In mid-February 2016, the V4 celebrated their 25th anniversary with a clear message to the European Union. The V4 strongly opposes EU’s current refugee policy, and pushes for a backup EU border to stop migrants once they have already entered the EU. This designated border is Greece’s borders with Bulgaria and Macedonia. The prime ministers of Macedonia and Bulgaria were present at this anniversary, in which the latter pointed out that the external borders of the EU should be sealed and that migrants should cross only through border crossing points. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán also expressed that the EU migration policy had failed and that Hungary is ready to provide “human resources and material to countries that are ready to build a defence line south of Hungary.” The Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico complemented Viktor Orban by offering 300 policemen for Bulgaria and Macedonia to tighten border control in case Greece failed to close its border in the upcoming spring. This means that the V4 group is basically campaigning for the total closure of the Balkan Route, thereby totally ignoring legal and moral obligations to welcome people who are seeking protection in Europe. Meanwhile, Austria decided to reduce entry to 3200 people a year with a limit of 80 daily asylum claims. As the countries along the Balkan route (Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia) do not want to see refugees to be stranded in their countries, the decision in Austria has had a domino affect on the route.
The first illusion of the V4 is their belief that migration is stoppable, and that therefore the establishment of a restrictive border regime is the only “common” solution. No matter how much V4 emphasizes that “the alternate plan is not aimed against any EU partner”, the border fence along Macedonia and Bulgaria with Greece singles out Greece as the only country in the EU in which seeking asylum is possible. Yet, as the European Court of Human Rights has ruled, in practice it is almost impossible to access this fundamental right in Greece. Isolating Greece in the EU and possibly from the Schengen zone, besides dealing a heavy blow to EU’s cherished policies, such as the freedom of movement, has grave consequences for the country and the EU, as well as refugees who get stuck in Greece. As a result, Greece has started to deport refugees back to Turkey, and the chain effect is ready: European Union, within it the V4, are consciously and blatantly breaking the most important principle of international law: “non-refoulement”, which sounds like a complicated legal term but actually just means returning someone to danger.
The whole of the Balkan route operates like an ecosystem, and decisions made in one country (or in Vienna, Berlin and Brussels, for that matter), have ramifications in other places, too. Different rules have been set already to select who can enter Europe through the Balkans. The following is a summary of such rules and their problems:
1. At first restriction based on nationality was introduced by Macedonia in November 2015, allowing only people with ID documents from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to continue on the Balkan route and pushing all others out of the “safe Balkan corridor”. This selection pushed all the people from other nationalities towards dangerous and illegal routes (read Migszol blog post about it here). Designated zones for only one type of asylum seekers stigmatizes the rest as illegitimate, and validates calling migrants “illegal” or “economic migrants” - although in reality, family reunification or persecution based on religion fall within internationally recognized reasons to be granted protection. Such selection bias undermines human dignity and forces people to lie in order to seek protection. It also creates the phenomenon that Hungary is so keen to call “illegal border crossing” - although according to international law, illegal border crossing for purpose of seeking asylum is a basic human right.
2. After Sweden tightened their asylum regulation, Germany and Austria declared they would not accept refugees aiming to go to Scandinavia. As a consequence, since 20th of January 2016, Macedonia has allowed entry only to people who claimed they would apply for asylum in Austria or Germany.
3. In the V4 gathering in the middle of February, the Bulgarian government was reported to say that it prefers to close the borders and establish only designated zones for migrants to be checked for their state of health, and that those who don’t qualify for asylum should be deported. In other words, a set of correct conditions, such as health, religion, nationality, etc., is a condition to be granted asylum. Such selection processes are practiced at the moment also at the Croatian border, where people are told to choose between religious reasons, family reunification, war, education or employment as the reason they are coming to Europe. Those who are not escaping war are not allowed to enter Croatia, and therefore are left with the option of crossing the Serbia-Hungary fence.
4. The most recent restrictions relate to entry to Macedonia. At first, in February 21st 2016, the nationalities who were allowed entry were further limited to Syrians and Iraqis, excluding Afghans. From the last week of February, the criteria became still more tight: only people with original ID documents allowed to enter Macedonia, and they need to also possess a new type of a uniformed document from Greece for the Balkan Route. Lastly, this applies only to people who stayed less than 30 days in a “safe country”, Turkey and Greece being considered safe. Those people who do not fulfill all these rules are deported back, also from Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia to Greece. As a result there are hundreds of Afghans who are stuck in the no man’s land between Macedonia and Greece: they were deported back to Greece, but Greece closed the border, and now they are not allowed to enter Macedonia, either.
All of these restrictions are closely intertwined with the decision of Vienna to place a cap on the number of people entering Austria, and of the brutal policies advocated by the V4 group. Also, as the result of these restrictions on the nationalities of refugees who can pass through the Balkan route, the non-selected refugees started crossing through Hungary’s fence by cutting through or climbing over the fence. Most of these refugees are reported to be from Pakistan, Iran and Morocco. The result is that the Hungarian government can claim that people coming to Hungary are “economic migrants”, as György Bakondi, the Security Advisor at the Hungarian Ministry of Interior, claims: “the majority of people who come to Hungary now are not from war zones.” Instead of placing this claim in the context of the whole Balkan route and the restrictions, he simply tries to legitimize the government narrative on “illegal” immigrants. This increasing number of people entering Hungary shows that fences and harsh legislation do not stop people to move but push them towards dangerous routes and desperate measures.
The suggested selection policy gets scarier when we bear in mind the underlying xenophobia and Islamophobia of the V4 governments, and how they confuse refugees to be the same thing as non-secular muslims. The Visegrad governments maintain that integrating Muslims into European societies is impossible. From this false premise, they reason that refugees, who are often also muslims, are security threats to the EU. “If it were up only to us Central Europeans, that region would have been closed off long ago,” Orban said in a news conference with Poland’s Prime Minister. “Not for the first time in history we see that Europe is defenseless from the south … that is where we must ensure the safety of the continent.” In late February, in his annual speech, Orban continued to claim that “there shall be no lawless urban neighbourhoods, or immigrant riots” and „gangs shall not hunt our wives and daughters. ” We assume Orban is referring to underprivileged neighborhoods in Western European cities, where problems are rather related to class and poverty than to ethnicity or religion, and we don’t even need to point out how only three of the Cologne attackers were refugees, despite the widespread hysteria.
Fidesz is now planning two things to keep the attention of Hungarians away from other burning issues such as crisis in education and housing, by calling a referendum on refugee resettlement-quotas, and by assessing whether to hold a national consultation on the “terrorist” situation. In other words, Fidesz is preparing yet another propaganda campaign to legitimize the creation of another expensive border fence at the Romanian border, strengthening the existing fence along Serbian and Croatian borders, and pouring resources into the creation of second Macedonian border fence. By stigmatizing refugees and calling them “illegal”, “criminal” or “terrorist”, Fidesz and the V4 spread fear and ignorance, and create an image of people who are not worthy of Europe’s help and deserve to be shut out. Also, creating such atmosphere divides any given society and creates more tension and problems within that society.
At Migszol we oppose such populist and xenophobic approaches, and remind Austria, V4 and other European countries of their past misfortune and invite them to treat people in similar situation with dignity. Regarding V4 and their stigmatization of muslims on the basis that muslims are “not secular”, we would like to point out how V4 itself relies on an increasingly Christian rhetoric that is far from secularism. We also invite the governments of V4 countries to pour human and material resources in better integration plans instead of better walls and fences, and that Greece cannot be blamed for the current situation: EU and FRONTEX have sealed off the Greek land border with Turkey, and at the moment, the decisions from Brussels and Berlin affect those of the V4 and Vienna, which in turn affect the situation in Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Macedonia, and finally Greece and Turkey. The circle is closing.