Refugee Crisis Disunity – A De Facto Solution Takes Shape in the Balkans


Angela Merkel is still hoping for a European solution to the refugee crisis. But with patience running out, Austria has joined countries on the Balkan Route to impose Plan B. But with the closure of borders, the situation in Greece is becoming dangerous.

It is a recent Wednesday morning and on the glass-walled 20th floor of the Ringturm highrise in the heart of Vienna, generals in their moss-green uniforms have gathered along with other decorated military officers and top-level government officials. The view is expansive, stretching to the Vienna Woods in the east and to the forests on the banks of the Danube River to the west. One can see as far as the Slovakian border and to the lowlands at the border to Hungary — two of the frontiers the country intends to immediately begin protecting in an attempt to block the inflow of more refugees, absent a functioning European plan.

Defense Minister Hans Peter Doskozil, a Social Democrat who has only been in office for four weeks, is speaking to a small group. He is not one to shy away from conflict. Instead of criticizing Austria for introducing a ceiling on the number of refugees it is willing to allow into the country each day, the minister says, the European Commission should finally fulfill its obligation to come up with a European solution to the refugee crisis. Otherwise, the current trends will only be magnified, he says. “Every EU member state is currently withdrawing to its own position and is taking its own national measures.”

It has been a week of solo measures and heightened tensions within a deeply fractured Europe. On March 7, the EU will once again attempt to find a solution to the refugee crisis at a special summit meeting in Brussels. German Chancellor Angela Merkel continues to place her hopes on Turkey, with her plan calling for the country to stop the flow of refugees and even take some of them back. But at the same time, countries along the Balkan Route have begun taking measures of their own, with Austria leading the way.

Now that Vienna is only accepting 80 asylum applications per day at the Spielfeld border crossing with Slovenia — and now that other Balkan countries have constricted the refugee flow in response — migrants have begun backing up in Greece. In his interview, Defense Minister Doskozil makes no attempt to contradict the impression that exactly that outcome was intended. Currently, he says, his ministry is examining whether and how many soldiers should be sent to Macedonia to help the country secure its border with Greece. That border has been closed to Afghans since Monday, with only Syrians and Iraqis allowed to pass. On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, a total of only 150 refugees entered Macedonian territory. On Thursday morning, another 100 were allowed to pass, before Macedonia completely sealed off its border. When and whether it will be reopened is unclear.

Giving Austria the Middle Finger

One day earlier, the Austrian government had held a conference on the refugee question in Vienna, with only select countries on the Balkan Route invited to attend. Greece and most other EU member states were not among the invitees. Greece was furious at being excluded and reacted on Thursday by recalling its ambassador from Vienna, a gesture that in the diplomatic world is akin to giving Austria the middle finger. Athens followed up on Friday by cancelling a planned visit to the Greek capital by Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner.

Concern in Brussels has been rising rapidly in recent days that the uncoordinated border closures could result in chaos and perhaps even instability in the Balkans. The European Commission has sought to put a stop to the domino effect on the Balkan Route with strong words: Vienna’s cap on refugees is “incompatible with Austria’s obligations under European and international law,” wrote European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos in a harshly worded letter to the Austrian interior minister. Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said on Thursday that Europe no longer has a plan. “We are heading into anarchy,” he said.

Greece has now de facto become the collecting point for the vast majority of refugees heading north. The country, says one EU diplomat candidly, “is turning into a single enormous hotspot,” referring to the plan to establish central refugee registration points on Europe’s periphery. Greece has been in the throes of a deep economic crisis for years and is now completely overwhelmed by the task of providing food and shelter to tens of thousands of refugees. Some 12,000 migrants are currently stranded in the country and the four official camps are hopelessly overcrowded. A spokeswoman from Doctors without Borders says that if Afghans continue to be blocked from continuing northward, the system will collapse “in just eight days.” Because there is “no realistic emergency plan,” she says, her organization is preparing for the worst. The European Commission is likewise developing emergency aid so as to prevent the collapse of the state on the Turkish border.

Dozens of buses with around 5,000 refugees on board were stopped on the highway by police earlier this week in Greece because the camps in Idomeni, on the Greek-Macedonian border, were already filled beyond capacity. Some 500 people continued on foot, walking along the highway and spending the night alongside angry farmers who have been blocking traffic with their tractors in recent weeks to protest against Tsipras’ austerity policies. They are shameful scenes that played out across the country — all symbolic of European failure.

‘A Miracle’

The situation in the Greek capital is particularly dramatic. The most recent focal points of crisis can be found among the ferry terminals at the port of Piraeus and on Victoria Square in the heart of Athens. Hundreds of people are camped out on the square, sleeping on the ground and loitering in the streets. The burgeoning chaos is reminiscent of the situation in Hungary last summer when Prime Minister Viktor Orbán allowed the situation to become so intolerable that Chancellor Merkel responded by opening the borders.

Hassan Mohamadi, a lanky 26-year-old from Afghanistan, knew nothing of the disarray when he disembarked from the ferry Blue Star 1 at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday morning. Holding his wife’s hand with one hand and his five-month-old daughter with the other, he said that morning that he was happy again for the first time in a long while. Some 1,300 migrants from the islands of Lesbos and Chios arrived in Athens that morning on board the Blue Star 1.

“It is a miracle that we have arrived,” Mohamadi said, adding that he and his family had been underway for 12 days, having fled their village of Qur due to poverty, suicide bombings and Islamic State, which has begun expanding in Afghanistan. Mohamadi wants to continue on to Germany, but for now he and his family are stuck in Athens. He looked uncomprehending when he learned that he would be unable to continue his journey northwards. At the port, a migrant smuggler approached him and said: “If you have money, I can bring you there.” The trip to Germany via the new route through Albania goes for around €3,000.

In parliament this week, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said: “We will not accept turning the country into a permanent warehouse of souls,” threatening that Athens would block EU decisions until the distribution of refugees among member states is implemented. “We will not tolerate that a number of countries will be building fences and walls at the borders without accepting even a single refugee,” he said. But what might the consequences be? Is the threat from Athens merely an empty one?

Deputy Foreign Minister Nikos Xydakis spoke with SPIEGEL by phone to address such questions. “Since Sept. 23, when the first refugee summit took place, there have been many subsequent meetings. In October, Turkey took part and we agreed on a joint plan, with Turkey agreeing to take back a generous number. But neither Turkey nor EU member states have adhered to the agreement. Germany promised to maintain the status quo at its border until the next summit on March 7, but that failed as well.”

Greece, Xydakis says, is all alone. “So why should we adhere to any new agreements?” He says that Greece could begin exercising its veto beyond just the refugee summit and use it on all EU issues where unanimity is required.

‘Greece’s Closest Ally’

SPIEGEL has learned that Athens is considering declaring a state of emergency and applying for EU aid to cope with the refugee situation. Thus far, the government in Athens has declined taking such a step out of political considerations. But doing so now, Athens believes, could push EU member states to show solidarity with Greece in the refugee crisis.

The man who is primarily responsible for preventing refugees from continuing on their northward journey out of Greece is Gjorge Ivanov, the president of Macedonia. At his residence in Villa Vodno, in southern Skopje, Ivanov makes the claim that “Macedonia is Greece’s closest ally.” But things look different in reality. Relations between the two countries have been tense ever since Macedonia became an independent state, primarily because Greece is unwilling to accept that its neighbor to the north has the same name as one of its own provinces. Europe is a complicated continent.

The closing of the border to Greece, Ivanov says, was merely a reaction. “Whenever a country to our north restricts its borders, we do the same,” he says. Macedonia, Ivanov continues, made it clear that it would only be able to tolerate 2,000 migrants at a time making their way through the country. Macedonia may not be in the EU, but it is still behaving more responsibly than some EU member states, the country’s president insists. He says he could no longer wait for a decision to be made in Brussels, otherwise Macedonia would have been overrun by refugees. “In times of crisis, each country must find its own solutions.”

Ivanov’s words are a requiem to the vision of a Europe that can find joint answers to problems that individual countries cannot confront on their own.

Solidarity is a word that has failed to gain traction in Eastern Europe. Members of the Visegrád Group, made up of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, share a common past as communist countries and often see themselves on Europe’s periphery, both geographically and psychologically. Governments of those countries have the backing of a population that is broadly skeptical of welcoming refugees into their midst.

Among political leaders in the Videgrád Group, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is the most influential opponent of Merkel’s refugee policies. This week, he announced that he intended to hold a referendum on the distribution of refugees among EU states as was agreed to last September. Voters will be asked: “Do you want the EU to prescribe the mandatory relocation of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary without the approval of the Hungarian parliament?”

Doing Germany’s Dirty Work

People in Brussels and Berlin are furious with Orbán because of the move. European Parliament President Martin Schulz told SPIEGEL: “According to the distribution plan, Hungary is supposed to take a mere 1,294 refugees. I don’t understand how you can hold a referendum against that, unless one sees it as an additional step away from a Europe of solidarity and common accountability.”

The likelihood that the EU refugee summit on March 7 will find success is diminishing by the day. And Chancellor Merkel is increasingly isolated with her plan to solve the crisis with the help of Turkey. Many Eastern European politicians and EU diplomats don’t believe that Merkel’s Turkey solution will yield rapid results. Skepticism is widespread in Vienna as well, with hardly anyone believing that the problem can be solved by sending a few billion euros to Ankara. “And if it can,” says a member of Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz’s staff, “then we have to make it much clearer to Turkey what we expect — that they prevent refugees from traveling onward but also that they stop bombing the Kurds.”

Displeasure with the Germans is growing for another reason as well: Even as Berlin is criticizing the measures that countries on the Balkan Route have taken, Germany has profited from them as well in the form of plunging numbers of refugees entering the country. “We are doing the dirty work for the Germans,” says one Eastern European EU diplomat.

Austrian Defense Minister Doskozil agrees. “Germany should be more grateful to us.” Austria, he says, is merely ensuring that countries along the Balkan Route are coordinating with one another. The criticism from Germany “is completely incomprehensible,” he says, adding that the refugees are being sent north in an orderly fashion. “There is an alternative,” he says. “We could just allow them all to haphazardly continue to Germany.”

By Giorgos Christidis, Katrin Kuntz, Walter Mayr, Peter Müller, Jan Puhl and Mathieu von Rohr




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