Documents considered by the Committee on 4 May 2016 Contents

10Refugee flows along the Western Balkans route

Committee’s assessment

Politically important

Committee’s decision

Cleared from scrutiny; drawn to the attention of the Home Affairs Committee

Document details

Commission report on the follow-up to the Leaders’ Meeting on refugee flows along the Western Balkans Route

Legal base


Home Office

Document Numbers

(37410), 15423/15 + ADD 1, COM(15) 676

Summary and Committee’s conclusions

10.1During 2015, the Western Balkans became a major transit route for refugees seeking protection within the European Union. In response to the spike in migratory flows from the summer onwards, the Commission invited the leaders of the most affected transit and destination countries along the Western Balkans route—Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia—and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to a special meeting last October which agreed a Statement advocating “a determined, collective cross-border approach in a European spirit, based on solidarity, responsibility and pragmatic cooperation between national, regional and local authorities”.39

10.2The Leaders’ Statement underlined the need for authorities to talk to each other, work together and avoid unilateral action (such as sudden border closures) which could trigger a chain reaction. It set out a number of commitments to manage migration flows more effectively along the length of the Western Balkans route, in compliance with European and international laws. The Commission report was published ahead of the December European Council and provides a snapshot of the progress made in implementing these commitments. While acknowledging some improvement in communication and coordination since the October Summit, it noted that “too many unilateral measures continued to be taken” which affected the region as a whole. The report also raised important questions about the capacity of countries in the Western Balkans to manage the flow of migrants and refugees and to meet basic humanitarian needs.

10.3The Immigration Minister (James Brokenshire) recognised that countries in the Western Balkans were an essential part of “any comprehensive approach to the current migration crisis” and considered that the emphasis placed on collective responsibility in the Leaders’ Statement was “broadly right”. We asked him to provide further information on the UK’s response to requests for assistance made by countries in the region and by the EU’s External Borders Agency (Frontex) and to comment on the introduction of nationality-based screening at the borders of some Western Balkans countries, intended to limit entry to nationals of a small number of third countries who would be very likely to qualify for refugee status.

10.4As the Minister observes, “the situation is constantly changing”. In mid-February the European Council expressed “grave concern” at the “continued and sustained irregular migrant flows along the Western Balkans route” and called for the “wave through” approach to be brought to an end.40 Shortly afterwards, following a meeting with Prime Minister Davutoglu of Turkey on 7 March, EU leaders announced that “irregular flows of migrants along the Western Balkans route have now come to an end”.41 The abrupt closure of borders along the Western Balkans route has created an even greater humanitarian crisis in Greece. On 21 April, the Minister announced a substantial increase in the resources being provided by the UK to help with the processing and administration of migrants and refugees in reception centres in Greece, with a particular focus on implementing the Agreement reached with Turkey on 18 March to end irregular migration to the EU.42 The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has acknowledged that the deal with Turkey and the closure of the Western Balkans route “raise doubts of an ethical nature, and also legal”.43 We have therefore recommended that a number of documents relating to the EU-Turkey Agreement and to the overall functioning of the Schengen free movement area should be debated at the earliest opportunity.

10.5Given the pace of developments, and the shift of focus towards implementation of the EU-Turkey Agreement, we now clear the Commission report from scrutiny but draw it to the attention of the Home Affairs Committee.

Full details of the documents

Commission report on the follow-up to the Leaders’ Meeting on refugee flows along the Western Balkans Route: (37410), 15423/15+ ADD 1, COM(15) 676.


10.6The Leaders’ Statement agreed last October established a framework for more effective cooperation to manage the flows of migrants and refugees, encompassing commitments in eight areas:

10.7The framework was developed in response to the “unpredictable and unprecedented” scale of migratory flows through the Western Balkans region in 2015 which revealed “a striking lack of capacity, cooperation and solidarity, as well as basic communication between the countries along the route”.44

10.8Our earlier Report listed at the end of this chapter provides a more detailed overview of the Commission report and the Government’s position.

The Minister’s letter of 14 April 2016

10.9The Minister responds first to our request for further information on the assistance provided by the UK to Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia and Greece under the EU Civil Protection Mechanism (CPM):

“The CPM is just one of many support mechanisms available to Member States and other European countries facing crisis situations. The UK responded to requests from the four countries of greatest concern on the Western Balkans route by providing in-kind assistance consisting of blankets, sleeping bags, roll mats, inflatable mats, beds with mattresses, tents, solar lanterns, electric tent heaters, facemasks, disposable gloves, generators and floor tiles (accounting for over 250,000 items). The UK is also funding humanitarian responses in these Western Balkan countries—Serbia, Macedonia and Croatia—to a total of nearly £13.5m and this is being delivered through partners such as the UNHCR, IOM, the Red Cross and other NGOs. In addition, we have provided £9m for the ‘Europe-wide’ response, including dedicated support packages for children and the most vulnerable migrants over the winter, strengthened approaches to gender-based violence in migrant camps and family reunion services.”

10.10Turning to the UK’s response to requests for expertise and equipment made by Frontex, the Minister comments:

“The UK is not able to participate in the Frontex Regulation as we are not part of the Schengen Zone but we continue to provide significant practical support to the operations of that agency, in particular through supporting its sea operations and through our Organised Immigration Crime Taskforce (OIC TF). For 2016, we have agreed to provide 139 months deployment of debriefing and screening experts to Frontex sea border operations in Italy and Greece, 23 months deployment of interpreters to support Frontex operations in Greece as part of the OIC TF, and 8 months of deployment of debriefing experts to Frontex operations on the Greek land border. This is in addition to support we have previously provided to Frontex Operation Poseidon Sea in Greece and Operation Triton in Italy last year. When Frontex operations in Greece were converted to a Rapid Intervention Team (RABIT) in December, we were told by Frontex we could no longer support this operation for legal reasons.  We have been able to secure a bilateral agreement with the Greek Coast Guard to allow our vessel (VOS Grace) to continue to support search and rescue operations in the Aegean.”

10.11The Minister also provides details of UK support for the European Asylum Support Office:

“The UK has also contributed to every major European Asylum Support Office (EASO) support operation—i.e. to Greece, Italy and Bulgaria—over the last three years. This has involved a UK contribution over 20 missions totalling over 1,000 working days. Three asylum experts have been deployed to Greece since the initial EASO call for support to the ‘hotspots’; two are currently deployed. A further UK experts is deployed to the Dublin Unit in Athens and one expert is deployed to EURINT to assist in building returns expertise in Greece. We are also funding a voluntary returns programme (£2m over 2 years 2014–2016) and asylum programmes (totalling £600k over 3 years) in Greece. The UK will continue to keep under review opportunities to support Greece and other partners in responding to the migration crisis.”

10.12The Minister comments on the introduction of nationality-based screening at the borders of some Western Balkans countries:

“The overwhelming majority of migrants on the Western Balkans route are Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan nationals who have no interest in seeking asylum in the Western Balkans. Until recently these migrants were generally allowed to transit to their desired destinations. However, new border management policies along the route have introduced additional restrictions meaning that, amongst others, Afghan nationals are now unable to enter Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia. Border management policies are largely matters for individual countries, although the UK recognises that the ‘wave through’ approach should come to an end (as confirmed by the European Council Conclusions of 18/19 February 2016). Our clear and often-stated position is that the focus of the EU and other partners should be on securing a comprehensive solution to the refugee crisis, which needs to include strengthening the EU external border and enhanced cooperation with Turkey and the Western Balkan partners. We are clear that protection in refugees’ region of origin is often the best solution and that those reaching the EU should claim asylum in the first Member State they enter (as per EU rules) rather than seeking to travel further across Europe to their destination of choice.”

10.13The Minister concludes:

“You will recognise that the situation is constantly changing. The Government continues to maintain its watch on all key developments so that we can reshape and refresh our response and our offers of assistance, expertise and resources to our European partners and other partners further upstream. We continue to support more effective management of the EU’s external border, enhanced information exchange between the UK and Schengen members, joint action on people smuggling, the development of robust returns mechanisms and strong cooperation with third countries.”

Previous Committee Reports

Twenty-second Report HC 342-xxi (2015–16), chapter 6 (3 February 2016).

39 See the Leaders’ Statement of 25 October 2015.

40 See the Conclusions of the European Council on 18–19 February 2016.

41 See the Statement issued by EU leaders on 7 March 2016.

42 See the Written Ministerial Statement of 21 April 2016 by the Immigration Minister (James Brokenshire).

43 See his report to the European Parliament on 13 April 2016 on the outcome of the 17/18 March European Council.

44 See p.2 of the Commission report.

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

10 May 2016