Blackmail in the Balkans: how the EU is externalising its asylum policies

Sophie-Anne Bisiaux (Migreurop) and Lorenz Naegeli (independent researcher)

The development of a system for collecting data on people on the move in the Balkans highlights the overall orientation of the EU’s migration policies: outsourcing migration management at all costs, to the detriment of provisions for reception. In order to keep those considered as "undesirable" at a distance, would the European Union go so far as to extend beyond its borders the ‘Dublin’ mechanism for allocating state responsibility for asylum claims, at the risk of further aggravating the rights violations along the Balkan route?

Dublin: the failure of European solidarity

"I can announce that we will abolish the Dublin Regulation and we will replace it with a new European migration governance system (...). It will have a new strong solidarity mechanism" . So said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in September 2020, a week before the Commission presented its new pact on migration and asylum.

Abolishing Dublin and increasing solidarity: two promises that seem to be welcome in a Europe in the midst of a reception crisis. In fact, the so-called "Dublin" system has been criticised for several years. Except for some other criteria, the system requires that the country one enters first on EU territory, and in which a person’s fingerprints were collected, is responsible for examining their asylum application. Among others imposed by the mechanism, Dublin places a disproportionate burden on the Member States located at the external borders of the EU to receive people in need of protection.

After the arrival of more than one million people on the move on European territory in 2015, the European Commission implemented the "hotspot" approach. It was intended especially to support Greece and Italy "on the front line", by jointly strengthening their capacities in terms of asylum processing and expulsion . But while this approach was supposed to be accompanied by relocation plans to better distribute the reception of people on the move on a European scale, these plans have failed due to the lack of political will of the Member States. In these "camps of shame", thousands of people are crammed together in undignified conditions. The “hotspots” on Greek islands have thus become the emblem of the failure of European solidarity - both towards people on the move and between Member States.

squat - mission blakans

Abandoned building occupied by people on the move in Bihac, Bosnia-Herzegovina, near the Croatian border (Sophie-Anne Bisiaux, February 2021)

The new European pact: a "solidarity" mechanism for expulsions and the externalisation of migration policies

In the new pact on migration and asylum made public on 23 September 2020, the solidarity promised by Ursula von der Leyen sounds strange. There will only be solidarity between Member States, and not in order to receive people on the move fairly and with dignity, but above all to better expel them. The "compulsory solidarity mechanism" enshrined in the new pact would enable Member States that refuse the relocation mechanism in exchange for "sponsoring" the expulsion of a person who is illegally present on European territory.

States may also choose to shirk their reception responsibilities by supporting another Member State to strengthen its border control capacity and cooperation with third countries in this area. As the Euromed Rights Network notes, "[t]his point lacks clarity in the Pact and raises concerns because Member States could easily interpret it broadly [...]. For instance, a country like Hungary could choose to support Spain in its bilateral relationship with Morocco on projects specifically related to border management and increased capacity of interception’ . This second option is thus at the heart of the EU’s externalisation strategy. Within this development, the EU has since the early 2000s subcontracted to non-European countries not only the control of its own borders, but also the management of migrants it deems “undesirable”.

There is solidarity between Member States to increase the rate of expulsions, to reinforce already deadly borders and to subcontract the management of migration to third countries that are far away for being “safe” for people on the move. In the absence of a Europe of solidarity in reception, the Commission is thus banking on a Europe in "solidarity" behind the main goal of keeping people on the move at distance from European territory, in defiance of their fundamental rights. Therefore, the new pact makes the strengthening of cooperation with third countries one of its priorities.

Balkan countries at the heart of European migration blackmail

In the process of externalising the EU’s borders, the Balkan countries occupy a central place, as the so-called "Balkan route" continues to be a path of entry into the European territory. In June 2020, Frontex estimated that it had become "the most active migratory route" with more than 2,000 detections of "illegal border crossings". This number exceeded the detected entries in the same period of the previous year three times . Against this background it has to be noted that despite the drastic decrease in arrivals since 2016, official EU documents continue to mention a high "level of migratory pressure" on this "route". By doing so, they are fuelling the rhetoric of a perpetual "crisis" in the face of which Balkan countries are called upon to take on the role of border guards in the service of the European Union. Most of the people taking this route come from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan . They are fleeing wars, political persecution and untenable economic situations.

On the other hand, the Balkan states are also at the heart of the European Union’s migration outsourcing arrangements, by virtue of their special status. Since the Thessaloniki Summit in June 2003, they have all been identified as potential candidates for EU membership. As such, they benefit from financial and technical assistance from the EU (notably through the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance - IPA) to strengthen their capacities in various areas, such as democracy, the rule of law, and respect for fundamental rights, with the aim of ultimately helping these states to meet the accession criteria. Particularly since 2015, capacity building in migration management and border control has become increasingly important , putting the Balkan states under real migration blackmail in the context of their accession process. The EU leaves no doubt that the support of the Balkan countries in this area is essential if they want to continue the path of accession.

Through the IPA mechanism alone, €216 million were allocated to the Balkan countries in the field of migration between 2007 and 2019 . This includes, among other things, support for the construction of new border posts, training and provision of modern equipment to border protection authorities, and the opening of detention and deportation centres. Since 2015, an additional €141 million in European aid has been made available to help these countries cope with the arrival of several hundred thousand exiles. Related to its attempt to seal off its external borders, the EU has financed the construction of dozens of camps along the "Balkan route" to "store" the people it refuses to receive and host.

barbwire - mission Balkans

Port of Vlorë in Albania (Sophie-Anne Bisiaux, April 2021)

EU-Balkans "partnership": priority for data exchange

In recent years, the EU has focused in particular on building the capacity of Balkan countries to collect and exchange data. In a document published in January 2020 , Europol, Frontex and EASO (European Asylum Support Office) called for the development of a new "social network monitoring mechanism". The document refers to the need to combat smuggling networks and "irregular" migration in the Balkan region. These surveillance-activities were in the past carried out by EASO. However, the European Data Protection Supervisor eventually condemned this practice. According to his ruling, there was no legal basis for EASO to collect personal data . Hence the urgent need to entrust a new actor with this task.

In its conclusions of 5 January 2020, the European Council affirms its will to "to reflect on and support the development by partners in the Western Balkans of interoperable national biometric registration/data-sharing systems on asylum applicants and irregular migrants" . The Council additionally mentioned that the data collection and sharing systems should "be modelled on the Eurodac technical and data protection principles, thus enabling regular regional information exchange and ensuring their future interoperability and compatibility with EU systems”. Equipped with an automated fingerprint recognition system, the Eurodac database contains the fingerprints of third-country nationals who have applied for asylum or have been intercepted when crossing an external border "irregularly". It is used by the European Union in the context of the application of the Dublin Regulation to determine the Member State responsible for an asylum application. It is important to note that the database would be considerably extended under the new pact on migration and asylum.

This desire to strengthen the Balkan states in terms of data collection and exchange can be found in the EU-funded IPA programme "Regional support to protection-sensitive migration management in the Western Balkans and Turkey Phase II" . While the documents published by the European Commission on this programme do not provide any detail on the types of data exchanged, various testimonies report that a regional database built on the model of and compatible with the Eurodac database is to be set up in this framework. A limited-access document summarising discussions held at a JHA Council meeting with the Balkan countries also confirms this EU initiative: "The Western Balkan partners expressed support to enhance information exchange with the EU, and in the region through the development of interoperable domestic information systems, modelled on Eurodac standards, to record data on migrants. The EU expressed readiness to provide technical support”.

According to the various EU delegations in the Balkan countries, Frontex would be in charge of evaluating for each country the work needed to ensure the regional interconnectivity of national databases and their compatibility with European databases. In the region, Frontex is already in charge of developing national coordination centres for the collection and exchange of data related to migration management and border control . These centres are built on the model of those of the Member States with a view to their future interconnection.

Millions of euros invested in cutting-edge technology in the midst of a "humanitarian crisis”

The European Union is gradually equipping the Balkan countries with state-of-the-art data collection and exchange systems. After Serbia , it is now Bosnia and Herzegovina’s turn to be equipped with AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System) technology, which allows for the automatic recognition of fingerprints and is a prerequisite for the implementation of the Eurodac database. To improve its capacities in terms of data collection related to migration, the latter has received a total of €17 million from the IPA fund between 2015 and 2020, with the ultimate objective of implementing an operational database, an analytical tool and a system for monitoring migrants’ biometric data . It should be noted that Switzerland is also providing significant support in this undertaking .

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, to access most camps and basic humanitarian services, people on the move are now required to have each of their ten fingerprints scanned. However, they are not told how this data will be used. In Blazuj, an overcrowded and unsanitary container camp near Sarajevo where more than 3,000 people are crammed together, the level of sophistication of the data collection technologies contrasts with the archaic living conditions to which the people on the move are subjected. "In the IOM camps, people suffer from scabies and still die of pneumonia. Who dies of pneumonia nowadays?" asks the Sarajevo-based journalist Nidzara Ahmetasevic, referring to a young boy who died for lack of medical care. No access to medical services, no shelter for thousands of people forced to sleep outside in freezing temperatures, no serious protection measures against COVID 19.

The small country is still recovering from war and is described as being in the midst of a "humanitarian crisis", with around 10,000 people on the move stranded and barely surviving. The amount of European funding allocated within this situation to such advanced technologies is nothing but indecent.

Connecting the Balkan countries to the Eurodac database even before they join the EU?

The European Commission makes no secret of the fact that its ambition is eventually to integrate the Balkan countries into the Eurodac database. However, it specifies that this connection will not be possible before their accession to the European Union . Therefore, the current development of biometric data collection systems for migrants in the Balkan countries is arguably only intended to prepare them for future membership.

But the lack of short- and even medium-term prospects for accession of most of the Balkan countries raises questions: why spend millions to help states set up data collection and exchange systems that they will not be able to use for several years, or even decades, at the risk that the technologies used will become obsolete in the meantime? In fact, the accession process has long seemed to be at a standstill, both for reasons specific to the EU (mistrust of any enlargement, particularly since the Brexit crisis) and for reasons specific to the candidate countries, such as the lack of political will, institutional or diplomatic blockages or the deterioration of the economic situation. Even more than other Balkan countries, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s accession is merely hypothetical. It does not currently even have official candidate status.

Raising further suspicion, Serbia indicated that it would implement the Dublin and Eurodac Regulations two years before joining the EU . As the Belgrade-based NGO Klikaktiv notes, "this would be a unique case of a country signing the Dublin and EURODAC regulations before becoming an EU Member State" . In its 2020 report on the state of Serbia’s EU accession process , the European Commission also reveals that the Serbian Ministry of Interior is now using a single database to identify and register asylum seekers and that "preparations for connecting to the EU asylum fingerprint database (Eurodac) are in their initial phase" . According to the assessment of Klikaktiv, this connection would be illegal, as Serbian law does not allow the exchange of this type of data with EU countries.

The interconnection of Eurodac and the databases of the Balkan countries before the completion of the accession process would additionally constitute a flagrant violation of European standards on the protection of personal data. It seems that the EU is not so far away from illegality in this area . As one can read in a Council of the EU document summarising the positions of the Balkan countries on the prospect of interconnection: "The claim that [connection to the Eurodac database] cannot be done because of the fact that data protection legislation does not stand, as the Western Balkan countries have already signed an operational cooperation agreement with Europol, while national legislation is approximated to that of the European Union” . Whether the interconnection of databases is legal or not, the EU could consider the possibility of integrating the Balkan countries into the Eurodac system, without them being part of the EU.

Frontex: the link to connect the Balkan countries’ databases to Eurodac?

To enable early interconnection of databases, the EU seems to rely on Frontex. Indeed, since the agency’s mandate was extended in 2019 to increase its capacity to act in third countries, the agency is increasingly present in the Balkan states. The EU has negotiated agreements authorising its operational deployment with Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Northern Macedonia. In May 2019, Frontex launched its first official joint operation on a non-European territory, on Albania’s border with Greece , followed by two operations in Montenegro in July and October 2020. While the agreement with Serbia entered into force on 10 March 2021 after being unanimously adopted by the Serbian Parliament, Bosnia and Herzegovina is also preparing to give its green light to Frontex deployment.

The cooperation agreements that Frontex signs with the Balkan states give the agency certain rights to consult national databases. As Statewatch notes, "the agreements with Albania and Montenegro allow the host state to authorise [Frontex] members of the team to consult national databases if necessary for operational aims or for return operations" . In parallel, the adoption of the "interoperability" regulation in 2019 will facilitate Frontex access to the various European databases, including Eurodac. Thanks to this double access, the agency could thus be able to compare the data collected by the national authorities of the Balkan countries with the ones in the Eurodac database.

This possibility seems to be exploited in Albania, where Frontex officers are deployed at the Greek border. Since the start of the operation in 2019, the agency has ensured that people intercepted at the border by Albanian police are taken to container camps . There they are registered before often being illegally returned to Greece. According to various testimonies , Frontex officers compare the data collected during this registration procedure with the data of various European databases (SIS, Europol, Eurodac...). The Council raised this possibility in January 2020 . According to the current legal framework and until the new amendments have been agreed upon, this would be an illegal practice regarding the Eurodac. Upon request, the Frontex Press office denies, contrary to the information received on the ground, that it conducts such data cross-checks as part of its Balkan operations

Frontex could thus serve as an intermediary link allowing the EU to access the databases of the Balkan states . By allowing only one-way consultation (the Balkan countries do not have direct access to Eurodac), this strategy has the advantage of circumventing the various restrictions on personal data protection and maintaining a centre-periphery relationship with these countries, in which the EU can continue to serve its own interests in migration management.

Hotspots for the EU, outside the EU

The potential interest of the European Union in extending the Eurodac system to the Balkan countries is clear. This would be a prelude to the establishment of an “extended Dublin mechanism" and would complete the implementation of the EU’s "hotspot approach" in the region. As a result, the extension of the Eurodac database into this region would allow authorities to know which countries people on the move - those apprehended crossing a border "irregularly" or applying for asylum in an EU Member State - previously crossed during their migratory journey. These countries would then be responsible for examining the person’s asylum application or, if the application is rejected, for deporting the person to their country of origin. A person arriving in Italy, but whose fingerprints were collected in a camp in Sarajevo, could thus be sent back to Bosnia.

At a meeting of the inter-institutional working group preparing the integration of North Macedonia into the European Union, the representative of the Macedonian Ministry of Interior expressed concern that Brussels “imposes the idea of establishing so-called BALKANDAC, following the EURODAC template, a fingerprint database in EU. This database is accepted by the countries in the region, but it does not offer an opportunity for us to access it. This is a trap for us because countries in EU will know which migrants were registered here and will return them, and we will not be able to return them to Greece. There is no bad intention in this, but it is still evident that the EU is treating us in a paternalistic way“.

The possibility for a Member State to return a third-country national who has transited through the territory of one of the Balkan countries is already possible via readmission agreements that the EU has signed with the latter . However, the implementation of a data collection system could in the future make the dream of an "extra-European Dublin" a reality. For several decades now, the EU has clearly expressed its desire to turn the Balkan region into a storage place for migrants trying to reach its territory . In a document dated 12 May 2020, the Croatian Presidency regretted that the countries of the Western Balkans continue to see themselves as transit countries and recalled the need to encourage them to enhance "their overall migration capacities - including the asylum system, the reception conditions and return capacities" .

Train - mission Balkans

Abandoned railway cars occupied by exiles in the town of Sombor, at the Serbian-Hungarian border (Sophie-Anne Bisiaux, April 2021)

In sum, the EU has a threefold objective for this region: to store people on the move blocked at European borders, to readmit to transit countries those whom the EU does not want on its territory and to send people back to their country of origin. Therefore, the EU has been supporting for several years the strengthening of the expulsion capacities of the Balkan countries, notably in cooperation with Frontex and IOM . Increasing the capacity of detention and expulsion centres, training escorts to accompany expulsions, reinforcing "voluntary" return programmes, encouraging the signing of readmission agreements with the countries of origin of the people on the move ... Everything is done to transform the Balkans into a storage zone with increased capacities to expel the "undesirables".

Passing the Balkan states off as "safe third countries”

To facilitate the outsourcing of migration management to Balkan countries, the European Union presents countries as "safe". The concept of "safe third countries" , enshrined in the Procedures Directive (2013), facilitates the return of asylum seekers to third countries without a thorough examination of their application (application of an accelerated procedure). But while the European Commission spends millions strengthening the legislation and capacities of these countries in terms of asylum processing in order to make them look like "safe" countries, on the ground, civil society organisations note the persistence and sometimes even the aggravation of violations of rights of people on the move. Whether in Kosovo, Albania, North Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Montenegro, access to asylum applications is often impossible and expulsions are systematic at certain borders.

Despite the ongoing reports of rights violations by civil society in the region, the Commission plans in its new pact to include the Balkan countries on a European list of "safe third countries" . And while this concept is currently optional for Member States, the Commission plans to make its application mandatory. This would complete the outsourcing strategy of subcontracting European asylum applications to countries whose standards of protection and respect for fundamental rights are far lower than those of the European Union.

However, in order to send migrants back to the Balkan countries at all costs, the Member States did not wait for the completion of the well-oiled expulsion machine that the European Union seems to be setting up. Since 2016, the practice of expulsions from EU Member States to Balkan countries has multiplied. This goes with no regard to the fundamental rights of people who have come to the European Union seeking protection. Ever more violent and systematic, these practices continue under the complacent eye of the EU, when it does not directly support them .

Denouncing these mass rights violations is essential and urgent. Combating the European border regime that enables and encourages them is equally urgent. Whether people on the move are kept away from European borders by the force of a police stick or by a large-scale biometric database - any case is unacceptable.

Sophie-Anne Bisiaux (Migreurop) and Lorenz Naegeli (independent researcher), with the support of Statewatch, Migreurop and Matthias Monroy

Annex 1 – European Council, "EU-Western Balkans Justice and Home Affairs Ministerial videoconference on 22 October 2020 - summary of discussions"
Annex 2 – European Council, "Council conclusions on enhancing cooperation with Western Balkans partners in the field of migration and security", 5 June 2020
Annex 3 – European Council Presidency, "Agenda for the EU - Western Balkans Ministerial videoconference on Justice and Home Affairs on 22 October 2020"
Annex 4 - Government of the Republic of Serbia, “Development Strategy of the Ministry of Interior for the period 2018-2023”, 2020
Annex 5 – EU delegation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, "Regular IPA II assistance on migration & border control". Document sent by the EU delegation to Bosnia and Herzegovina on 28 January 2021
Annex 6 - Swiss State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), "Support to efficient migration and border management in Bosnia and Herzegovina"
Annex 7 – European Council, EU-Western Balkans Justice and Home Affairs Dialogue - Senior Officials Meeting: Informal written consultation - Summary of the replies of the Western Balkans partners in the area of Home Affairs, 18 June 2020
Annex 8 – European Council Presidency, “Enhancing Cooperation with the Western Balkan Countries: Combating Migrants Smuggling - Presidency Discussion Paper”, 14 January 2020