SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Countries along a new Balkan migrant route pledged on Thursday to work together to prevent a repetition of the 2015 influx that brought more than a million refugees into Europe from North Africa and the Middle East.
Security and police officials from the region met in Bosnia to discuss their response to growing traffic along a new smuggling route from Greece through Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia to Croatia and western Europe.
More than 5,500 refugees and migrants from Asia and North Africa have entered Bosnia this year using the route. The Balkan country was spared the migrant wave of 2015, but it now finds itself struggling to accommodate thousands of people who are trying to reach wealthier EU countries.
The situation is still under control, but it requires stronger cooperation among police agencies in all countries, said Bostjan Sefic, the state secretary in Slovenia’s interior ministry. A key target should be people traffickers, of whom 80 percent come from the region, Sefic said.
The officials concluded that each country should register migrants to keep the track of their movement. All bilateral agreements, including those on re-admission, must be strictly respected and illegal migrants returned to their countries of origin, they said.
Sefic said that illegal migrations must be stopped at the external borders of the European Union, which will provide technical and financial help to the affected countries.
“We call on the action now, we need immediately to implement these measures to respond to the challenge,” he told reporters.
Franz Lang, the head of Austria’s Federal Criminal Police Office, said EU countries had discussed setting up “portal centres” in countries outside the EU, where requests for asylum would be processed.
“Egypt and Ukraine had been mentioned as potential countries,” Lang said, adding he was not informed about the latest proposals. “It’s very important to try to prevent migrant routes from being long and dangerous, but to help people close to the source of migration.”
The European Commission said on Thursday it would grant 1.5 million euros ($1.77 million) in humanitarian aid to address the increasing needs of refugees and migrants stranded in Bosnia, bringing its total humanitarian funding for the Western Balkans to 30.5 million euros.
($1 = 0.8460 euros)
Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; editing by Larry King