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Sunday, 8 March 2015

Migration to South East Europe: Transit or final destination?

Jonathan Scheele (SEESOX Associate; Senior Member, St Antony's College, Oxford)

Week 6 in the “Global South East Europe” seminar series looked at what was happening in the region in terms of migration. Is it an origin for migration into the EU? A destination for migrants from outside Europe? Or a transit route into the rest of Europe?

A panel of three speakers looked at different aspects: Franck Duvell, from the Oxford Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) spoke on “Shifts in the Regional Order, New Patterns of Mobility and Migration Transitions in Europe – the Case of Turkey”; Eugenia Markova, from London Metropolitan University, on “Bulgaria’s Immigration Experiences”; and Dragos Tudorache, of DG HOME in the European Commission, on “The View from Brussels”.

Franck Duvell highlighted the data and the factors – political, economic and social –leading to his conclusion that the EU has ceased to be the only migration destination region; Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkey, as well as the Gulf States and Israel are also migrant destinations. Emigration from, and transit migration through, Turkey has diminished significantly and it has now become an immigrant destination, with consequent legal and institutional adjustments. It currently hosts 1.4 to 2.3 million regular and irregular immigrants plus some 1.7 million refugees from Syria. It is thus right, in his view, to talk of shifts in the global and regional migration order. While the EU may remain migrants’ first choice, they also have others; “we settle in Istanbul, even if we dream of Europe”. While this diverts immigration pressure away from the EU, it also creates competition for qualified migrants. As an example, Turkey is now aiming to recruit medical staff from Greece. Overall, from a situation where everything flows into the EU, we now have one where there is an emerging belt of countries with relatively liberal visa regimes surrounding the EU to the South and East which also receives migrants and refugees.
Eugenia Markova concluded that even though Bulgaria remains predominantly a country of emigration and transit, it has been gradually transforming into a migrant destination area for citizens of Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. The country's EU membership remains a strong 'pull' factor. With the adoption of the EU Blue Card Directive, it has been attracting high skilled professionals, albeit in small numbers, from China, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Albania. Since 2013, the Syrian crisis has led to an unprecedented influx of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, most of whom perceive Bulgaria as a temporary destination (“please tell the media that we don’t want to claim asylum here, because Bulgaria is a very poor country. We don’t want to stay here.”). This is a similar phenomenon to that seen in Greece since the early 1990s. The country has been responding with a massive increase in surveillance at the border with Turkey. Bulgaria is still adjusting in practical policy terms to the changes that have occurred in the region over the last few years and there are few concrete measures to facilitate the integration of migrants.

Dragos Tudorache questioned Franck Duvell’s suggestion that transit migration through Turkey has greatly diminished; this wasn’t so far the impression in Brussels, but rather that of a “perfect storm”. Developments in the EU’s neighbourhood – Arab Spring, Syria – had led to a peak flow of refugees in 2014. The media were full of coverage of dying migrants in the Mediterranean, attempts to board trucks in Calais, and Syrian refugees in Bulgaria and Turkey. There is a clear breakdown of citizens’ trust in the EU’s and Member States’ ability to deal with migration, as well as between EU citizens and migrants; a new migration agenda at EU level is urgently needed and will be put forward in July. The statistics don’t help in explaining the merits of free movement within the EU – too often confused in the media and by citizens, with immigration. There had been 22,000 asylum applications from the West Balkans in December 2014, against a backdrop of visa liberalisation; 46% of all repeated asylum claims in the EU came from the Western Balkans. The West Balkans remained a key focus of policy. Developments inside the EU didn’t always help, with recent Member State national court decisions encouraging claims for asylum from parts of the West Balkans. It was politically difficult for any EU Member State to seek suspension of visa free treatment, but the growing number of rejected asylum claims meant that alternative tools needed to be identified. Turkey was a different case and the challenge of dealing with Syrian refugees was real. Many of them would stay a long time, some permanently. It was vital that a good dialogue between the EU and Turkey be established on all these issues, so that EU support could be made available.

Following these presentations and a lively Q & A, my own conclusions are:

  • There is a change in the situation, with Turkey becoming a different player compared with ten years ago;
  • Russia takes skilled migrants from Turkey and elsewhere, often linked to contracts; immigration issues are the single area where EU/Russia relations remain active and effective;
  • Transit flows into the EU from Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, remain at high levels, but they are no longer so focused on transit through the Balkans, mainly due to the situations in Libya and Egypt, which facilitate flows directly across the Mediterranean to Italy, as well as the emergence of the “ghost ship” phenomenon, bringing migrants from Turkey and its region to Italy; but this situation could change as rapidly as it emerged;
  • Migration from the Western Balkans into the EU is significant, pushed by the economic situation and pulled by a series of policy and judicial decisions inside the EU; a new migration agenda within the EU will need to be accompanied by a series of measures to support the efforts of Western Balkans governments both to prevent migration and to create new jobs and investment within the region.


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