Austria mulls sending troops to Balkans to shut off refugee flow

Austrian soldiers line up in front of migrants the Austria-Hungaria border in Nickelsdorf, Austria. © David W. Cerny
Vienna is considering deploying troops and police to the Balkans to reduce the flow of refugees on the route between the Turkish coast and Central Europe. “In the worst case” they will be stopped on the Austrian border, officials warn.

At an informal meeting of EU’s foreign and defense ministers in Amsterdam on Friday, Austria’s top officials said Vienna is working out hardline approaches towards refugees who reach Western Europe via the so-called Balkan route.

This 2,819-kilometer route is now the main passageway for refugees trying to reach Western Europe and Scandinavia via the Balkans.

It begins on the Turkish coastline, where migrants embark on boats or improvised vessels, and then goes through mainland Greece and Slovenia. Non-EU Macedonia and Serbia are harder to reach due to border closures and newly erected fences.

Athens must protect its Turkish borders better, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz told the informal meeting, expressing his skepticism at Greece’s ability to adequately assess and manage the situation.

"I still don't have the feeling that it has dawned on Greece how serious the situation is" for receiving nations like Austria, he told the meeting as quoted by AP.

“If not, we’ll find other ways […] to reduce, suppress or perhaps even stop the influx,” he added, as quoted by Der Spiegel.

Austria’s solution would be army and police deployments in the Balkan countries to secure borders and help register incoming refugees. “If Greece doesn’t want to receive help, then Macedonia and others are ready to do so,” Kurz said, naming Serbia among the "others.”

"I say this very clear – if we do not manage to control the situation... our only option will be to cooperate with Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia," he stressed, as quoted by AP.

Kurz was supported by his Hungarian counterpart, Peter Szijjarto, who said EU nations are "defenseless from the south. There are thousands of irregular migrants entering the territory of the EU on a daily basis."

"If Greece is not ready or able to protect the Schengen zone and doesn't accept any assistance from the EU, then we need another defense line, which is obviously Macedonia and Bulgaria," he added during the Saturday meeting, AP reports.

In the meantime, Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki already expressed his country’s commitment to the idea of securing borders and curbing illegal migration.

"The essential thing is that we have people and equipment to control the border and do registration where legal crossing should happen," he said after the meeting adding that Macedonia already deployed its military to the border to take it under control.

"They're making sure that we have decreased the illegal crossings through our border and we're going to continue to make these efforts," Poposki said, as quoted by AP.

Most migrants want to reach wealthier Germany and Scandinavia despite the long journey, and, in some cases, the illegal border crossings they have to undertake. According to the EU’s border agency Frontex, in 2015 alone more than 764,000 refugees crossed Europe’s regional and common borders illegally - 16 times more than in 2014.

The future military mission could be set up by the EU, a coalition of affected countries or bilaterally, the Austrian foreign minister added.

Austrian Defense Minister Hans Peter Doskozil, who also took part in the EU meeting, said the army is ready to go for a “combined civil-military mission in the Balkans” if necessary, citing the 100-strong military task force already involved in Frontex missions.

“Border protection is also a question of our military cooperation,” he said.

“In worst-case scenarios,” if military options don’t work, Austria is considering stopping refugees directly at its borders, Foreign Minister Kurz added.

This should “send a message” to Slovenia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina urging them to cooperate, the diplomat said, hinting at the trouble “hundreds of thousands” of refugees could bring to those small countries.

In March, Austrian defense officials are scheduled to discuss the military mission to seal off the Balkan route with Serbia, Macedonia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia, Spiegel reported.

Austria is among the European countries that are imposing stricter policies on refugees. Earlier in January, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann announced a plan to introduce a cap on the number of asylum requests that can be approved in 2016, fixing it at 37,500.

The move added to the foreign minister’s assessments that Austria, with a population of less than 8.5 million people, has so far accepted the second highest number of refugees per capita in Europe, topped only by Sweden.