Challenges of migration via the western balkan route in the context of the debate on terrorism and security

The Western Balkans remain a politically and economically instable region, which is still recovering from the wars in the 1990s. The area re-entered the international spotlight in the summer of 2015, when hundreds of thousands of refugees, mainly from Syria, took the Balkan route on their way to the West. This uncontrolled transit area became a security challenge that the countries of the Western Balkans were able to meet with help from the EU. There is now a new Balkan route going through Bosnia-Herzegovina. Various Islamist terrorist acts have shown that the Balkan route was also used to smuggle in terrorists and weapons. At the same time, due to the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the region has become a hub for the illegal international weapons trade – a problem that the EU had long ignored.

To provide a deeper understanding of this interplay, I would first like to give a brief overview of the region itself. The Western Balkans is shaped by growing instability. Considerations to change the borderlines according to ethnic criteria in Kosovo and Bosnia, widespread corruption, organized crime, political patronage and a weak rule of law are some of the problems confronting the Western Balkans, an area which includes Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro. Despite these attempts, bilateral relations between countries are less on friendly terms, particularly due to the fact that nationalism, including historical revisionism, hate speech, glorification of one’s own war criminals and territorial claims prevent an open dialogue.   

With this background of the complex history of the Western Balkans and its fragile political situation, the area found itself confronted by a great challenge in the summer of 2015. The so-called “refugee crisis” refocused the spotlight on the Balkans. Greece, North Macedonia and Serbia were put under great pressure by the refugees passing through from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) spoke of ca. 2,000 refugees who came from Greece to pass through North Macedonia and Serbia every day to reach Hungary, where they could apply for asylum in a Western country. In the Serbian-Croatian and Serbian-Hungarian border areas which were temporarily closed to refugees wanting to pass through, people had to remain in utterly inhumane conditions. Although the UN refugee agency and the EU provided funds for the refugees’ food, shelter and psychological care, the humanitarian situation could hardly improve due to the ever increasing number of refugees. The situation became even more difficult when Hungary began building a border wall in September 2015. Only with the opening of the Balkan route could the refugees reach their emigration destination barrier-free.  

The crisis was met with different reactions throughout Europe. A characteristic of the countries of the former Yugoslavia is that the situation of the refugees gave many locals a feeling of déjà-vu, as they had experienced a war in the 1990s and many of them had to flee to another country themselves. There were positive welcoming gestures in Europe, but right-wing populism also rose more often to the surface. While there were emotional discussions about to what extent the “Occident” (to put it in exaggerated terms) would go under due to the immigration of Muslims, the rhetoric in the Western Balkans about the refugees fleeing the Syrian war was originally less hostile. There were two reasons for this: on the one hand, the refugees were simply crossing the region as a transit zone with the goal of reaching the EU, and on the other, Muslims have been living in the Balkans since the Ottoman Empire, so that the question “Does Islam belong here to us?” being discussed in West and Eastern Europe seems superfluous in the Western Balkans. When the refugees stayed a while, then the xenophobic rhetoric intensified in this region as well, as we can currently observe in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

Parallel to the challenges arising from the refugees using the Balkan Route, the Western Balkans were also confronted by a massive exodus of their own people in 2015. High unemployment and a lack of perspective led many locals to practically join the dynamic of the mass migration. Kosovars in particular left for Germany. This is how it came to be that Kosovars formed the second largest group of immigrants applying for asylum after Syrians, followed by Albanians, Serbians and Macedonians. By July 2015, almost 40 percent of all applications for asylum were being made by people from the Western Balkans. Because the south-eastern European migrants were not persecuted war refugees, the vast majority of these asylum seekers were deported back to their home countries. It must be noted that the majority of asylum seekers were Roma, who continue to face massive discrimination in education, social welfare and health care in their countries of origin. Beyond this, the people in this region yearn for functioning states free of corruption where they can freely develop. Because the process to join the EU due to the aforementioned reasons is dragging along quite slowly, these poverty and work migrants are actively following the principle “If the EU doesn’t come to us, we’ll go to the EU!” 

A much larger problem that the extreme situation of migration in and from the Western Balkans entailed was the smuggling of terrorists with false papers pretending to be refugees over the Balkan Route. Several of these Islamists participated in various attacks in France. The extent to which these terrorists were in contact with local Islamists during their stay in the Balkans has yet to be evaluated. They could, however, certainly count on local support, as terrorist structures had already been established in the region in the 1990s. The spread of Salafism in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Kosovo was particularly encouraged by Saudi Arabia. This connection is rooted in the Bosnian war. Since 1993, Islamists from Iran and Afghanistan had been fighting against Serbian and Croatian units alongside Bosniaks in the detachment known as El Mudžahid with their battle cry “Djihad is our path”. After the war, some Islamist fighters were brought before the Yugoslavian War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, others returned to their countries of origin. Some remained in Bosnia-Herzegovina, others continued to fight in Chechnya or later in Syria and Iraq. 

Based on the population compared to other European countries, the number of radical Islamists from Bosnia and Kosovo is relatively high. Around 230 radicals from Bosnia-Herzegovina had joined the “Islamic State” by the end of 2016.  According to the Country Reports on Terrorism 2017 published by the State Department in September 2018, 403 Kosovars went to Syria and Iraq to lead the so-called “Holy War”. IS fighters could be recruited particularly in the rural areas in Kosovo, where unemployment and poverty are at their greatest. They called not only for the killing of “religious enemies” of different faiths, but also of their own moderate-Muslim fellow citizens who had too liberal a lifestyle in the Islamists’ eyes. These fighters received military training not in Syria, but already in Bosnia; for example, in the out of the way village of Ošve, in Zenica or on the periphery of Sarajevo. 

Besides smuggling terrorists over the Balkans, the active illegal weapon trade there was used to provide Islamists with weapons. During the terrorist attacks in France that January at the offices of “Charlie Hedbo” and in November 2015, such weapons were used in the random murder of innocents. The Serbian arms manufacturer “Zastava oružje” (Zastava arms) in Kragujevac confirmed that some of the weapons used in the terror attack on the Parisian club Bataclan had been manufactured by them in the 1990s. They likely had been first used during the wars in the Balkans and then landed like thousands of others in the hands of smugglers, who sold them cheaply. It is not known how many weapons and munition are still illegally held by private households in the Balkans, but the number must be quite high.   

For this reason, in the following years France and Germany initiated several coordination meetings to fight against the weapons trade in the Balkans. One consequence agreed upon was the closer cooperation with local authorities. Around 44,000 illegal small arms have been confiscated and destroyed over the last five years in the region according to the French Foreign Minister. However, a strengthening of the rule of law and combatting organized crime are necessary prerequisites for a complete eradication of the illegal arms trade in the countries of the Western Balkans. 

It should be stressed that the abovementioned challenges that arose with the “refugee crisis”, particularly in 2015, remain in the Balkans, even though they no longer receive much attention by the European public. For example, the Balkan route was not dissolved, but merely moved to now cover mainly Bosnia-Herzegovina. The number of war refugees is no longer as high as it was in 2015, but remains a grave challenge to the instable country, which appears to be struggling with it. There were circa 22,000 illegal entries into Bosnia-Herzegovina by November 2018. Right now there are several thousand refugees stuck in Bosnia, located on the border of the EU member state Croatia. According to reports of NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, the Croatian border police prevent the refugees from entering their country, i.e. the EU; sometimes forcibly. The Croatian authorities, however, deny such actions by their security forces. 

Besides the continuing “refugee crisis” in the Western Balkans, migration out of this region remains uncurbed. The economic situation shows only sluggish improvement (if at all) and the emigration of young people in particular is quite high in all Western Balkan countries. It should be mentioned that, for example, youth unemployment in just Bosnia-Herzegovina is at 60 percent. The countries are suffering mainly from brain drain, e.g. the migration of specialists and intellectuals. Those that remain do not live in abundance and are also more susceptible to any kind of radicalism, be it Islamism or nationalism. It can therefore be said that as long as the root causes of flight, migration and terrorism are not successfully combatted, and these phenomena are closely intertwined, then an improvement in the situation as a whole cannot be expected.

*Martina Bitunjac, PhD, storica, docente Centro Moses Mendelssohn / Università di Potsdam

Martina Bitunjac