On Sunday, 25 October, representatives of the European Union, its member states and Western Balkan countries came to an agreement concerning certain principles to be applied in further efforts to handle the refugee situation in Europe. The plan involves, inter alia, increasing reception capacity in Western Balkan countries in order to accommodate up to 50.000 refugees, discouraing the secondary movement of refugees from the country they find themselves in and facilitating the efficient return of persons who do not meet the criteria for the granting of international protection to their countries of origin.
Although the agreement does not explicitly state the obligation to contain refugees in the countries they find themselves in, it is clearly implied by its above-mentioned provisions.
Regardless of the clear obligation of all Western Balkan countries to enable efficient access to the asylum procedure to all those who wish to submit an asylum application, it cannot be denied that none of the Western Balkan countries – as well as the majority of EU Member States – are perceived as destination countries by refugees. Therefore, containing refugees in these countries in the numbers foreseen by the agreement could lead to the application of forceful measures against them, including possible restrictions on the freedom of movement foreseen by Art. 2 of Protocol IV to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, as well as deprivation of liberty in the sense of Art. 5 (1) (f) of that Convention.
Bearing in mind what the public currently knows of the 25 October agreement, it is unclear in which manner EU bodies and the countries involved in the plan intend to achieve its implementation, while providing sufficient safeguards for ensuring respect for all relevant norms of international refugee and human rights law. We recall the fact that, in the opinion of UNHCR, Western Balkan countries such as Serbia and Macedonia, but also Greece, cannot be considered safe third countries for asylum-seekers. Especially troubling are the emphasis the agreement places on expediting returns to their countries of origin of persons who do not meet the criteria for international protection, the increased inovolvement of FRONTEX and the absolute demand that all refugees be registered. Concerning the last point, in spite of the fact that it cannot be denied that states have the right to submit foreigners present in their territory to registration, the statement of the President of the European Commission, ‘No registration, no rights,’ is incorrect, seeing as how international legal obligations stemming from the 1951 Refugee Convention exist regardless of whether a person has been registered or not. A statement such as this, coming from one of the EU’s highest-ranking officials, at a summit with Western Balkan countries is likewise very dangerous, bearing in mind the poor state of these countries’ national asylum systems.
Regardless of the amount of foreign aid that may be provided to Western Balkan countries in order to successfully implement this plan, it is unclear how many years of dysfunctional asylum systems may be overcome in a short time-span. Above all, the possibility of forcefully containing refugees in the region causes serious and justified concern that the rights of this extremely vulnerable group might be violated.
The summit leaders’ joint statement is available at http://ec.europa.eu/news/2015/docs/leader_statement_final.pdf.
 European Commission Press Release Database, ‘Speaking Points of President Juncker – Press Conference on Western Balkans Route Leaders’ Meeting’, Brussels, 26 October 2015, available at http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_SPEECH-15-5905_en.htm.