Slovenia, Serbia take steps to shut down Balkan migrant route
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Slovenia and Serbia said on Tuesday they would block transit through their countries to all but a handful of migrants in a bid to seal off the Balkan route used by hundreds of thousands of people seeking a new life in Europe.
The decisions to further restrict routes taken by more than a million migrants in the last year were announced hours after EU leaders declared an end to a mass scramble to reach wealthy countries in Europe from war zones.
“From midnight, there will be no more migration on the Western Balkan route as it took place so far,” the interior ministry of EU member Slovenia said in a statement.
It said EU leaders agreed in Brussels on Monday that member states must enforce the rules of the open-border Schengen area. This means Slovenia would bar passage to migrants except those who planned to request asylum in the country or who sought entry for humanitarian reasons, which would be individually assessed.
Only about 460 of the almost 478,000 migrants who have passed through Slovenia since last October asked for asylum in the country, with most heading to wealthier northern nations such as Germany.
Non-EU member Serbia said Slovenia’s decision meant “a closure of the Balkan route” for migrants and said it would follow suit. “Serbia cannot allow itself to become a collective centre for refugees, so it will harmonise all its measures with those of the EU member states,” the interior ministry said in a statement.
Croatia’s Interior Minister Vlaho Orepic confirmed late on Tuesday that the former Yugoslav republic, which is an EU member but not part of the Schengen area, will also from midnight apply new rules, meaning that only those travelling with valid documents and visas will be able to enter.
Macedonia is also likely to follow suit as Slovenia’s decision triggers a domino effect across the Balkan states.
Slovenia and Serbia, along with Austria, Croatia and Macedonia, have already dramatically restricted entry to migrants in recent weeks, leaving a bottleneck of some 36,000 stuck at the Greek-Macedonian border, unable to continue their journey.
This has slowed the numbers reaching Slovenia to a trickle. The last migrants arrived in Slovenia three days ago, according to police there.
Nevertheless, the United Nations refugee agency says there are around 1,500 migrants in Macedonia and about 1,000 in Serbia. These people could be stranded by the new border restrictions.
Concerns over Turkey deal
Turkey, currently hosting 2.7 million Syrian refugees, is the key springboard for migrants making the perilous sea crossing to Greece. Efforts to stem the flow have failed, with nearly 2,000 migrants landing on the overstretched Greek islands every day in February.
At talks in Brussels on Monday, the EU agreed in principle to a Turkish proposal to take back all illegal migrants landing on the Greek islands.
Ankara also proposed an arrangement under which the EU would resettle one Syrian refugee from camps in Turkey in exchange for every Syrian that Turkey takes from Greece, in a bid to reduce the incentive for people to board boats for Europe.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker called the plan a "real game changer" and insisted it was "legally feasible", but it sparked concern from UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi.
"As a first reaction I'm deeply concerned about any arrangement that would involve the blanket return of anyone from one country to another without spelling out the refugee protection safeguards under international law," Grandi told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
Rights group Amnesty International said the proposal was full of "moral and legal flaws" and along with Human Rights Watch challenged the idea that Turkey was a "safe country" to which migrants could return.
After talks in the western Turkish city of Izimr on Wednesday, Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras pledged to work together to implement the plan.
Tsipras said the situation in the Aegean, where hundreds of migrants have drowned already this year making the perilous crossing in rickety boats, was a "shame and disgrace to our culture".
Greece and Turkey also renewed their commitment to a 2002 protocol on the readmission of migrants, which has rarely been activated before now, in the hope that its use could transform the refugee crisis.
But securing a deal at another European summit next week may still be difficult given the deep divisions that the migration crisis has sown in the bloc.
Hungary's hardline anti-migration Prime Minister Viktor Orban may veto the resettlement deal, while Cyprus said it remained opposed to accelerated EU accession talks for Turkey.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)
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