By Daria Sito-Sucic
JAHORINA MOUNTAIN, Bosnia (Reuters) - Security and migration officials from six Western Balkans countries, all of which aspire to join the European Union, on Thursday pledged to work together with the EU and United Nations agencies to improve sustainable migration governance.
Since 2015, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, as well as Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia have become key transit routes for refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and later for migrants from Asia and Africa searching for a better life in the wealthy 27-member bloc.
"When it comes to the migrant crisis, we from the Western Balkans face not only humanitarian challenges but also security and political challenges," said Bosnia's Security Minister Nenad Nesic, who hosted the meeting at a mountain resort near the capital Sarajevo.
In recent months, Bosnia has seen a rise in the number of illegal migrants returned to the country by Croatia and Slovenia after Croatia joined the EU free-movement Schengen Zone on Jan. 1. Many have complained of violent push-backs by police, which Croatia has denied.
The six countries have agreed to coordinate activities in tackling smuggling of migrants and people trafficking, to increase access to alternative routes for migrants stuck in transit, and also ways to return migrants.
"We are developing new perspectives for common policies because we can have results only if we work together," said North Macedonia's Interior Minister Oliver Spasovski, speaking via a video link.
The migratory trends in the region have returned to the pre-pandemic levels, with 200,000 migrants recorded to have transited the region last year, a 60% increase from the previous year, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
"Trends in migration are very dynamic and the Western Balkans is a major transitory route," Ugochi Florence Daniels, the IOM Deputy Director General for Operations, told Reuters.
She praised the Balkan leaders for choosing to work together.
"The action plan is an opportunity to deal with the immediate issues - trafficking and smuggling and sustainable returns," Daniels said.
"It is also an opportunity to look at the longer-term opportunities that migration is bringing - remittances to the Western Balkans are $10 billion or 10% of GDP - that is a significant contribution to development," she added.
(Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Angus MacSwan)