Despite hosting millions of Ukrainians fleeing Putin’s invasion, policymaking in the European Union on irregular migration and on refugee matters continue to run on separate tracks.
After the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU opened its borders and welcomed everyone fleeing Putin’s onslaught. Open-border advocates praised the European response to the refugee crisis but also have been shaming the EU for not awarding the same welcome indiscriminately to any migrant arriving at the gates of “Fortress Europe.” Accusing the EU of being racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, etc., they have been trying to bully European capitals to use the response to the Ukrainian crisis as a template for every asylum-seeker and economic migrant from around the globe. Are they succeeding? Can we see a shift in the EU’s approach toward irregular migration flows from the Middle East and Africa?
Almost six months into the Ukrainian war, European front-line countries are steaming ahead with the construction of walls, fences, and barriers at the external borders of “Fortress Europe,” meticulously keeping the issue of refugees and irregular migrants separate. Poland, a country hosting 1.2 million Ukrainian refugees, recently finished building a 115-mile-long wall on its border with Belarus, with the goal of preventing another attempt at migration blackmail like the one staged last fall by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
At the same time, Greece is having serious talks with the European Commission to secure EU funding for a wall on its border with Turkey. If anything, the war in Ukraine only sped up the construction of fences in the EU. The Finnish government is planning to build barriers and new roads in critical areas on its eastern border, based on the future recommendations of the country’s border guard. Finland is scrambling to strengthen its border security because it fears that Russia might yet again try to engineer an artificial migration crisis as retaliation for its neighbor’s NATO aspirations.
In the EU, the resolve to deter irregular migration is so strong that front-line countries are frequently accused of doing more than what the law allows, or neglecting to do what international obligations dictate. According to Human Rights Watch, Bulgarian authorities have recently been illegally pushing back asylum-seekers to Turkey, sometimes robbing and beating them. Greece has also been accused for years of conducting illegal pushbacks at sea. Although the Greek government dismisses these allegations as Turkish propaganda, a recently leaked report conducted by the European Anti-Fraud Office concluded that even the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) might have been involved in covering up the pushbacks.
Lately, a number of NGO ships claimed that the small island nation of Malta repeatedly failed to rescue migrants that drifted into its search and rescue region. Maltese Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri labeled the criticism as an “attack” resulting from Malta’s tough posture toward human smugglers, adding that Malta is not going to be a “migration hub.”
At the EU level, recent advances in migration policymaking seem to be almost entirely security-based. In June, the Council of the European Union — one of two legislative bodies of the EU — agreed to start negations with the European Parliament regarding two key migration management tools. First, the modernization of the Eurodac fingerprint database aims to track people better who entered the EU illegally. Second, the council also decided to establish uniform rules for the preentry screening of irregular migrants to protect the Schengen area better.
Meanwhile, the EU has also made progress in enhancing cooperation with third countries to deter irregular migration. In July, the European Commission renewed a partnership with Morocco aimed at tackling human smuggling networks. The cooperation will specifically include support for border management for Morocco and enhanced police cooperation. A similar agreement was signed with Niger the same month.
All in all, it seems that European governments and EU policymakers seem to understand the clear-cut distinction between refugee and migration flows.
Dr. Kristof Gyorgy Veres is a senior researcher at the Migration Research Institute in Budapest and an Andrassy fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies.
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