Paris aftermath: Balkans tighten migrant controls
States blocking ‘economic migrants’ as fears mount in wake of terror attacks in France
Most of more than 800,000 asylum seekers who have come to Europe this year travelled through the Balkans. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
The Balkan fields and villages through which record numbers of migrants a nd refugees traipsed north this summer are quiet now, even though autumn has failed to bring a predicted easing of the refugee crisis in Europe.
Instead of trudging haphazardly towards the EU, guided by people smugglers, Google maps on their mobile phones and tips shared on Facebook, the migrants are now funnelled towards Austria along a transport corridor created especially for them.
Balkan states now work together to move thousands of people each day by train and bus, giving the migrants some protection from the colder weather, but these months have seen little or no change in one key area – security.
A man who blew himself up at France’s main sports stadium last Friday, during attacks in Paris that killed 129 people and injured hundreds more, is thought to have travelled with migrants through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans to northern Europe.
A Syrian passport found near his body identified him as Ahmad al-Mohammad (25) from the city of Idlib. The document’s details and the fingerprints of the dead man matched those given to Greek authorities on October 3rd.
He arrived from Turkey on the small Greek island of Leros with a group of 198 other people, then appeared to join the flow of migrants heading north towards a European Union that was struggling to deal with the influx.
It is not clear whether al-Mohammad was registered in Macedonia, but his passport details were taken in Presevo in southern Serbia on October 7th, and a day later at the Opatovac transit camp in eastern Croatia.
At that time, Croatia was sending thousands of migrants each day from Opatovac to the Hungarian border, bypassing a fence that Hungary had built on its frontier with Serbia to stop people entering illegally.
Hungary was then sending the migrants on buses and trains directly to Austria, where border controls were light or non-existent, and most of the new arrivals were then moved on as quickly as possible to Germany.
Most of more than 800,000 asylum seekers who have come to Europe this year travelled through the Balkans and, although the majority were registered somewhere along the way, it is not known whether the personal details they gave were genuine.
Many say they lost their documents during their journey, and others discard their passports or lie about their country of origin, seeking to pass themselves off as Syrians, Iraqis or Afghanis, who have the best chance of securing EU refugee status.
A flourishing trade in fake Syrian passports has sprung up in Turkey. It is still not clear whether the document found at Stade de France was genuine or false, stolen from its owner, or planted by the attackers to foment fear of asylum seekers.
What is clear from all the confusion is that Europe has no way of knowing who has really arrived during its biggest refugee crisis since the second World War.
All that the migrant registers drawn up across the Balkans can show is the route taken by a person showing a certain document or claiming a certain identity – there is no database against which to check the authenticity of these details, particularly given the chaos engulfing most of the countries from which the travellers come.
There is a semblance of control and order in the flow of migrants now being transported between transit camps in the Balkans, under the close guard of police and soldiers, but the information taken from the new arrivals is no more reliable than it was when they came on foot through field and forest.
Balkan states sought to tighten controls this week, as Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia all started filtering out “economic migrants” to stop them moving further north into the EU among refugees arriving from war zones.
How though can hard- pressed police registering thousands of migrants each day ascertain the truth of a person’s claim to be from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, given that he or she may have a fake passport or no documents at all?
The new measures left hundreds of people from states as far apart as Pakistan, Lebanon and Nigeria stranded at Balkan borders yesterday, amid uncertainty over how to temporarily house them and then send them home.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, Turkish police said they had detained eight people at Istanbul’s main airport on suspicion of being Islamic State militants, who allegedly planned to travel through the Balkans to Germany posing as refugees.
Such fears, and attempts to counter them, are only likely to increase in the coming weeks – presenting a huge challenge for security services across the continent, and for thousands of peaceful people now seeking safety in Europe, whose prospects for a new life have also been hit hard by the carnage in Paris.