the shelter and protection they need? Or will it push people away from northern and western EU countries and trap them in countries that can’t guarantee decent reception conditions or fair asylum procedures?”