For the first time since 2015, more refugees and migrants are using the Central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy than Balkan route to reach Western Europe.
When North Macedonia posted its latest figures for intercepted illegal border crossings this month, they were met with surprise in a country firmly located on a well-trodden route for migrants and refugees trying to reach Western Europe.
After all, the European border agency, Frontex, had just seen fit to deploy 111 officers to the North Macedonia border in April, responding to a surge in migrant and refugee numbers in 2022.
The latest data is clear, however: a 72 per cent fall in smuggling cases and 34 per cent drop in the number of illegal border crossings, according to numbers for the first half of the year and the first figures from the summer compared to the same period of last year.
Rights groups working with migrants and refugees say the Frontex deployment may have deterred smugglers.
But while numbers are dropping in North Macedonia, they are rising elsewhere on the European Union’s external frontier. A shift is underway, with the Central Mediterranean – by boat from North Africa to Italy – replacing the Balkans as the primary route.
“We cannot exclude the possibility of more cases going undiscovered, or that simply many traffickers lay dormant and wait for better opportunities, but in general the impression is that the strain on the border has eased, that there are fewer cases of trafficking and that the authorities are more efficient,” said Legis, a Skopje-based NGO that provides migrants and refugees with legal support.
Fewer numbers, greater efficiency
North Macedonia was at the centre of a crisis that erupted in 2015 when large numbers of refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa flowed through Turkey into Greece and north via North Macedonia and Serbia to the EU border at Hungary and Croatia.
The numbers since then have fluctuated. Over the first six months of this year, according to police data, some 14,000 entered the country, far less than the roughly 30,000 registered over the first half of 2022.
So far this year, the interior ministry said it has registered some 6,000 attempts to cross the border illegally, by individuals and groups, and that most were foiled. Ninety per cent occurred on the southern border with Greece.
The ministry said that so far this year it has intercepted 48 cases of migrant smuggling, apprehending 20 suspected traffickers.
It attributed the fall in numbers to a “general decrease” in the flow of migrants across the border from Greece.
“We are working on prevention not only along our borders but also deep within the country,” the ministry told BIRN. “The processing of these cases, identifying the smugglers and the migrants are more efficient as well as the procedure for their readmission to their countries of origin.”
Rights groups working with migrants and refugees have also witnessed a drop in numbers.
“This year we are not seeing the surge in the number of migrants like we did last year,” said Suzana Tuneva-Paunovska, secretary general of the Macedonian Red Cross branch in Skopje. “On the contrary, we see less people crossing.”
The Red Cross says it offered support to almost 6,000 people in the first half of this year, compared to 20,000 over the same period last year.
Smugglers continue to charge between 800 and 1,000 euros for passage through North Macedonia, she said.
“We see many cases of violence,” Tuneva-Paunovska told BIRN. “We help people who have been beaten by the traffickers, who have serious injuries, who have lost arms or legs. We are helping there but it is very hard to watch.”
Legis said the presence of Frontex “is making an obvious difference”.
“We see that the authorities are more efficient at processing cases and foiling attempts at trafficking,” the NGO told BIRN.
Balkans no longer primary route
In contrast to the numbers in North Macedonia, Frontex has reported a 10 per cent rise in the general number of irregular border crossings on the EU external frontier during the first half of the year, compared to the same period last year.
That’s 132,370 migrants and refugees – the highest total for the first six months of any year since 2015.
But now the Balkan route is the second most active route, it said, with a decline of 29 per cent.
Frontex attributed the drop in the Balkans to a tighter alignment of visa policies between the EU and the countries of the Western Balkans, with Serbia, North Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro introducing stricter checks and visa regimes for a number of countries, mainly in Africa and the Middle East.
This year, Frontex said, the Central Mediterranean route “accounts for one of every two irregular entries into the EU” with a rise of nearly 140 per cent.
The Balkan route is far from closed, experts say, with traffickers seeking out new and more innovative ways to funnel migrants and refugees into the Western Balkans.
In July, for example, an international police operation, involving Interpol, Europol, Serbia and North Macedonia, resulted in the arrest of 62 suspected traffickers in five counties, 25 of them Cubans.
The traffickers had advertised their services in Cuba to attract customers prepared to pay some 9,000 euros each for transport and forged documents to enter Serbia. From there, they would travel south, not north, through North Macedonia and Greece with the aim of reaching Spain.
Authorities believe up to 5000 Cuban migrants may have taken this route, netting the traffickers a profit of up to 45 million euros.
Source : Balkaninsight