German cities struggling with winter influx of migrants from the Western Balkans

Refugees walk through a deportation center in Bamberg, Germany, Oct. 22, 2015.
Refugees walk through a deportation center in Bamberg, Germany, Oct. 22, 2015.   -  Copyright  Nicolas Armer/dpa via AP
By Anna Conkling

Cologne has, for instance, recorded more migrants from the Western Balkans in recent months than during the Yugoslav Wars that occurred from 1991 to 2001.

This winter, cities in Germany faced yet another influx of refugees but this time it was not Ukrainians fleeing war but people from Western Balkan countries seeking to escape their countries' harsh winters and poor social living conditions.

Cologne has, for instance, recorded more migrants from the Western Balkans in recent months than during the Yugoslav Wars that occurred from 1991 to 2001, according to the western city's press officer, Katja Reuter.

"The number of people from the West Balkans in Cologne city housing is over 1,000. Due to fluctuation, a more exact number is not available.

"Around 40 percent of the refugees come from Ukraine, and the other nationalities are well over 60 percent. The majority of them come from Albania," said Reuter.

Now, the city has reached its official capacity of how many refugees it can take in, having an overachievement reception rate of 107.23 percent.

Western Balkan route

The Western Balkan route was, in 2022, the most used for illegal border crossings into the EU, according to the bloc's external border agency. Frontex recorded 145,600 illegal crossings through the Western Balkan, a 136% jump from the previous year and the highest number observed since 2015.

This route was used by a variety of nationalities with citizens from Syria, Afghanistan and Türkiye accounting for the largest number of detections.

Now, the EU has decided to step up its presence at the Western Balkan borders with Frontex to soon deploy staff there — which will be the first time the agency will have employees monitoring non-EU borders — to curb illegal migration.

Cologne does not give migrants from the Balkans refugee status until they receive legal asylum status from Germany's immigration authorities, which can often take months to years to achieve. But it continues to house those coming to the city to combat homelessness.

"The city of Cologne is obligated to house all refugees no matter which nationality or origin. The occupancy management organises city housing according to the available housing resources," said Reuter.

"Due to this system, most of the time, refugees from different origins or nationalities are housed together. When accommodations are majorly filled with refugees from the same country of origin, this is due to housing demands of the persons in need of accommodation or the number of newly arrived refugees.

"Therefore, there are both refugees from Ukraine who are being housed with other nationalities as well as those that share their accommodation only with compatriots," she added.

North Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, and Serbia

Cologne's silver lining came when their fall prediction — that there would be a new influx of Ukrainian refugees because of Russian attacks on the country's critical infrastructure — did not occur. Currently, they only have around two to four Ukrainian refugees coming to the city each day.

This has helped the city cope throughout winter, as they expect spring will see migrants from the Western Balkans leave.

"Because of the poor social conditions in the countries of origin, [for example] expensive heating material, people from the Western Balkans go to Germany in winter and then return in spring. This is repeated every year," Reuter said.

"As many cities or communes in Germany, it is challenging to house refugees. In cities like Cologne, many people – not only refugees – are looking for affordable apartments and such. It is challenging to provide enough room for refugees," she added.

Upper Bavaria, where Munich is the capital city, is currently housing 850 migrants from the Western Balkans — nearly double last year's number — though the total number of those coming is uncertain. 

The majority of those arriving are from North Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, and Serbia, and while the numbers are currently low, rising tensions between the latter two countries might lead to more migrants for the region in the future.

Tensions have grown between the two neighbouring countries since November when Kosovo made a routine decision to ban Serbs living in the country from using Belgrade-issued license plates in the country. Much like its Russian ally, Serbia has refused to recognise Kosovo's independence, and the escalating tensions have caused concerns for Western countries.

When asked how Upper Bavaria is preparing for an influx should tensions escalate, press officer Wolfgang Rupp told Euronews: "We cannot make predictions about future arrivals of refugees. However, the District Government of Upper Bavaria is continuously expanding its accommodations to be able to house every migrant arriving within our jurisdiction."

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