Smugglers cash in as major migrant route closes

2016-03-10 20:03
Two children sit on a beach after crossing with other refugees the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos. (Santi Palacios, AP)

Two children sit on a beach after crossing with other refugees the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos. (Santi Palacios, AP)

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Brussels - As the European Union tries to send thousands of migrants back to Turkey and close the heavily travelled Balkans route, concern is mounting that people desperate to find sanctuary or jobs in Europe are already using smugglers to find other pathways.

Albania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania are alternative tracks, government ministers and experts say, and Spain is in contact with Algeria and Morocco to try to stop new routes opening from there.

"We must not let our guard down. We have to be careful," Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz warned on Thursday as he arrived for talks with his EU counterparts in Brussels.

More than 130 000 migrants have entered Greece this year, but their path north through the Balkans to places like Germany and Scandinavia is essentially blocked, due to tight border controls.

Serbian officials said on Thursday that around 150 people are coming to Serbia each day via a dangerous track through Bulgaria, and there are frequent reports of robberies and severe beatings by locals.

Smugglers are likely to take advantage of the EU's tentative deal with Turkey coupled with the border choke-holds through the Balkans, some experts say.

"This will be a major win for smuggling groups," Tuesday Reitano from the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime told The Associated Press. "The effects are already visible."

Reitano said groups of 50 or more migrants are already reported to have been smuggled through Albania by local Mafia. Clandestine routes are opening again in Hungary, where authorities report that more people are breaching the razor-wire fence on its southern border.

Italy fears many may head west toward Albania, and take to boats to cross the Adriatic Sea.

Tricky to monitor

"So far we have no evidence of any huge flow," Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said. He acknowledged that it would be logical to expect movement given developments in the Balkans but that "this is not a fact today".

While the routes are tricky to monitor, and movements can change quickly from day to day, the EU's border agency Frontex said its personnel have not spotted big shifts yet.

However, contingency planning is well under way should things change.

"Albania is just one of the possibilities," Frontex's deputy executive director, Berndt Korner, said in Belgrade on Thursday.

"The same goes also for the western coast of Greece, the same might also go for Montenegro," he said. "[Whether] it goes up to Croatia remains to be seen, but it is definitely one of the possibilities that are under consideration."

Once the weather improves, people could turn back to the dangerous route across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy. Thousands have died off the Italian island of Lampedusa in recent years trying to make that crossing.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said that Berlin and Rome are in close contact "to make sure well in advance that we have no repeat of what has been going on along the Balkans route".

The EU's in-principle deal with Turkey - a legally complex and unclear agreement essentially outsourcing Europe's refugee woes - remains a concern for many.

"This agreement will dramatically reduce the legal entry points into the Union, forcing desperate refugees to look for other routes," warned Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberal ALDE bloc in the European Parliament. "We will see again the revival of the Lampedusa route, a new Malta route, a new Albanian route, a new Bulgarian route."

Read more on:    eu  |  migrants

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