Afghan refugees trying to make their way to Europe. Photo: AFP

From the Turkish border to Spain, from the Baltic Sea to Italy and the Balkans, European Union countries are building barriers to keep migrants out of the continent as a gathering wave of Afghan refugees mounts.

Since 2015, when then-German chancellor Angela Merkel invited roving groups of asylum seekers free entry to her country — and by extension, all of Europe – the European Union’s much-praised solidarity with downtrodden migrants has sharply eroded.

Rejection is reaching a crescendo as fears of a new influx from Afghanistan grow.

The most vivid recent examples are taking place in eastern EU states, which view themselves as front-line barriers to illegal migration. But anti-immigration policies have also spread across Europe’s mainstream political landscape in countries which long preached tolerance.

As in the United States, controversies and confusion roil debates over the question of who qualifies to earn residency in a country not his or her own.

Original refugee law, put in place to meet vast post-World War ll movements across a damaged continent, focused on people who possessed a “well-founded fear of persecution” based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

They were deemed refugees and there was an explicit distinction between them and migrants, though over time, the differences became blurred. Migrants on the move for largely economic reasons were not considered refugees.

Recently, pro-migrant activists have pushed refugee status to be provided to people not only for economic reasons but for discrimination based on gender, crime, and most recently, disruptions attributed to climate change.

Current political attitudes are largely based on fears of a political reaction to potentially growing numbers. Up until 2020, migration was a central issue in EU politics.

Steady influxes had given rise to hyper-nationalist parties in several countries, to the horror of EU promoters of consensual transnational statecraft. Then the coronavirus pandemic eclipsed such worries. But the viral spread is starting to wane.

French President Emmanuel Macron, running for re-election, has exchanged his habitual insistence on solidarite for a robust rebuff of migrants.

French President Emmanuel Macron isn’t as open to migrants as previously with an election on the horizon. Photo: Facebook

During Germany’s recent national elections, neither of the two major parties took up the banner of liberal immigration; they suggested that the refugees ought to remain home or stay in neighboring countries.

In his campaign for German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, from the narrowly victorious Social Democratic Party, said that Turkey, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq should serve as safe places for indefinite refugee settlement.

Germany ought to “ensure that integration prospects exist there, that one can stay there, that one can gain a secure future there,” he asserted.

In harder-line countries, barbed wire fences, already in use for seven years on Hungary’s border, are being erected by Poland, Croatia and Slovenia.

The so-called Visegrad group of EU countries—Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia and Poland – flatly blocked an EU proposal to distribute refugees among the 27-member states based on population and GDP of each.

In 2020, more than 25,000 refugees and migrants were collectively expelled to Serbia from these four countries.

“We have to stop migration and the quotas and relocation. These rules are not acceptable for us,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis Babis said on September 24. “The strategy should be that these people really should stay and live in their home countries.”

In August, Greece completed a 25-mile fence along its border with Turkey. Citizens’ Protection Minister Michalis Chrisochoidis said Greece would not “wait passively for the possible impact” of an influx from Afghanistan.

Greece and Italy are concerned about persistent arrivals by sea. Under EU rules, both must host illegal migrants who have arrived in each first and not let them move on. Both want them taken off of their hands and distributed across Europe.

“Pushback” is the latest coercive anti-immigration wrinkle: in eastern countries where physical barriers don’t already exist, police are physically driving migrants back across borders to keep them out.  

A boatload of Syrian and Iraqi refugees nears the Greek Island of Lesbos. Photo: Ggia/Wikipedia Commons

At the Croatian border with Serbia, a refugee aid organization broadcast a video of masked Croatian police beating migrants and herding them back into Serbia. In mid-October, Poland’s parliament passed a measure to legalize pushback of migrants into Belarus.

In May, Spain sent troops to its North African enclave of Ceuta to confront some 8,000 people who had suddenly swum to and climbed over the border from Morocco. A video showed police pushing migrants back into the water.

Last year, French gendarmes forced migrants, including children, back into Italy, where they arrived by boat and raft from North Africa.

This year, French President Macron accused the United Kingdom of turning migrants back to France across the English Channel. The UK retorted that France was purposely tolerating migrant trafficking from its shores to Britain.

Italy, with EU blessing, has turned over Mediterranean migrants stopped at sea to Libya. Greece has forced asylum seekers into Turkey. Hungary, a pushback pioneer, legalized the practice in 2016 and alone has repelled thousands of migrants across its borders.

These practices breach EU regulations and international law, human rights officials and independent groups say.

González Morales, the UN Special Rapporteur for migration, said countries must offer migrants the ability to apply for asylum, not expel them willy-nilly.

“In the absence of an individualized assessment for each migrant concerned, and other procedural safeguards, pushbacks are a violation of the prohibition of collective expulsion and heighten the risk of further human rights violations,” he said.

“It is alarming that the European Commission continues to turn a blind eye to the staggering violation of EU law, and even continues to finance police and border operations in some of these countries. These pushbacks, and the funding that facilitates them must end now,” said Jelena Sesar, a researcher for Amnesty International.

However, under EU rules there is a striking Catch-22. It is up to the member states themselves to police possible human rights violations —an unlikely eventuality given the perceived political downside for governments that permit uncontrolled immigration.

Afghan refugees gather at the Iran border after the Taliban victory. Photo: AFP / Mohammad Javadzadeh / Iranian Red Crescent

Belarus has fueled European resistance by using migrants as a hostile diplomatic tool in a dispute with the EU. The EU has placed numerous economic sanctions on Belarusian officials for human rights abuses in the former Soviet republic.

Dictatorial President Alexander Lukashenko retaliated by leasing planes to ferry migrants from the Middle East and Africa, then shepherd them to the border with Poland and Lithuania, from where they try to enter the EU.

Lithuania’s Foreign Minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, called the Belarusian policy a “hybrid attack” on Europe. His government has also authorized physical pushbacks and is constructing a wall at its border.

This is all freelance policy, none related to international or European law, nor in countries that adopted the language of international humanitarian law into their own.

What’s needed is a new international consensus on rewritten refugee and migration law. The originals were formed under United Nations auspices and embedded in the Geneva Conventions. No one currently is calling for a thorough revamp.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.