Creating legal pathways to reduce irregular migration? What we can learn from Germany’s “Western Balkan regulation”

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Publication Date October 2018
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“Legal pathways” are often presented as an essential tool toward this end. In 2015, Germany created such legal pathways in the form of access to the German labor market in a little known, and almost accidental migration policy experiment: the Western Balkan Regulation. Against the backdrop of large numbers of people arriving in Germany from the six Western Balkan states (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia) who had almost no chance of receiving asylum and then from 2015 the sudden increase of Syrians and others coming through the Balkan route, the regulation was part of a broader initiative in Berlin to reduce the numbers of people seeking asylum. The regulation, also known as section 26.2 (§26.2) of the employment regulation (Beschäftigungsverordnung), essentially opened the labor market for nationals from the six Western Balkan countries, without, more surprisingly, including any minimum skill or qualification requirements. The only pre-requisite was a valid job offer by an employer in Germany, subject to a standard priority check for third country nationals.

The Western Balkan Regulation is now being invoked by some German politicians as a success and a model to apply to other countries and regions, such as North Africa, when it comes to migration management and irregular migration. These references often imply that creating legal pathways is an effective component of reducing irregular migration, in that it somehow “re-routes” part of it to legal channels – channels that are simultaneously in line with labor market needs. There are others who offer a more critical perspective and do not support the continuation of the regulation after 2020 or beyond the Western Balkans. Although the number of asylum applications from the Western Balkans did drop after the regulation, it is not clear how big of a role the new process played – nor is it certain what labor market consequences the regulation may have in the medium or longer term. While the policy environment at the time was so complex that one cannot credibly single out the exact effect the Western Balkan Regulation had on reducing irregular migration from the region to Germany specifically, it is nonetheless a unique migration policy experiment from which important lessons can be drawn, lessons that are even more relevant as policy makers are considering using the regulation as a model for other regions or countries going forward.

Our conclusion is that there are key factors that should be addressed and analyzed in greater detail for any future policy that seeks to draw on or use the Western Balkan Regulation as model.

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