Refugees face three potential changes to Balkan route to EU
walking through the Balkans to the European Union this week face up to three unexpected changes to the well-trodden route that has brought at least 160,000 people to the safety of northern Europe so far this year.
On Sunday, sealed its borders to all but EU passport holders and others with valid visas, reversing a week-old decision that allowed refugees to come by train from Austria.
On Tuesday, two further changes could also alter the Balkan route, the first when enacts new border laws that will criminalise the act of crossing or damaging its newly built border fence.
This will potentially prompt large numbers of refugees to veer westwards, through Croatia and Slovenia in order to reach more welcoming countries such as Germany and .
In a separate development, organisers hope thousands of Syrians will gather on the Turkish side of the Turkey-Greece land border to ask the Greek authorities to offer them a safe passage on to Greek soil, eliminating the need for them to resort to sea smugglers.
Either of the latter moves would represent the biggest shift in the refugee route to the EU since early spring, when many Syrians stopped using Libya as a springboard to . Instead, they opted to cross by boat from Turkey to Greece before walking through Macedonia and Serbia to reach Hungary and the EU territories beyond. Now many want to cut out the maritime part of the trip, while further along the trail some are considering how to circumvent Hungary.
Fady al-Shibly, the Syrian logistics manager and refugee who is organising the Turkish border protest, told the Guardian: “We want to stop the trade of human souls in the sea, so we’re demanding the creation of humanitarian corridors by land. If they won’t open the border, we will keep staying there in tents.”
A few hundred miles to the north, some refugees are discussing on social media whether to head west to Croatia instead of crossing into Hungary, should the Hungarian border become too risky on Tuesday.
It is a development that migration specialists warn will put more refugees at risk. Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organisation for (IOM), said: “This Hungary barrier will simply create more dangers for refugees because it will drive people into the hands of smugglers, who will take them through Croatia or wherever they can.”
Both developments may yet fail to transpire. Hungary has already tempered its actions against refugees once this summer, opening up a gap in its when it became clear that people were crossing it anyway. This time round, IOM’s Hungarian office , since the state may lack the manpower and vacant prison cells to successfully enforce its new laws.
In Turkey, activists reported on Sunday that police had arrested Syrians in towns near the land border with Greece, casting doubt on whether enough people will be able to gather en masse in the area on Tuesday. Should their actions fail, Shibly admits that his compatriots “for sure will go back to the [sea] smugglers. They are searching for a dignified life for their children”.
But whatever route they take, it seems possible that high numbers will continue to try to reach Europe, despite the worsening weather that autumn will bring. October and November has historically seen fewer attempted journeys to Europe due to storms in the Mediterranean sea. But Shibly speculated that Syrians were now so desperate that many could try to cross the waters regardless – him included.
“If our strike succeeds, no one will use the smugglers,” he said. “But if our strike fails, this year the number will rise. Syrians are coming now [to Turkey] from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon. They cannot go back again, and they can’t live in Turkey, so the only solution is to travel through smugglers.”