unfortunate lesson that we can draw from the effects of unilateral actions by
EU states is that we have to prepare for more of the same: the ripples will
In an attempt to save her government and placate German interior
minister and leader of the conservative party of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer,
Angela Merkel has agreed to plans to erect extrajudicial spaces called “transit
zones” at the border to Austria. In accordance with Seehofer’s demands for
unilateral actions, the measure seeks to reject refugees that have already
registered for an asylum application in other EU countries.
Learning from experience
Yet, we know from experience that unilateral actions seldom have
unilateral consequences. We have learned this lesson when Hungary sealed its
borders in September 2015 by erecting razor wire fences, deploying special
police forces to patrol the borders to Serbia and established just those transit
zones that the German government now seeks to emulate.
These decisions had immediate knock-on effects on the treatment of
refugees not only in Hungary but all throughout the so called “Balkan Route”.
Seeing border fences going up and the Balkan Route’s bottleneck being closed,
other countries copied the Hungarian solution: none wanted to host those
refugees that could no longer go on to seek protection in the country of their
destination. The unilateral decision of the Hungarian government had, at the
time, created a ripple effect of border controls and abuses of refugee rights
that reached far back into Turkey.
Slovenia and Croatia soon began adopting similar measures. In March
2016, both these countries effectively sealed their borders to refugees after
Sweden had begun controlling the borders to Denmark, Denmark to Germany,
Germany to Austria and Austria to Slovenia. Macedonia followed suit shortly
after by erecting barbed wire fences and deploying army troops at their borders
themselves. Those unfortunate refugees that were violently pushed back from
Hungary to Serbia subsequently ran the risk of being caught up in a chain of
push backs: from Serbia to Macedonia and from Macedonia back to Greece, often
suffering beatings, humiliation and theft of their belongings by private
vigilante groups or police forces along the way.
The knock-on effect
of the German decision
Today, we witness the same ripple effect emanating from the German
decision to close down its borders with Austria, arguably with worse consequences
to refugees themselves. Just one day after the German decision, the Austrian
chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced that Austria would react to it by closing
down its own borders, beginning with border controls at the Brenner Pass.
In a speech before the European Parliament he subsequently argued for a
“paradigm shift in migration”, that would allow for a Europe without internal
borders only in the long term. The message by the German and Austrian
governments was heard by other European leaders in countries further south.
Italy had already begun adopting harsher policies towards refugees by calling
back its rescue missions, obstructing rescue operations by civil society actors
and denying other rescue ships access to its harbours. Malta has adopted
similar measures. On July 4, it seized the “Moonbird”, an aircraft operated by
the Swiss Humanitarian Pilots Initiative (HPI) that has participated in saving
over 20,000 people in the Mediterranean last year alone.
What effects must
The ripple effect of harsh immigration policies that emanated from
Hungary’s unilateral decision to close down its borders gives us a pretty good
idea of what is about to happen next. Refugees already en route to Germany will
be detained in transit centres and consequently pushed back to Austria. Just as
in the Hungarian case, this will cause a chain of pushbacks from Austria to
Italy or all the way back to Greece. These countries themselves will adopt even
stricter immigration policies – a taste of which we were already given with
their decisions to let refugees drown in the Mediterranean rather than to have
to host them themselves.
Indeed, they seem to be ready to give up on their international legal
obligations and every inch of their moral conscience if that is what it takes
not to be left as one of the few countries to host refugees. The ripple effect
of harsh immigration policies will not only be felt by those refugees floating
in the Mediterranean with no place to go. It has also started to affect
countries south of the Mediterranean such as Algeria.
With an eye to harsher immigration policies being enforced by EU states,
these countries seem equally unwilling to be the state that ‘loses out’, having
to host those refugees that EU states reject. Algeria has already begun with
the pushback of refugees, packing them into trucks and abandoning them in the
Saharan Desert. Last year alone approximately 13,000 refugees were abandoned in
the Saharan Desert to wander off by foot in the direction of Niger and towards
likely death in temperatures reaching 48°C. Their unwillingness to take over
the international legal obligations that EU states intend to force upon them
was manifested by their clear rejections of proposals from EU officials to create
holding centres in northern African states to process asylum claims from there.
None of the states concerned agreed to such plans.
This should give us pause. The unfortunate lesson that we can draw from
the effects of unilateral actions by EU states is that we have to prepare for
more of the same: the ripples will spread, there will be harsher immigration
policies ranging far into Africa, putting at risk the lives of thousands of
refugees for the sake of political stubbornness and leader’s unwillingness to
assume their legal and moral obligations towards the lives of others.