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New Balkan border restrictions untenable

A group of asylum seekers break the trek to rest at Tovarnik train station in Croatia.

A group of asylum seekers break the trek to rest at Tovarnik train station in Croatia. © UNHCR / I. Pavicevic

GENEVA, Nov 20 (UNHCR)—A range of new restrictions against the movement of refugees and migrants from Greece through the Western Balkans and further northwards is increasingly untenable, the UN refugee agency, the International Organisation for Migration and the UN children’s fund said on Friday.

The three agencies said in a joint statement that the restrictions, which were introduced this week, include people being profiled on the basis of nationality.

The agencies cautioned the measures were creating an increasingly untenable situation from every point of view—humanitarian, legal, and also safety related, not least in light of falling temperatures and the risks for children and others with specific needs.

“These measures by States are creating tension at border crossings and a domino effect, leaving in total limbo some refugees and migrants stranded at different border points,” UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards told a press briefing in Geneva.

To safeguard refugees, UNHCR and IOM have been working with governments to increase reception capacity and install protection against winter conditions in the affected countries, where rain and cold temperatures are forecast over the weekend.

UNICEF, meanwhile, is supporting child friendly spaces in reception centres at border crossings along the Balkan routes, mobilizing for winter. It is also working with governments to strengthen child protection systems for all children including refugee and migrant children.

“We remain concerned by a shortage of places to accommodate people along the route should the movement be slowed down and crowding result. We are monitoring and providing assistance with partners at these points, including providing blankets, winter clothing and other key items covering basic needs,” Edwards said.

There is urgent need to put in place additional reception capacity at the points of entry, to allow for decent and effective accommodation, compliance with child protection standards, assistance, registration and screening of the thousands of people arriving every day.

This would allow for the identification of those who are in need of protection, those to be relocated to other European countries, and people who do not qualify for refugee protection and for whom effective and dignified return mechanisms have to be put in place. In all situations, decisions related to children should be taken guided by what is in their best interests.

“As long as this robust reception and screening capacity does not exist, the only ones who are in control of the situation are the smuggling networks whose unscrupulous activities have already cost the lives of nearly 3,500 people in the Mediterranean Sea this year,” Edwards said.

“The current situation, if not addressed quickly and comprehensively, will lead to a fragmentation of the routes and additional challenges. Much more has to be done to crack down on smugglers and traffickers—but in ways that allow their victims to be protected,” he added.

As urgent, is the need to give people uprooted by violent conflicts safe, legal avenues, such as resettlement, humanitarian admission and family reunion, as alternatives to the chaotic and dangerous smuggling routes they are forced to take today to reach safety. UNHCR, IOM and UNICEF therefore call on the concerned States to re-establish coordination and response mechanisms agreed at the Western Balkans Summit on 8 October and the Leaders’ Meeting on 25 October 2015.