Background – Violent Balkan Routes

The Balkan route – Background

  • 2015 – 2016 (RE)BORDERIZATION

    Starting in 2015, the Balkan region began to undergo a process of (re)borderization. During the summer of 2015, Hungary began to erect a 4 m tall and 175 km long fence along its border with Serbia, the first country along the so-called “Balkan Route” to do so. In the following months, the country launched new measures to guard its border, legitimized by a “state of emergency” catalyzed migration fears. Electronic sensors, electric wire, helicopters, drone patrols, the extension of up to 10,000 Hungarian authorities tasked with managing the border, all marked the rapid securitization of Hungary’s Balkan borders. By October of 2015, a second border fence was completed, running along the Hungary’s border with Croatia.

    In March, 2016 a period of rapid securitization spread across Balkan borders. Within several weeks of each other, Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia all announced the closure of their frontiers to people-in-transit. At the time, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, publicly remarked that “irregular flows of migrants along western Balkans route have come to an end”¹.

    Ultimately, this policy of closed borders did not reduce migration flows, nor did it close the route. Instead, people-in-transit began to seek more clandestine and more dangerous paths towards the EU. Since there remain very few, if any, legal pathways to claim transit towards the EU, many people see themselves as forced to go on “games”: an expression used by people-in-transit to refer to illegal transit attempts, which often include days of traveling under the cover of night, hiding in lorries, or clinging to freight trains.


    Following the securitization of borders in the Balkan region, an increase in the violent push-back of transit groups began to be observed. In Hungary, push-backs were legitimized through a law passed in July 2016 which allowed for authorities to push-back people caught within a 8km-area zone behind the border². Rather, a systematic character of violent practices at the borders was more and more observable. At this time, many transit groups began to report similar stories of mistreatment suffered at the hands of border authorities. Groups often described being picked up and, despite expressing an intention to claim asylum, being mistreated and driven to the Serbian border. These testimonies often were accompanied by descriptions of violence, including being forced to undress, being chained naked on the ground after being doused in water, being beaten up with batons, or being bitten by dogs. The groups then often described being forced to walk back to the border, sometimes 30 km, without warm clothes. Mobile phones were destroyed in most occasions and their money taken away. These procedures were, and continued to be used, without deference towards minors³. “They treat us like animals“ one individual recalled after returning from the border.


    With Hungarian migration politics becoming more restrictive, transit groups increasingly opted to take a route through Croatia during the spring of 2017. Volunteers in the field reported observing an increase in violence against people-in-transit attempting crossing through Croatia, starting in the spring of 2017. Through enactment of physical, material, and emotional costs onto the bodies and belongings of people-in-transit, border authorities intended to discourage repeated transit attempts. The tactics which transit-groups described experiencing at the hands of Croatian authorities were reminiscent of those used by Hungarian authorities on its own Serbian border, reinforcing the suspicion that these procedures were part of a systematic deterrence strategy. During this time, observation from the field began to indicate a dynamic in which Slovenian authorities cooperated with Croatian authorities to carry out “chain push-backs”. In these instances, Slovenian police hand over apprehended transit groups to Croatian officers who then deport them back to Serbia⁴. In many cases, the Slovenian officers force the individuals to pay fees for entering the country illegally or make them sign papers in languages they do not speak, which is against the EU directives of asylum procedures⁵.


    What was for a brief timespan an open “Balkan Corridor” has turned, for many, into a “Balkan Prison”: a securitized transit region with slim chances for forward movement. Partly in response to this dynamic, towards end of 2017, more and more individuals began opting to take a route through Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to move through Croatia and then Slovenia. The numbers of people-in-transit which have arrived to Bosnia since then has grown rapidly. The UNHCR counted 2,557 new arrivals in the country in May 2018, compared to only 237 people in January, 2018⁶. Throughout 2018, practices of illegal and violent push-backs were observed along the Bosnian-Croatian border. These actions were almost identical to those previously observed along the Serbian-Hungarian and Serbian-Croatian borders. Faced with a lack of safe, legal pathways towards asylum in Europe, the only way of escaping poor living conditions in transit and exercising the right to claim asylum in Europe is to engage in even more dangerous border crossing attempts. Violent border defense mechanisms only make refugee journeys more hazardous and lives, already scored with countless episodes of violence, that much more painful.


    The systematic fortification of borders continued across South-Eastern Europe, exacerbating the situation for people-in-transit. In 2019, where borders were not yet physically sealed, they remained heavily controlled by police who use violence as a deterrent. Every night, more people are being attacked, robbed, humiliated, and pushed back to poor living conditions in Balkan transit zones. This is the reality for anyone attempting to enter to EU without the right papers. After having been driven out of their homes by war, persecution and lack of perspective, people are coming to Europe in search of peace and security. Instead, they find themselves caught in limbo in front of EU borders for months on end, often in an endless cycle of “games” where they are repeatedly abused and humiliated by violent border guards. Our documentation shows that the practices of illegal and violent push-backs get extended from year to year, from border to border.

    Status as of May 2019


The scope of pushback practices at the EU external border reached a zenith in 2020. Several unfolding events have characterised the strengthened position of illegal pushback apparatuses at borders across the Western Balkans, Greece and wider Europe. First the findings issued in February by the ECHR on the seminal Melilla case showed the court in Strasbourg to be vindicating collective expulsions by EU states. Further licence was then exercised in March with the violence dealt out by Greek authorities to tens of thousands of people who approached the Evros border from Turkey in the hope of safe passage. Since then, systematic pushbacks by masked and armed authorities have been a recurrent feature, not just on this border but across the wider Western Balkan Route. 2020 also marked an expansion of these pushback practices, with the apprehension of groups from within refugee camps, detention centres and urban areas. One of the key catalysts in these changes has been the securitised response taken by the EU and regional states towards the COVID-19 pandemic. The movement of armed forces into migration management, pushbacks from reception centres and the development of targeted torture like practices within the pandemic period (such as spray tagging by Croatian police officers) have highlighted the way lockdown measures were used as a period to stage more aggressive rights suspensions against people-on-the-move.