Author: Milica Trpevska, IOM Project Assistant seconded to MARRI RC

Editor: Christoph von Harsdorf, GIZ Integrated Expert seconded to MARRI RC

The recent

EU decision to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, as well as the expected launch of the 2020 European Commission Progress Reports for the Western Balkans, are great impetus to honor the remarkable progress of MARRI Participants towards their EU accession-driven reform commitments in migration management. This article takes stock of recent developments in the Western Balkans in the areas falling under MARRI’s mandate – border management, asylum, combating trafficking in human beings, readmission and labour migration. It discusses selected key initiatives put forward or endorsed by MARRI Participants with a view to align with the EU acquis and to transfer and implement good EU practices. The research for this article is primarily based on the latest European Commission assessments and recommendations.

1. Effective Border Control and Cooperation – Key for Improving Migration Management

Cooperation with “third countries” is a founding element of the European Integrated Border Management concept. By adopting a new Regulation (EU) 2019/1896 of the European Parliament and of the Council, the EU has reinforced the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), which is now allowed to deploy  teams  and implement joint operations beyond the EU’s immediate neighbourhood. So far, the EU has signed Status Agreements on Border and Coast Guard Cooperation with Albania (October 2018), Montenegro (October 2019) and with Serbia (November 2019).

The Agreement with Montenegro will enter into force on 1 July 2020, while the conclusion procedure with Serbia is pending. Similar Status Agreements have also been initialed – waiting for finalisation – with North Macedonia (July 2018) and with Bosnia Herzegovina (January 2019).  Kosovo* has a Working Arrangement with Frontex which enables close cooperation on irregular migration, border crimes, border security and overall border management, including daily exchange of data.

Albania was the first MARRI Participant to benefit from the deployment of joint Frontex teams to its border with Greece. This is the first fully – fledged joint Frontex operation outside the EU, which – according to the latest European Commission Update, has shown good results in addressing irregular migration and security challenges.

The cooperation among MARRI Participants and their neighbours on joint patrols, joint contact centres and local border traffic is mostly satisfactory. The 2019 European Commission Progress Reports reveal that the trilateral Joint Centres for Police Cooperation in Trebinje (between Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia) and in Plave (between Albania, Kosovo* and Montenegro) need improvement in their staffing and functioning in order to be fully operational. Joint border controls have been introduced at some border crossing points between Albania and Kosovo* and between Albania and Montenegro, as well as at one border crossing location between North Macedonia and Serbia.

Overall, more financial and human resources need to be devoted to modernising border infrastructure and increasing surveillance of land and sea borders of MARRI Participants. Border police in the region need further capacity building for achieving consistent registration of irregular migrants, for protection-sensitive profiling and referral to national protection mechanisms. A promising practice in this area is Serbia’s adoption of Standard Operating Procedures for profiling, checking and registering irregular migrants as well as a training plan for implementation.

2. Towards a Coordinated Response to International Protection: Opportunities and Challenges

MARRI Participants are currently at different stages on their path towards having a functional and holistic EU-compliant asylum system. Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina and Montenegro are mainly focused on improving their reception capacity in a context of increased migratory flow on the so called “coastal route”, while Kosovo*, North Macedonia and Serbia are consolidating their efforts to improve access to the asylum procedure, quality of decision making and data management.

To address the challenge with reception and accommodation of migrants and asylum seekers, in its latest Progress Reports, the European Commission calls for better Inter-institutional coordination, allocation of dedicated budget funds for reception centres’ management and urgent identification of additional appropriate accommodation capacities – particularly in Bosnia Herzegovina.

More suitable accommodation for unaccompanied children together with individualised care is needed in all MARRI Participants. Additional procedural safeguards should also be guaranteed for persons belonging to vulnerable groups, like unaccompanied and separated children, pregnant women, single parents, persons with disabilities, sick persons and victims of violence. The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) Tool for Identification of Persons with Special Needs which has been translated in Macedonian and Serbian enables migration management authorities – including first contact officers, case workers and reception centre staff – to address the special needs of asylum applicants. In addition, EASO supported the authorities of North Macedonia and Serbia by developing tailored Roadmaps for strengthening their asylum systems and reception capacity. As announced on the EASO web-site, the cooperation with Albania and Bosnia Herzegovina is to be enhanced, with dedicated missions to agree on future roadmaps.

To comply with EU and international standards, MARRI participants are constantly improving the quality of refugee status determination decisions. In 2019, as part of an EU-funded IPA II regional programme, EASO has organised a set of regional workshops on country-of-origin information methodology.  In the upcoming period, MARRI will be supported by EASO to coordinate the organisation and evaluation of EASO core module trainings for asylum practitioners.

Since on-site face-to-face interpretation during interviews with asylum seekers is not always available, interviews are increasingly moved online, also as a measure to contain the spread of COVID–19. MARRI Participants are more inclined to use the Regional Remote Interpretation Service which allows advance interpreter scheduling and use of remote communication tools. The Service has been initiated by MARRI and technically fully developed by IOM, with EU funding.

3. Preventing and Addressing Trafficking in Human Beings –Ensuring a Safer World for All

Western Balkans is a source, transit and destination region for trafficking in human beings (THB). The most common forms of trafficking, as reported by the European Commission, are sexual and labour exploitation, followed by forced begging and forced marriages. The risk of victimisation among migrants and refugees is even greater compared to that of the general population, due to the increased use of migrant smuggling networks en route to Europe. Women and children remain most vulnerable despite of targeted prevention measures.

Victim-centred investigations and prosecutions are being implemented with increasing consistency, while the number of final convictions in all MARRI Participants is still very low. To address this challenge, in the case of Albania the European Commission recommended “…conduct(ing) financial investigations related to trafficking in human beings cases; ensure(ing) early identification of victims of trafficking; improv(ing) cross-border and international cooperation; contribut(ing) to successful reintegration of victims; and provid(ing) child victims of trafficking with adequate protection”.

Risk assessment and proactive investigations must become general practices in this area, as complaints from victims are rarely received due to the nature of the crime. A promising practice in this regard is the operation of task forces focused on prevention and combating THB, bringing together representatives from the relevant ministries, prosecution structures and civil society. Such task forces are successfully functioning in MARRI Participants, including Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia. This has been assessed as a positive step towards greater efficiency in addressing THB and irregular migration as it ensures real time communication and cooperation between the relevant authorities.

On regional level, MARRI is supported by German International Cooperation (GIZ) to facilitate cooperation among anti-trafficking structures, within the on-going “Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Human Beings in the Western Balkans” PaCT project.

4. Readmission and Orderly Return – a Collaborative Response to Irregular Migration

Responsibility-sharing and cooperation are prerequisites for safe and orderly return and readmission of migrants and failed asylum seekers. The readmission cooperation of MARRI Participants with EU Member States has been assessed as satisfactory, especially concerning their own nationals who are being effectively returned when ordered to leave the EU. However, more effort is needed to successfully reintegrate returnees, especially the most vulnerable such as Roma – who represent a considerable part of returns across the region. Increased cooperation, communication and coordination are needed between central level governments, among central and local authorities and with international organisations and NGOs active in the reintegration of returnees. Such inter-institutional structure – the Coordination Body on Returnees – is as an example already in place in North Macedonia. As recommended by the European Commission, it only needs to be revived under the leadership of the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy.

Better conditions for rehabilitation and reintegration of foreign fighter returnees should also be created. In 2018, Kosovo* made a substantial progress by developing a dedicated programme within the Correctional Service and by establishing a Division for “Prevention and Reintegration of Radicalised Persons” within the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The lack of enforceable bilateral readmission agreements with the main countries-of-origin of irregular migrants continues to be an obstacle for effective return management for all MARRI Participants, with little progress on negotiations. Voluntary return with a focus on reintegration is always a preferable option, as it is conducted with informed consent of the migrant while respecting all their rights. EU and other partners support IOM – the UN Migration Agency  to carry out assisted voluntary returns throughout the region and to set up institutional return management structures in all MARRI Participants.

5. Labour Migration – Legal Avenue to Promote Mobility of Workers

Emigration and brain drain, especially through migrating  highly educated and skilled young people, remains one of the key medium-to-long-term economic challenges for all MARRI Participants. According to Eurostat, as cited by Balkan Insight 230 thousand people left the region in 2019, with the greatest number coming from Kosovo* and Bosnia Herzegovina. Most of them are from the health, information technology and the construction sector.

Regulated instead of irregular outward mobility of workers, however, is likely to benefit MARRI Participants as it will facilitate evidence-based policy making and more targeted labour market measures for those staying in the region. Greater efforts are needed to promote intra-regional labour mobility. Based on international bilateral agreements, many job seekers from Bosnia Herzegovina, were mediated into employment abroad by the public employment services. On the other hand, Montenegro and Serbia recently amended their Laws on Foreigners, simplifying procedures for requesting residence and work permits for migrant workers. As Montenegro is an attractive destination for seasonal workers from the region, it needs – according to the EU – to ensure more effective supervision of the private sector to avoid exploitation on the informal labour market.

Targeted employment measures need to be put in place to facilitate labour market integration of returnees, including members of the Roma and Ashkali communities. According to the European Commission Progress Report, Kosovo* has one of the highest rates of Roma informal work communities in the region. The authorities are encouraged to provide tailored Information on available employment services and vocational training as well as to increase the number of employment counsellors from the Roma and Ashkali communities.

6. Resilience and Flexibility – Paving the Way Towards Orderly and Protection-Sensitive Migration Management

The approximation of MARRI Participants’ legislation to the EU acquis and the improvement of their capacities to implement and enforce the relevant rules in an EU-compliant manner is a continuous process of many steps. The increased mixed migration flows during the last five years have led to greater responsibility and a more coordinated effort by migration authorities to advance the EU accession standards  in this area, while respecting and protecting the rights of migrants and refugees.

On the other hand, the measures to limit the pace of contagion of COVID–19 have direct consequences on the implementation of asylum and return rules, within and beyond the EU borders. To facilitate continuity of procedures while ensuring the protection of people’s health and fundamental rights, in April 2020, the European Commission released COVID–19 Guidance  on the implementation of relevant EU provisions in the area of asylum and return procedures and on resettlement. The practical advice on many aspects of asylum and return procedures, including on registration of asylum applicants without personal contact, remote asylum interviews, online readmission case management systems and on virtual voluntary return and reintegration counselling, may also be useful for MARRI Participants facing similar challenges.

As pointed out in the European Commission Communication On Support to the Western Balkans in tackling COVID-19 and the post-pandemic recovery  the EU is to provide EUR 4.5 million funding for immediate humanitarian assistance to vulnerable refugees and migrants in the Western Balkans for protection, support to unaccompanied minors and health care, including COVID-19 preparedness. EUR 8 million will be provided for emergency support to migrants and refugees stranded in the region, from the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace.

Finally, the Zagreb Declaration agreed during the online EU-Western Balkans Zagreb summit on 6 May 2020, reiterates the unequivocal commitment of EU leaders to further develop their cooperation with MARRI participants on tackling migration challenges. It further notes that remaining Frontex status agreements should be concluded without delay and that the EU will continue to support the improvement of reception capacities in the Western Balkans. MARRI Participants, on the other hand, need to maintain their commitment to the European perspective as their firm strategic choice and to swiftly implement the necessary reforms, including improving their migration management frameworks and processes.


Disclaimer: the content of the article is the sole responsibility of its author and any opinions expressed herein should not be taken to represent an official position of MARRI.

Last updated: 28 May 2020

* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244/1999 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence