On 25 November, the action plan for the central Mediterranean route was presented to the 27 interior ministers of the member countries of the European Union. The European Commission had explained that day that in a short time an action plan would also be drawn up in time for the EU-Western Balkans summit, in Tirana, also regarding the Balkan route. An operational strategy necessary to address the considerable increase in migrants. “We build on good cooperation with partners and provide a path to continue working closely together”, said the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson. The countries involved are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.
The objective, also reaffirmed by the von der Leyen cabinet, for the action plan for the Balkan route is to strengthen the Union’s support towards Member States and non-EU partners, those facing a greater migratory pressure. A necessary strategy given the impressive increase in migrants during 2022. In fact, according to data published by Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, between January and October there were 281,000 irregular crossings on the Balkan route alone. 77% more than in the same period of 2021 and never such a high figure since 2016, that year there were 130 thousand. The Balkan route represents the main migratory route at the external borders of the European Union. It is even higher than that of the central Mediterranean.
The main problem for Brussels is the lack of alignment of the visa-free regime with EU policy. “It helps to increase the number of people arriving directly by plane in the Western Balkan countries and continuing on to the EU,” explains Commissioner Johansson. And he adds: “All the Balkan partners have shortcomings on the policy of free visas, but the main problems are registered with Belgrade”. For this reason, an EU delegation will go to Serbia to understand how to solve this problem.
The structure of the plan
The action plan will consist of 20 operational measures structured around 5 pillars: strengthening border management, supporting reception capacities and speeding up asylum procedures, improving cooperation for readmissions and returns, fighting trafficking in human beings and finally, to the alignment of visa policy.
The five pillars
The first operational strategy concerns the strengthening of border management. Both those outside the EU and those of the six Balkan countries. The EU executive wants to carry out joint deployments of Frontex. A concrete example are agreements such as the one signed with North Macedonia last October 26 in Skopje. Four other countries also want to negotiate on this example: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia. Furthermore, under the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA), €40 million is foreseen for the supply of equipment for border management and surveillance.
The second pillar of the action plan concerns ensuring faster asylum procedures and support for reception capacities. The priority for Brussels is the implementation of the roadmap created by the EU Asylum Agency.
The third pillar is the fight against human trafficking. For this reason, a Europol operational task force is created on the border between Serbia and Hungary. 30 million have been allocated to increase investigations, prosecutions and convictions by the judicial authorities in the Balkan countries with the collaboration of EU agencies and international organizations.
The fourth point of the action plan concerns cooperation on readmission and returns. Illegal migrants will return to their country of origin directly from the Balkans. The goal is to implement a program in 2023 that can cover voluntary and non-voluntary returns from the region.
Finally, the last point concerns a substantial alignment of the visa exemption policy. To this action that must be carried out by Western Balkan partners, EU members must raise awareness and monitor operational developments on the ground and legislative actions. EU delegations will have to carry out joint actions with national embassies and in the context of the visa suspension mechanism.