The Balkans Route

Aarhus, Denmark | Amman, Jordan | Athens, Greece | Beirut, Lebanon | Belgrade, Serbia | Hamburg, Germany | Irbid, Jordan | Izmir, Turkey | Sultanbeyli, Istanbul, Turkey | Thessaloniki, Greece | Tripoli, Lebanon

The Balkans Route became famous with the 2015 European “refugee crisis,” when hundreds of thousands of refugees and other migrants—mostly from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but also from north and sub-Saharan Africa—attempted to travel to Northern Europe. Before moving through the route, most of these refugees had spent time living in and transforming cities in countries of first asylum, like Tripoli and Beirut, Lebanon; Amman and Irbid, Jordan; and Istanbul, Turkey.

Dark blue indicates migrations in countries of first asylum. Light blue indicates secondary migrations.

Only a tiny minority of the refugees in countries of first asylum are ever registered with UNHCR and officially resettled. Some of these migrants chose to leave countries of first asylum and head irregularly to Europe. Most traveled to launch-off coastal towns in western Turkey, like Izmir, before continuing by boat to Athens or Thessaloniki, Greece, and then by train, bus, or car through Balkans migration hubs like Belgrade before arriving in Northern European cities like Hamburg, Germany. After registering, these new arrivals were distributed throughout the EU to other cities, like Aarhus, Denmark.

Our RIT cases give a detailed picture of the nuances and impact of this migration, giving first-person accounts of the towns along the route and the individuals living in them. We show how cities that were once simply transit points—like Athens, Thessaloniki, Izmir, and Belgrade—have had to adapt into de facto hosts to thousands of refugees as borders have become militarized, secured, and closed to most irregular migration in 2015, trapping many migrants in transit. We also share the experiences of refugees and hosts with integration in both cities of first asylum like Irbid, Jordan, and destination cities, like Aarhus, Denmark.

Our reports also demonstrate the diversity of experiences within refugee communities, like the particular struggles with integration faced by the LGBTQI+ Syrian refugee population in Beirut. Finally, our researchers showcase the creative ways in which integration has been supported by cities (e.g. an adaptive housing program in Hamburg, Germany), by local activists (e.g. the volunteer organizations in public parks in Belgrade, Serbia), and by refugees themselves (e.g. the “Anaobaba.tv” program started by refugee fathers in Aarhus, Denmark).