Daily Visual 14.09.15: Temporary Border Controls in Schengen

EU Refugees

Following the example set by Germany on Sunday afternoon, on Monday other EU states imposed temporary border measures in response to the number of refugees moving across Europe seeking asylum.

Most first cross the Mediterranean Sea or southeast Europe, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees stating earlier this month that 71% originate from Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea, the sites of war and widespread human rights abuses. Others come from elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and also from the Western Balkans: those countries not yet part of the EU, particularly Kosovo and Serbia.

The whole of Europe saw 438,000 asylum applications by the end of July, compared with 571,000 across the extent of 2014. Germany received the most applications overall, at 188,000; while Sweden received the most per capita, with a rate of nearly 8 applicants per 1,000 members of the population. Germany now expects to receive 1 million applicants by the end of the year.

The hazardous and poorly patrolled journey across the Mediterranean to Italy, especially to its southern island of Lampedusa, remains a prominent means of entry into Europe. More than 2,500 people are known to have died already this year attempting the crossing, as their boats capsize and they drown. But the route has been overtaken in 2015 by the pathway from southeast Europe, which sees refugees travelling from Turkey to Greece by boat, then on through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, and Austria, with Germany often the final destination.

* * *

Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere announced on Sunday that Germany would introduce temporary controls in the south of the country, along the border with Austria. Trains between the two countries were suspended for twelve hours by Deutsche Bahn, until 3 am on Monday morning, as per the government’s request. De Maiziere stated that 13,000 refugees had arrived in the Bavarian capital of Munich on Saturday alone, asserting that asylum seekers could no longer be allowed a free choice of host country, and asking for other EU states to play their part.

The Dublin Regulation – an EU law which first came into force in 1997, amended in 2003 and again in 2013 – holds that refugees must apply for asylum in the first EU state they reach. If they subsequently travel elsewhere in the EU, they may legally be returned to their original host state, which assumes responsibility for their asylum claim.

However, the Dublin Regulation has proven difficult to uphold in recent months, as Hungary refused to accept returned applicants, while Germany and the Czech Republic began processing the applications of Syrian refugees who had first arrived elsewhere in the EU.

The decision by Germany to introduce temporary border controls poses a challenge to the Schengen Agreement, implemented in the late 1990s, and establishing a borderless, passport-free area of movement throughout much of Europe. 26 European countries participate in the Schengen Area: 22 EU nations, Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden; and the 4 European Free Trade Association (EFTA) member states, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland. Ireland and the United Kingdom maintain opt-outs.

Yet signatories are permitted to temporarily reinstate border controls in exceptional circumstances – consulting with other Schengen states wherever possible. In recent years, Malta and Estonia introduced temporary border checks upon the respective visits of Pope Benedict XVI and United States President Barack Obama.

* * *

More than a response to a particularly pressing situation, Sunday’s course of action was seen as an attempt by Germany to exert pressure on other EU nations, with EU interior ministers scheduled to meet in Brussels later on Monday.

By Monday morning, Germany’s border controls were causing traffic jams up to 20 kilometres long on motorways in Austria. Austria and Slovakia then announced temporary controls of their own, with Austria significantly strengthening security along its border with Hungary. While stopping short of controls, the Czech Republic increased its police presence along the border with Austria; the Netherlands stated it would undertake more border patrols; and Poland said it would impose controls at the first sign of a ‘threat’.

Meanwhile Hungary finalised a 4-metre-high wire fence along its border with Serbia: the second phase of a process which has already seen the construction of a fence 175 kilometres long. And a container wagon decked with razor wire was used to plug a hole in a border crossing near the town of Roszke.

Following criticism from Austria of both its methods and its rhetoric, by Monday night Hungary was transporting newly-arrived refugees by bus and by train immediately to the Austrian border, allowing them to cross from there by foot. And from midnight Hungary made it a criminal offence – punishable by prison or deportation – to attempt to breach any of its newly-erected border defences. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has suggested a state of emergency could be introduced in the border region.

At the meeting in Brussels on Monday, EU ministers failed to unanimously agree on mandatory quotas which would relocate 120,000 asylum seekers. A majority of states agreed to the proposals in principle, with further negotiations now to take place in October. Members of the Visegrad Group – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – are reportedly among those who opposed the quotas.

So far France has announced that it will accept 24,000 asylum seekers over the next two years; while the United Kingdom – which since the start of 2014 has accepted a pitiful 216 Syrian refugees – announced it will accept 20,000 asylum seekers from Syria over the next five years. The UK has, however, opted out of the proposed system of quotas.

Looking beyond the EU, Australia has recently vowed to resettle 12,000 Syrian refugees. Since the onset of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Brazil has taken the lead offering visas and refuge in Latin America, though the number of refugees remains relatively small. Of the countries neighbouring Syria, Turkey has taken in 1.9 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon 1.1 million, and Jordan 630,000.

If mandatory EU quotas become a reality, Germany, France, and Spain stand to gain 60% of those refugees presently in Italy, Hungary, and Greece. The UK, and Poland, and Australia too must do more. But so too must the United States, which has so far taken only 1,500 Syrian refugees; the wealthiest Arab nations, including Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain; and China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia, who until now have largely turned a blind eye. This is a humanitarian issue, which for those countries willing to help constitutes an organisational crisis rather than any cultural concern.