Croatian Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic met with his Albanian and Montenegrin counterparts, Sander Lleshaj and Mevludin Nuhodzic, in Zagreb on Tuesday, where they discussed cooperation in preventing illegal migration.
The meeting was the continuation of dialogue that was stepped up last year, after migration had intensified on the so-called eastern Mediterranean or Western Balkans routes since the end of 2017.
Bozinovic said that Croatia, as an EU member, had also stepped up dialogue with European institutions to draw attention to the importance of the southeast Europe when it came to illegal migration.
Until last year, European institutions had mostly been focused on the central Mediterranean migration route towards Italy and the Western Mediterranean route towards Spain, Bozinovic said, adding that the EU had realised they should also concentrate on the Western Balkans, which, as the only land route, could potentially be used by the largest number of migrants.
The three ministers exchanged information on migration, saying that all three countries had recorded increases in the number of illegal migrants.
In the first 11 months of 2018, Croatian border police arrested some 7,500 illegal migrants, which was an increase of 66 percent compared to 2017. Croatia also recorded 619 cases of human trafficking in 2018, an increase of 71 percent compared to the year before.
"Albania and Montenegro are very important to us because the illegal migrants who reach these countries soon turn up on the Croatian border, either with Serbia or more often and in greater numbers on the (Croatian) border with Bosnia and Herzegovina," Bozinovic said.
Most of the migrants who had reached the three countries came from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq, he said, adding their background meant the people could not be described as refugees, but rather economic migrants trying to reach Western Europe.
"On the one hand this is legitimate, but on the other, given the policy of the EU which wants to stop illegal migration and which is increasingly investing in the protection of its external borders, it's something we have to cope with," Bozinovic said.
"These are the issues we will have to cope with in the decades to come. No country can deal with this alone and that's why cooperation is needed on a regional and wider level, either European or global," he added.
Bozinovic said that the countries of southeastern Europe, which are candidates for EU membership, should not be ignored in discussions on these issues. He said that some of the initiatives had produced concrete results, adding that Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro had, for the first time, been granted funding from the EU to increase their border control capacity.
Earlier this month, the European Commission had approved a €100 million in funds for operational cooperation in fighting human smuggling. Bozinovic said that one of the criteria for receiving funding was a joint application by member states and third countries.
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