Africa and the Middle East
3. THE MIGRANT CRISIS
A wave of immigration from Africa and the Middle East into Eastern Europe poses a significant risk to civil order, governmental stability and the integrity of supply lines.
Photo: Al Jazeera
Since 2015, Eastern Europe has been forced to manage an unprecedented influx of migrants escaping troubled parts of the Middle East, Asia and Africa. The impact has been most severe on the countries that lie along the Balkan transit route that runs from Greece to Macedonia and Serbia, and then north through Hungary or west through Croatia and Slovenia. Many of these countries have not only had to facilitate the passage of migrants across their territory but also to act as hosts for those migrants who cannot, or choose not to proceed any further.
The underlying cause of the migrant influx is the continuing chaos in Syria and Iraq and the inadequacy of refugee accommodation in neighbouring states such as Turkey and Jordan. More immediately, the current influx was triggered by the start of intensified rescue operations in the Mediterranean in early 2015, the beneficiaries of which were allowed to stay in the EU unconditionally. This unplanned relaxation of the EU’s border controls quickly started to induce new flows of migrants, eager to make a new life in Europe. Since then, around a million and a half undocumented migrants have arrived on the continent.
The issue of migration took a decisive turn in March last year. First, Austria and its southern neighbours agreed to close the Balkan migrant route by reinforcing a fence on the Greek-Macedonian border, and refusing to admit any incomers. This was buttressed by the deployment of border guards from Central Europe and various fences further north, on the borders of Hungary, Slovenia and Austria. Second, the EU reached a deal with Turkey under which the Turkish authorities would turn around smugglers’ boats heading for Greece, in return for the EU’s agreement to take refugees from the camps on Turkey’s border with Syria. Together, these have had the effect of stemming the flow of migrants into the Balkans from hundreds of thousands to thousands per month, and providing relief for states such as Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia.
However, this did not end the crisis. One consequence was to shift the main migration route away from Greece and instead to Libya and then onto Italy by sea. This has perpetuated an inflow into the EU, and maintained the pressure on countries inside the EU to accept compulsory redistribution quotas. Meanwhile, those migrants who still attempt to reach Western Europe via the Balkans are increasingly getting stuck midway, putting pressure on states such as Bulgaria and Serbia which lack the infrastructure to accommodate them.
The result is a destabilisation of all the affected countries in Eastern Europe, many of which are hostile to immigration because of poverty, lack of resources and an unfamiliarity with non-Europeans in their midst. Many have experienced experience anti-migrant protests and xenophobic attacks, while those holding migrants involuntarily are experiencing protests by migrants themselves. Meanwhile, at the political level, the fear of migration has accelerated the rise of a defensive, nationalist politics and a surge in euroscepticism, especially as the EU puts pressure on states that refuse to accept EU-mandated migrant quotas. Elections in Slovakia last year saw the entry into parliament of an overtly fascist party, the People’s Party-Our Slovakia, and hardline nationalist parties are polling more strongly everywhere. This, in turn, is forcing mainstream political parties to shift to the right, especially in Central Europe. In recent weeks, the government in Slovakia has banned the burka and drafted legislation barring Islam from becoming a state religion.
Externally, resistance by Eastern Europeans to imposed migration has soured relations with peers in Western Europe. The EU’s east has been angered by Germany’s perceived enticement of migrants into Europe and its subsequent insistence on exporting the problem to others. Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic have all refused to accept migrants under a proposed EU-wide redistribution scheme, and have pronounced the scheme dead. Even more co-operative countries such as the Baltic States have thrown up various administrative barriers which limit their intake. Meanwhile, Western European governments’ opinion of Eastern Europe has soured due to its perceived lack of solidarity at a time of crisis. The main target has been Hungary: Sweden has threatened the country with legal action for refusing to take back migrants which were initially registered in Hungary. Italy has argued that states which refuse to accept migrants from elsewhere in the EU should lose EU structural and cohesion funding. And Luxembourg has called for Hungary to be expelled from the EU.
There is no immediate prospect of an end to the factors which are pushing migrants towards Europe: violence will continue in the Middle East; the economies of the Middle East, many of which are overly-dependent on oil, are failing; and Europe will continue to be a magnet for those seeking to better their lives.
For as long as Turkey continues to police the Aegean Sea, the Balkans is unlikely to become the frontline in the migration crisis as it was in 2015. Instead, most migrants will try to make their way north via the traditional Mediterranean route on the assumption they can then gain leave to remain inside the EU. Those that do make it across the Macedonian border risk being deported by Serbia or Croatia. Meanwhile, following the expiration of a five-year moratorium in March, EU states such as Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria will be allowed to return asylum seekers to Greece, which is legally responsible for processing their claims under the EU’s Dublin convention. In the short term, the main variable is whether Turkey sticks to its agreement to interdict smugglers’ boats trying to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece in the face of what Ankara sees as the EU’s failure to abide by its commitments on visas and the suspension of Turkey’s bid to join the EU.
In the longer term, Europe will probably resolve the problem by means of much greater restrictions on access to the EU, including changes in the law that narrow the right to claim sanctuary, the deportation of economic migrants, tighter external and internal border controls, a scaling down of rescue missions in the Mediterranean and the establishment of offshore migrant processing centres, as states such as Denmark and Hungary are now proposing. However, this will be an incremental process since European governments are cautious about abandoning Europe’s historically sympathetic policy towards refugees, implying greater political instability in the meantime as the precondition for any change in policy.
Vehicles and passengers travelling to Central Europe from the Balkans will face serious delays on a succession of border due to intensified inspections.
Central Europe will see a further upswing in support for anti-immigrant parties, which could influence the outcome of elections and relations with the EU.
Germany will continue to repatriate several hundred thousand failed asylum seekers from the Balkans, creating new pressures in these states.
Violence against migrants could break out in volatile states in Eastern Europe, especially if they are forced to accept migrants.
Rioting by migrant on Macedonia’s borders will foster perceptions in Western Europe that the Balkans should be maintained as a buffer, not part of the EU.
Hostility towards immigration in Western Europe could lead to tighter controls on the free movement of Eastern European workers within the EU.