As the civil war in Syria rages on and refugees continue to amass at European borders in great numbers, it would appear that more and more fences – both physical and symbolic – are going to go up on the continent.
European Union (EU) member states such as Greece and Bulgaria have already started building fences on their borders with Turkey to keep out refugees in the last few years, and other countries are now following suit. Hungary’s decision to erect a razor-wire fence on its borders with Serbia and Croatia has caused chaos in the region as refugee flows are diverted into neighbouring countries, with reports of Slovenian police pepper-spraying refugees. attempting to enter the country. A more symbolic fence comes in the form of the temporary re-introduction of border controls between Austria and Germany, following reports that they have been overwhelmed by the arrival of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers within a few days. The significance of this development lies in the fact that Germany and Austria are both members of the Schengen Area, where internal border controls were abolished in 1995. While the move is not unprecedented – Schengen members such as Denmark have imposed internal border controls in the past – and temporary controls are permitted under the Schengen Agreement, Germany’s decision carries great symbolic importance and has led observers to question the continued viability of the principle of open borders within Schengen.
The unprecedented nature of such an influx in post-World War II Europe has meant that media attention has been mostly focused on the European side of the story. However, there are parallels to the situation in West Asia, where countries that have up until now allowed Syrian refugees to enter are increasingly closing their borders on them. Significantly, Lebanon, after taking in over a million Syrian refugees, ended its traditional policy of visa-free travel across the Syrian border earlier this year. Turkey and Jordan have also increasingly moved to restrict entry to those fleeing the conflict in the past few years after their infrastructure started to creak under the weight of the refugees.
Some may be tempted to see these developments as a decisive refutation of the notion that borders are increasingly disappearing or becoming irrelevant in an ever-globalizing world, as border controls and fences gain new prominence as a means of maintaining states’ control over people flows. Indeed, the reactions from several governments of EU member states appear to be jeopardizing the European dream of open borders.
The refugee crisis has demonstrated the abject inadequacy of national borders to solve transnational problems. As researchers focusing on illegal immigration to the US have found, stronger borders do not result in lower numbers of migrants. Indeed, refugees are already finding ways to breach Hungary’s new razor-wire fences, demonstrating that shoring up national borders is an inappropriate response to a situation that necessarily involves crossing them. As Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic recently put it, borders can only be completely sealed if authorities are willing to indiscriminately kill those seeking to cross them, a position that is untenable in most modern societies. The resurrection of national borders is doomed to fail in the face of overwhelming numbers of migrants that physically cannot be kept out; and EU leaders have no choice but to urgently develop a pan-European, cross-border solution to the problem. This will involve reforming the current EU asylum system to allow refugees to apply for asylum in EU member states extraterritorially, before they reach Europe, and abolishing the so-called Dublin system under which refugees are required to claim asylum in the member state in which they first arrive. Additionally, much greater EU assistance to local authorities attempting to process asylum applications is needed. Recent decisions by EU leaders to relocate 120,000 refugees recently registered in Italy and Greece to other EU member states, and to send support teams to assist with processing applications to areas with particularly high numbers of refugee arrivals are first steps in this direction.
But what do these developments mean for countries outside of Europe? Future mass displacements of people will only become more frequent as climate change increases the likelihood of extreme weather that may force people to leave their homes. India has had its own influx of refugees in the last few years, in the form of Rohingya refugees fleeing sectarian violence in Myanmar. No country can count on being spared a refugee crisis in the future. Governments across the world need to re-think the role of borders and their historical significance as symbols of national sovereignty in the face of a potentially messy reality in which maintaining them may no longer be possible.
Katharina Obermeier is a Research Officer at the Global Economic Governance Programme in Oxford.
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