Europe: united against refugees

Europe
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Migrants in Hungary near the Serbian border in a photo from August 2015. Gémes Sándor/SzomSzed under a Creative Commons Licence

Europe’s civil society has been outspoken in condemning Hungary for its stance on refugees.

On 2 October, Hungary held a referendum in which 98 per cent of voters (40 per cent turnout) voted against the ‘enforced relocation of non-Hungarians in Hungary’, a xenophobic campaign launched by Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn.

Many observers see the referendum as the symbol of a profound divide in European politics, between ‘old Europe’ and the so-called ‘Visegrad Group’: Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia.

According to them, the reluctance of Visegrad countries to receive refugees is out of step with EU ‘values’.

Yet the leaders of these states are inspired by the dominant principle of border control: the denial of all freedom of movement for asylum seekers and the aim of keeping exiles at an ever-greater distance from the Schengen area, preferably in detention.


Countries of the Visegrád Group. Map by CrazyPhunk

Visegrad countries were not alone in protesting when, for a few weeks at the end of 2015, Germany and Austria opened their borders to exiles taking the ‘Balkan routes’.

The welcoming policy broke with all European rules regarding asylum and resulted in real panic in the heart of the EU and in various member states.

Last February, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls publicly scolded the German chancellor during a visit to Munich, saying, ‘We can take no more refugees … The time has come to put into effect what has been discussed and negotiated: “hotspots”, controls at exterior frontiers, etc.’ He reminded us how, for more than 20 years, the EU has trampled over the founding principles of the right to asylum.

The EU subordinates the right to asylum to frontier control, barring exiles from access to asylum procedures that respect the Geneva Convention and international agreements.

European rules – notably the Dublin regulation – result in concentrating exiles in ‘countries of arrival’ urther challenging their freedom of movement. After German frontiers had been closed once again and the chancellor had returned to the positions long shared by her European partners, anathema could be pronounced against the Italians and Greeks for being incapable of ensuring the ‘security’ of the EU and of facing up to the ‘migrant influx’.

A hotspots policy promoted by the European Commission since the spring of 2015 and progressively implemented from February 2016 was presented as the solution to the ‘migrant crisis’: despatching European officials and opening camps for the identification and triage of exiles on Greek islands and in Italy to increase the expulsions of asylum seekers crossing the sea to reach EU frontiers. The recognition of Turkey as a ‘safe country’, and the agreement concluded with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in March 2016, were in pursuit of these aims. For months, the European Commission had argued in favour of an increase in the number of ‘returns’ and for more co-operation agreements with countries of ‘transit’ or ‘departure’.
Migrants who were rescued from a boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea are pictured in Al-Beheira, Egypt. Photo via REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Even the very policy of ‘relocation’ – provisional rules about the distribution of asylum seekers arriving in Greece and Italy between EU member states – has been overruled by the logic of hotspots.

On 26 September 2016, only 5,600 people – less than 10 per cent of the number originally envisaged – had been ‘relocated’. The same day, more than 60,000 exiles were crammed into Greek camps in conditions universally criticised as inhumane. The number of ‘relocations’ is likely to decline in coming weeks. Soon after its start, the initiative has already run out of steam.

In July, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was worried that the Aegean islands had become ‘vast zones of forced confinement’. After having turned the Mediterranean Sea into a vast cemetery where over 4,000 people have died since the start of 2016, European policy is transforming Greece into an archipelago of detention camps.

The situation shocks human rights defenders. But it also worries many heads of state who would rather be overseeing the creation of enclosed areas outside EU borders. Revisiting UK prime minister Tony Blair’s 2003 proposal, Viktor Orbàn stated on 24 September that ‘big refugee camps should be set up outside the EU, financed and guarded by it’, to which migrants should be transported and where they should be ‘obliged to stay while their asylum applications are considered.’ His words must be taken seriously. Hungary may have been the first country in the Schengen area to literally wall off some of its frontiers, but its example has since been copied, notably by the French and British.

‘Putting up fences for people where we would not do the same for animals, that is not respecting European values,’ said Laurent Fabius, then French foreign minister, when Hungary set out to construct the ‘anti-migrant wall’ along its frontier with Serbia.

But the promotion of a world of camps and walls is not just the project of the Hungarian leader. It is also the dominant feature of migration policy pursued by many nations, including the EU and its member states for 20 years.

A similar version of this article appeared on Open Democracy on 11 October 2016.

Emmanuel Blanchard is the chairman of Migreurop, a Euro-African network against policies which isolate migrants, deportation, border closures and externalization of migratory controls.

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