Brussels plans for Frontex border staff in Western Balkans to curb illegal migration

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By Alice Tidey
A migrant leaves an abandoned house at a makeshift camp near a border line between Serbia and Hungary, near village of Horgos, Serbia, Oct. 20, 2022.
A migrant leaves an abandoned house at a makeshift camp near a border line between Serbia and Hungary, near village of Horgos, Serbia, Oct. 20, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic

Staff from the European Union's external border agency could soon be deployed at non-EU borders in the Western Balkans as part of a plan to curb irregular arrivals from the region, the European Commission announced on Monday.

"The number we have right now in the Western Balkans is around 500 personnel from Frontex deployed already but today they're only deployed at the border between the Western Balkan partners and the EU external borders," Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told reporters.

"With a new mandate, it will be possible to deploy also internally so to say, between two different Western Balkan partners," she said, adding that it's for Frontex to decide on the numbers necessary.

This measure is part of the Action Plan on the Western Balkans proposed by the European Commission to tackle a rise of migrants entering the EU via the Western Balkans.

More than 128,000 illegal border crossings into the EU were recorded via the Western Balkans during the first 10 months of the year, according to Frontex data. That represents a 168% increase from the same period in 2021.

'Risk of new routes'

Another pillar of the Commission's plan, unveiled a day before an EU-Western Balkans summit in Albania, is for better visa alignment between the Western Balkan nations and the EU to ensure that foreign nationals who travel to the Western Balkans visa-free do not then cross into the EU.

Most Western Balkan countries have visa-free arrangements with the EU. Johansson said that Serbia is the main port of entry into the EU for such people.

Serbia has visa-free deals with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, Bolivia, China, Cuba, Guinea Bissau, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Suriname, and Turkey.

It recently ended visa-free travel with Tunisia and Burundi and "they have also promised to do the same when it comes to India and also promised to align further with other third countries," the Commissioner said. 

"But all the Western Balkan partners have significant gaps when it comes to visa policy alignment with the EU visa policy, and that's why they need to be addressed in all the Western Balkan countries," she added.

She also told reporters that "with a stronger alignment in Serbia, there might also be a risk of new routes using visa-free regimes in other Western Balkan countries."

Three key summits

Visa alignment is expected to be discussed by leaders at the EU-Western Balkans summit in Tirana on Tuesday. 

Alignment with the EU's foreign and security policy including sanction regimes, a prerequisite to accession into the bloc, will also be on the agenda.

Here, again, Serbia is an outlier having so far refused to impose any restrictive measures on Russia over its war in Ukraine.

Serbian President Aleksander Vučić has threatened to boycott the summit, held for the first time in a Western Balkan country, over a dispute with Kosovo.

The summit will come days before meetings of EU home affairs ministers and leaders in Brussels where the candidate status for Bosnia and Herzegovina and visa liberalisation for Kosovo will be discussed.