CN: this article contains discussion of xenophobia and Islamophobia
As Afghanistan reeled from the dramatic takeover by the Taliban and thousands of people made desperate attempts to flee to safety, Europe’s enfant terrible Victor Orbán was already making it clear they wouldn’t find it in his backyard. Following a joint session in Budapest on 8 September, Orbán signed an agreement with Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić on their strategic partnership. The pair announced that they had “agreed to rebuild Central Europe”. In the press conference, Orbán added that “at the moment, it is not enough just to rebuild Central Europe, but we must also protect it, to guarantee [its] security.” In case this was too veiled a reference, Orbán highlighted that this was a response to developments in Afghanistan which, he claimed, “could lead to a very difficult situation for Hungary and Serbia.” Ever the martyr, he noted drily that it was “not for the first time that we defend Europe.”
To put this into context, the last time that Orbán ‘defended Europe’ it resulted in a desperate situation for people seeking asylum. As Europe witnessed a surge in migration in 2015, largely as a result of the war in Syria, Orbán pursued a hardline anti-migrant policy, framing the migration wave as a ‘Muslim invasion’ that threatened Europe’s security and Christian identity. In September 2015, Hungary unilaterally made the decision to close its border with Serbia and pass new laws to criminalise so-called irregular entry, blocking the main overland route to the EU and penalising thousands of people exercising their right to seek protection.
With the UNHCR projecting that over half a million Afghans may be forced to leave by the end of 2021, Europe will likely see another surge in migration in the coming months. What’s more, given the lack of formal resettlement programmes for the majority of Afghans, as in 2015 those fleeing to Europe have no choice but to travel ‘irregularly’ and seek protection at the border, making them vulnerable to the whims of authoritarian leaders like Orbán.
Back in 2015, Orbán faced criticism by other EU member states for his anti-migrant policies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously rebutted Orbán’s politics of exclusion in September 2015 with her statement “Wir schaffen das” – We’ll manage this. Merkel opened Germany’s borders to refugees stranded in Hungary and accepted over 1.2 million asylum-seekers over the course of the next year. EU institutions, too, took a stand, with the then President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, condemning the “short-sightedness of those who would like to see a Europe that is divided by anti-migrant walls”.
So why isn’t the EU doing anything about Orbán ‘s latest authoritarian posturing? Have lessons not been learnt from 2015?
In truth, lessons have been learnt – but the wrong ones. While Orbán may have been publicly shunned for his xenophobic discourse, the notion that Europe should fence itself off from the rest of the world – specifically the Muslim world – has permeated mainstream political thought.
Just look at the European Council’s recent statement on Afghanistan. As a humanitarian crisis unfolded in front of their eyes, Europe’s leaders responded by announcing that – “based on lessons learned” – there would be a “coordinated and orderly response” by EU member states to “prevent the recurrence of uncontrolled large-scale illegal migration movements faced in the past”.
What’s more, while the statement goes on to mention the EU’s international obligations to “support and provide protection to those in need”, in the same paragraph it vows to mobilise the European border agency Frontex to “effectively protect the EU external borders”. This is the same Frontex that is accused of numerous human rights violations against people legitimately seeking asylum, including children.
Indeed, this tough talk reflects the rapid fortification of the EU’s borders in response to the situation in Afghanistan. August saw a continued extension of border barriers in Greece, where the government announced the construction of a 25-mile wall on its border with Turkey and the installation of a surveillance system to prevent possible Afghan asylum seekers from trying to reach Europe.
In the same month, Poland began its construction of a 2.5m high fence of razor wire on its border with Belarus. And it’s not just external borders that are being targeted. Despite the EU’s dogged defence of free movement for its own population, surveillance of ‘irregular’ transit across borders is growing, with the Slovenian authorities recently installing 55 drones to monitor its border with Italy.
And this is a pattern of securitisation – read militarisation – that has been developing since 2015. Despite the famous Merkel moment, in reality the EU has chosen to follow, rather than resist, the example of its black sheep Hungary: keeping ‘illegal migrants’ out at whatever cost to human rights.
By mid-September 2015, Germany had introduced temporary controls on its border with Austria, the beginning of a process that would eventually see migration routes through South-East Europe closed off. A few months later, the EU made a €6bn deal with Turkey to take back refugees arriving in Greece, in an attempt to stem the number of so-called irregular arrivals in Europe. The European Commission also extended the mandate of its border agency Frontex, a move which regularised illegal pushbacks and made search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean almost impossible.
In essence, 2015 should be remembered as a crisis of the EU’s asylum system, not of so-called illegal immigration. The arrival of just over a million people in a continent of 600 million hardly constituted a crisis in itself. The majority of people also had a legally-backed claim to asylum, with 80% fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. If this movement of people was ‘uncontrolled’ it was because of the lack of safe passages to asylum, which forced many to take the same route through Turkey and Greece and funnel into dangerous bottlenecks through South-East Europe.
Another big contributor to the unmanageable situation was the EU’s Dublin III regulation, a policy which meant that asylum applications had to be lodged in the first EU country of arrival. This geographically blind policy, adopted in 2003 to prevent so-called ‘asylum shopping’, had the effect of forcing countries at the frontline of migrants’ routes into Europe to handle a disproportionately high number of asylum claims. This concentrated asylum seekers in places like Hungary and enabled the likes of Orbán to stoke fears of a European-wide crisis. Despite the evident flaws in this policy, the EU has made only feeble attempts to reform it, choosing to instead pander to demands of right-wing leaders like Orbán for tighter border controls and externalising its asylum responsibilities to third parties.
The upshot of all this is that the original divide between the migration and asylum policies of the EU’s more ‘liberal’ Western countries and its more ‘hostile’ Eastern countries has largely ceased to exist, with a more generalised hostility towards migration taking hold.
Countries like Poland and Hungary may be frequently othered for their governments’ illiberal politics, but when it comes to immigration arguably the only difference that remains is discursive. While Central and Eastern European leaders propound anti-migrant policies in the name of right-wing Christian nationalism and a ‘demographic crisis’, elsewhere they are couched in the language of securitisation and management – but the logic is the same.
As Dr. Agnieszka Kubal, a migration and human rights scholar at UCL told Politika News, both are underpinned by a nationalistic logic of protecting territory at all costs, including at the expense of human rights. She highlights the death of four migrants from hypothermia on the Poland-Belarus border last month as a case in point: “If there was a big distinction between the EU and Central and Eastern Europe, then the EU response to what is happening in Poland would be to take a much stronger stance.”
Equally, the EU is unlikely to challenge Hungary’s anti-migrant alliance with Serbia, with its commitment to internal security now far outweighing its concerns for international law and the protection of human rights. This has dangerous consequences for people on the move in the region. There have long been reports of illegal pushbacks by Hungarian police, with a recent report by the Border Violence Monitoring Network identifying new techniques including the tracking of phones, detainment in police vans and the use of drones. With Hungary and Serbia signing a protocol on mixed controls along their common border in September, and making allusions to further cooperation at other entry points, these draconian methods are likely to only become more widespread.
Meanwhile, Gary Capshaw, a Projekt 009 activist supporting people on the move in Serbia, told us that camps on the Serbian side are already full ahead of the winter months, meaning many people are living rough in open camps, squats and abandoned railroad cars. With the expected surge in refugees from Afghanistan yet to come, sanctuary in Europe will become ever more difficult to find.
All views expressed are the writer’s own.
Article Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons