Less than a year since Croatia entered the borderless Schengen area, the country has moved to strengthen controls amid regional migration pressures, underscoring wider tensions as the European Union (EU) seeks to balance open borders with security concerns.
Controls Return After Months of Free Movement
On January 1, 2023, Croatia lifted checks on persons at land and sea borders with other Schengen countries.
This historic move saw Zagreb also begin issuing Schengen visas and integrate into the borderless zone that underpins Europe’s commitment to free movement.
However, on November 20, Croatia announced the temporary reintroduction of controls along its borders, citing efforts to curb irregular migration. Slovenia, Italy, and other EU states have taken similar steps in recent months.
The move comes as figures from Frontex, the EU’s border agency, show over 300,000 irregular crossing attempts detected on the so-called Balkan route so far this year — the highest level since 2015-16.
Balancing Open Borders with Security
The reinstated checks highlight wider debates across the EU about balancing commitments to open borders and free movement with desires to limit irregular migration and maintain internal security.
This tension has seen countries sporadically reintroduce border controls within the Schengen area over recent years, using exemptions allowed under Schengen rules.
However, the frequency of these controls has concerned advocates of open borders.
“There is a need for immediate action to ensure public order and security,” the Slovenian government said last month when announcing its own border checks.
Similar reasoning has been evoked by other states.
The Implications for Travelers and Migrants
The Croatian move does not currently affect EU visa-free travelers or non-EU nationals with valid Schengen visas, who can still enter Croatia without border checks.
However, the broader tensions highlight the possibility of tighter EU border policies if migrant pressures persist.
This could see scrutiny on visas and entry eligibility increased across the region.
Also, the planned implementation of the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) in 2005 will require additional eligibility checks for visa-free visitors.
For non-EU migrants and asylum seekers specifically, the reintroduced checks signify hardening attitudes toward irregular entry attempts.
This reflects wider efforts in the EU to shift responsibility for refugees onto third countries.
With the EU strengthening its external borders and pressuring neighbors to limit migration, the routes for non-European migrants and refugees hoping to enter or settle in the region appear increasingly restricted.
The months ahead will reveal whether the Croatian controls are an isolated case or part of wider efforts in the EU to rethink the balance between border security and commitments to openness.
For now, European leaders face difficult decisions about how to reconcile these tensions.
The temporary reintroduction of border checks by Croatia just months after it joined the Schengen area highlights ongoing debates within the EU about balancing free movement with desires to limit irregular migration.
While not yet impacting ordinary Schengen travelers, the move may signify hardening attitudes, particularly toward non-European migrants and refugees hoping to reach or settle in the region.
With routes appearing increasingly restricted, tensions seem set to persist between the EU's border security concerns and its commitments to openness.