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Europe’s new borders

Written by Amelie Theussen, Ph.D. Candidate at Center for War Studies

During the last couple of weeks here at Research Frontiers the focus has been on individual people, great thinkers of international relations. This week’s post is dedicated not to one person, but several hundred thousand people – people risking their life to reach a better future for their families and themselves outside of their conflict-ridden home countries.

The influx of refugees into the European Union (EU) has been a recurring topic in the news for some years now. Crossing the Mediterranean in tiny, unseaworthy ships to reach the Italian or Greek shores of the Promised Land that is Europe, thousands lose their life every year. According to the International Organization for Migration, already more than 2500 drowned this year while attempting to reach European shores. As desolate as these news are, they are sadly no longer news. Until now, the EU has failed to find a solution for a growing refugee crisis; and during the last weeks the situation has become even more desperate. The evening news have been full of reports about the construction of the fence on the Hungarian-Serbian border, of chaotic scenes at various train stations, and reports about the first European countries closing their borders within the EU.

The BBC gives some numbers: between January and August 2015 the International Organization for Migration estimates 350 000 detected migrants at the borders of the EU, compared to 280 000 detections in all of 2014. But these numbers do not include the many more that enter the EU undetected. The largest group of refugees is from Syria, but many Afghans and Eritreans are also fleeing their home countries (followed by people from Nigeria and Kosovo). It is of crucial importance to put these numbers into perspective: To give two examples, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that by December 2015 more than one million refugees will live in Jordan, and almost 2 million in Lebanon; while the CIA World Factbook lists over 600 000 Syrian refugees in Jordan (8 million inhabitants), and over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon (6 million inhabitants).

Germany receives by far the most asylum applications in the EU and is expecting 800 000 to up to one million refugees in 2015, more than four times as many as in 2014. After first making the decision to welcome unregistered refugees to Germany, the country decided to re-establish border controls on September 13 on its southern borders, after the federal states complained that their capacities to take in the incoming refugees were exhausted. Christian Caryl cautions in his article Berlin’s New Walls for Foreign Policy that re-introducing border controls “sets an ominous and destructive precedent”. Other European countries were quick to follow suit: Hungary closed the last gap in their border fence; Austria, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic are conducting border controls. Meanwhile, the interior ministers of the EU countries were unable to reach an agreement about the relocation of 120 000 refugees through mandatory quotas. A new meeting was scheduled for October 8, but after calls for an emergency meeting, an extra meeting is planned for next week.

For Caryl this shows that “the EU is confronting a crisis of heart”. The free movement of people is one of the fundamental pillars of the European Union, institutionalized in the Schengen Agreement and Convention. The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker called the free movement of people “a unique symbol of European integration”, enabling transnational and European identities. While the Schengen Agreement includes the possibility to reimpose temporary border checks in an emergency, the scale of the current border controls is alarming. The apparent inability of EU member states to find a long-term solution and lasting compromise for the refugee crisis is deeply worrying. As Caryl writes, “it would be a terrible shame, and a sad reflection of the state of the European project, if the only solution they can come up with is rolling out the old barbed wire”.

Find Christian Caryl’s article on Berlin’s New Walls at the website of Foreign Policy here. And if you are interested in more background regarding the refugee crisis, the numbers used in this post, or possible solutions for Syria, you can check out some of the following sites: