Barring refugees from Balkans is discriminatory

The wake of the November Paris attacks has seen the governments of Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia throw yet another hurdle in the way of refugees and migrants making their way to Europe. Unprecedented border controls were rolled out almost simultaneously, and what’s worse is that they were purely based on peoples’ nationalities; only Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis were allowed through, leaving thousands stranded.

It is unclear whether this was intentionally coordinated but what we do know is that randomly barring people based on their nationality is discriminatory, and collective expulsions are a violation of refugees’ and asylum seekers’ rights. This is yet another example of countries in and around Europe failing to manage the refugee crisis in a way that respects human rights and provides for a dignified route to safety.

Contrary to the increasingly dangerous xenophobic rhetoric since the attacks on Paris, securing Europe’s borders and ensuring the safety of nationals and refugees and migrants alike are not mutually exclusive objectives.

Now is the time to combine the imperative of creating safe and legal routes for thousands of refugees and asylum seekers stranded at Europe’s borders with the need to keep better track of who is entering the continent, using robust, fair and meticulous processes. The chaotic situation for refugees and migrants at Europe’s borders, with squalid reception conditions and a lack of identification procedures for vulnerable people, has gone on far too long.

It is unconscionable for leaders to go from the extreme of burying their heads in the sand as people wash up on their shores to targeting them arbitrarily under the pretext of security and the false assumption that state obligations on asylum do not extend to all nationalities.

It is unconscionable for leaders to go from the extreme of burying their heads in the sand as people wash up on their shores to targeting them arbitrarily under the pretext of security

Todor Gardos, Amnesty International's Balkans campaigner

Within days, thousands of people were left stranded in dire conditions at Greece’s border crossing with Macedonia, undoing recent commitments in the Balkans, and in Europe more generally, to work closely towards improving safety and access to asylum. Some Iranian nationals began a hunger strike in protest by sewing up their mouths as they remain stranded in the Greek border village of Idomeni.

Greek authorities, while reinforcing the police presence, have failed to do their part in providing humanitarian assistance. They have left people in the care of volunteers and NGOs with extremely limited resources. As there is no adequate access to protection in Greece, people are forced to continue their precarious journeys towards other EU countries.

Whether someone is a refugee is based on individual circumstances, no country of origin can be labelled as “safe”. While every country has the right to control its borders, rejecting anyone at borders in the Balkans based on their nationality and without any possibility of having their individual circumstances taken into account is illegal and risks excluding thousands of people with a credible asylum claim. EU leaders have failed to condemn these new border practices, while the President of the European Council, on tour in the region, has repeatedly stressed the joint obligation of securing external borders.

The violence and wars that force people to come to Europe’s borders will not end soon. Europe must find better ways to offer protection to those who need it. Creating safe and legal routes to access effective protection in Europe – including resettlement, family reunification and humanitarian visas – would allow authorities to identify people before they travel, thereby serving the interests of both humanity and security. Other concrete steps that the EU can take include the creation of adequate and dignified reception conditions for asylum seekers and the establishment of fair and effective asylum procedures.

Failure to extend solidarity to people seeking refuge in Europe – often after fleeing the same dehumanizing violence that took place this month in Paris, Beirut, Bamako and Tunis – would be a cowardly abdication of responsibility and a tragic victory for fear over humanity.

This blog piece was originally published in Balkans Insight.