Friday, 25 September 2015

The Steel Cage: Border Controls in Europe

The Steel Fence

Hungary has built a 175km (110-mile) fence along its border with Serbia, to try to slow the flow of asylum seekers into northern Europe. The authorities will decide later on whether to declare a state of emergency along the border with Serbia. Hungary's prime minister also says the country will build a fence on some sections of its border with Croatia.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said that Hungary had so far spent €200m (£147m; $226m) to handle the refugee crisis, and had only received €4m from the European Union.

Hungary is not a rich country, and the extra impact on its finances is clearly something the government has decided it cannot afford. But as Hungary toughened up its stance on migrants, its forint was at its strongest in almost two weeks.

The changes to the penal code now make border crossing and damaging the new fence a criminal offence, which can be punished with jail sentences of up to three years. However, it is likely that judges would expel asylum seekers from Hungary, rather than imprison them in already overcrowded jails.

An interview on PBS highlighted how ordinary Hungarians see the crisis:

Gyorgy Zimoni, Szeged resident (through interpreter): "My opinion has two levels. On the one hand, I feel sorry for the migrants, as the conditions they’re in are very hard. But I also feel sorry for the whole country. They were not prepared for this, just as all of Europe wasn’t prepared for this wave. We can see no end of this."

George’s friend of 20 years, Abdul Latif-Zanda, is originally from Libya, but he is now a Hungarian citizen. He’s says he’s living proof that practicing Muslims can integrate into European society.

Abdul Latif-Zanda, Hungary (through interpreter): "I have lived here for 30 years now. I have never had a problem with anyone, neither for political nor religious reasons. Islam teaches that you should lead a decent life, and you should treat others fairly. There are many others, however, who use religion, money, or whatever else to convince poor Muslims to do stupid things. In Europe, you can lead a normal life. And if you are normal, you will be accepted."

Finding an alternate route

Migrants are now going to Croatia and Romania but whether they loop round to cross through Hungary's still almost unguarded borders remains to be seen. The borders with those countries arer longer - Romania - 450km and Croatia 350km.

More than 6,000 people have entered Croatia in just one day, putting strain on their system. Migrants have turned there after Hungary used water cannons, pepper spray and tear gas to keep them away from its territory.

To give some sense of scale, Croatia is ready to provide care and shelter to just 4,000 refugees at any single time, and in comparison to its population and GDP, it is in the same situation as Germany would be if it suddenly took in half a million people.

Serbia has been dealing with refugees but they have been flowing through fairly rapidly. If the numbers now begin to rise, this may challenge its capacity for dealing with asylum seekers and its current attitude of the population which shows considerable tolerance and empathy.

But there are extra dangers to refugees. Medecins Sans Frontieres, one of the aid groups assisting with the refugee crisis, warned about the presence of Balkan landmine: "Safe and legal routes needed now: #refugees may inadvertently stray into Balkan minefields in search for ways round new border restrictions"

About 51,000 mines are still buried as remnants of the Balkan Wars, but most are clearly marked with large signs.

Raising the Barriers

Much has been made of Hungary’s fence, but at least four more European countries have built fences in the last few years in a heightened effort to keep migrants out. Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia all have fences of one sort or another, ranging from flimsy enough to be easily trampled, others are intricate tangles of barbed wire.

Barriers have long been in place around the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco, but were significantly expanded in 2005. There is a 15-foot wall topped with razor wire on the border between Morocco and Melilla.

A wall was built by Greece in 2012, constructed with the intent of keeping out migrants and refugees crossing from Turkey. It covers a mere 6.5 miles of land border with Turkey and has failed to stop the growing number of migrants who reached Greece by boat.

Bulgaria built a 20 mile fence along its border with Turkey in 2014. This was a three metre high structure and cost £3.5million to construct. The Bulgarian government recently announced plans to extend it by 90 miles.

And of course, in the French town of Calais, the British government recently spent around £6.5 million to erect improved fencing around the Channel Tunnel.

Borders in Europe so far include:

Ukraine – Russia – for other reasons than migrations
Estonia – Russia – for other reasons than migrations

Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa
Greece - Turkey
Bulgaria - Turkey
Hungary - Serbia
France – Britan at Calais

The Return of Border Controls

Slovenia, surrounded by Croatia, Hungary, Austria and Italy, is enforcing a temporary border control with Hungary "until a common European solution" is found, according to a press release by the Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar.

Germany reinstated border controls, admitting that their influx is at the limit of its capacities. Germany is strong and can handle a lot,” Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel wrote. “Nevertheless, in the past few days we have experienced how, despite our best efforts, our abilities have reached their limits.”

And Austria has begun border control measures to the south near Slovenia after migrants appeared to be veering away from the Hungarian border toward Austria. Austria is on the main route for refugees crossing the European Union by land, and it is now struggling to cope with a backlog of thousands trying to reach Germany. Austrian refugee shelters are mostly full, an Interior Ministry spokesman said, adding that the present situation is “way beyond our capacity.”

Recently some 2,500 people spent the night in tents at the Austrian border, set up by the country's army. “If Germany carries out border controls, Austria must put strengthened border controls in place,” said Chancellor Werner Faymann of Austria

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said his country would not hesitate to re-establish temporary border controls if necessary. France has already reinstated controls on its border with Italy as large numbers of migrants arriving by boat in Italy tried to cross into France.

The Netherlands introduced border controls last Monday. Dutch authorities said that they would conduct spot checks at their country’s border with Germany.

Further afield, Poland ordered an inspection of its borders and said it could restore checks if any threats are identified.

Karl Kopp, who represents the group in the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, said: ““It’s a deep crisis of the whole European Union. Free movement for 400 million Europeans is now seriously threatened. Introducing Schengen border controls again is a fatal mistake. It created already a domino effect”

A Steel Trap Tightens

Early last Saturday morning, Hungary completed the construction of a 41-kilometer border fence, which will separate the country from Croatia with barbed wire, reinforcing the natural barrier of the Drava River.

This week, the Croatian authorities have banned Serbian citizens and cars from the country entering its territory. The move comes after Serbia banned all Croatian goods and cargo vehicles from entering its borders. Last week, Croatia closed most of its road border crossings with Serbia, leaving only one open on the main road linking Belgrade and Zagreb at Bajakovo.

Meanwhile, news from Warsaw. Poland's conservative party leader - who appears poised to win the October general election - has ruled out taking in refugees, bolstering the hardline of other eastern EU countries on the migrant crisis.

So far the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have staunchly rejected a European Commission plan to relocate 160,000 refugees among the bloc's 28 states via a compulsory quota system.

Germany introduced border controls on September 13 for a period of 10 days and is now asking the European Commission to allow it to extend the measure for another 20 days to cope with record refugee flows. A poll shows that 78% of German respondents, particularly those near the Austrian border, approve of establishing border controls.

Norway is intensifying its border controls in an effort to gain a better overview of asylum-seekers. Finland is prepared to start border controls. About 12,000 asylum seekers, most of them from Iraq, have come to Finland.

And Turkey has begun enforcing long-dormant rules on Syrians' travel within the country, in part over concerns about how the flow is affecting the country's image.

Paperwork and Quotas

From April through June 2015, 213,200 people applied for asylum. Germany receivied the highest number of applications – more than a third. Hungary had 15 percent, Austria 8 percent, followed by Italy, France and Sweden with 7 percent each.

“The EU migrant quota plan to relocate thousands of migrants across the continent is “unfeasible, unrealisable and nonsense”, Hungary's foreign minister said, as Europe's east-west division was laid bare on Wednesday.” And he added “"One of the many reasons the compulsory quota system is unsatisfactory is that many more people have entered the European Union since the original debate on the distribution of 120,000 immigrants."

The Daily Telegraph reported that:

“Romania, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary voted against the plan to take in refugees and migrants from Italy and Greece but it was forced through on Tuesday.”

And Slovakia says it will go to court to challenge quotas for relocating 120,000 asylum seekers approved by European Union ministers.

And even if quotas are introduced, there is no indication that migrants will wish to go where they are told to go. Many migrants have already relocated to Germany, Austria and other European countries they favour. In which case, how are they to be moved? A forced relocation would be very complex and controversial, and probably meet with a degree of resistance.

1 comment:

James said...

One important point needs to be made about borders. The Schengen agreement foresaw a situation where internal borders would be largely redundant, but getting into the Schengen area might be more difficult. To that extent the border fences put up by the Greeks and Bulgarians might be justified, and so might the border fence between Hungary and Serbia.

However, to build a fence along the Hungarian/Romanian border is to step over a line. Romania is an EU country, and the cost of it taking refugees may well be admitting it to the Schengen area (see, for example, A fence along a Schengen internal boundary would be flat-out against the rules. But more than that, there is a substantial Hungarian minority in western Romania. What sort of message would a fence send to them?