Exodus, emergency, catastrophe, massacre. The distressing list of words used by the European press to describe yet another flight of asylum seekers towards Europe portrays only part of the extent of the failure of European common migration policies over recent months. Since the beginning of this year the number of migrants who have tried to cross the European Union’s borders has risen to over 300,000, of which 200,000 arrived in Greece and 110,000 in Italy. The figure is increasing compared to the 219,000 arrivals registered in 2014, which illustrates the essence of these migratory flows. They are mainly migrants entitled to humanitarian protection, fleeing war, conflict or persecution. According to the UNHCR, “the vast majority of men, women and children arriving in Italy and Greece by sea have come from Syria, a country whose citizens are almost universally considered refugees or are entitled to other forms of protection. Afghanistan and Eritrea are the second and third main countries of origin. In this case too they are mainly potential refugees.”
In order to understand the extent of “the most serious refugee crisis since World War II” it is sufficient to observe what is happening along the eastern Mediterranean route. This is the difficult route followed by migrants who travel from Turkey to Greece and from there, through the Balkans, aiming for northern Europe. During the last week of August, more than 2,000 were stopped by Hungarian police while crossing the border with Serbia. On August 26th the number of arrivals rose to a record 3,240 people, among them 700 children, mainly Syrians and Afghans.
It is no surprise that with such numbers, the Western Balkan Summit so strongly wanted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in order to relaunch the “Berlin process” started in 2014 to support regional cooperation with countries in the Balkans, was literally monopolised by a debate on the migration emergency. This was slippery ground, to say the least, for Eastern European governments, united in accusing Europe of having unloaded the humanitarian emergency on them. The result was that many East European chancelleries have chosen to implement protectionism while the 28 members of the EU continue to limp towards a common definition of safe and legal procedures for entering Europe, such as Humanitarian Corridors and Protected Entry Procedures.
The wall built by Hungary to block migrant flows arriving from Serbia is only the last of militarisation efforts created along the European Union’s eastern borders. Similar fortifications exist along the Evros River which separates Greece and Turkey and along the border between Bulgaria and Turkey. Such an approach was also repeated by Macedonia, which, when faced with 2,000 arrivals a day in Gevgelija, a city on the border with Greece, declared a state of emergency on August 20th and deployed the army to stop the migrants.
The recent suspension of the state of emergency in Macedonia did not, however, lower the level of alarm. The reopening of the border with Greece sparked a domino effect throughout the region, initially involving Serbia because in order to shorten the length of time migrants remained in Macedonia, the government organised direct transport for the border using busses and vans. In Preševo, the Serbian city with an Albanian majority at the border with Macedonia, daily arrivals are now in the thousands. In the last weekend alone, about 10,000 migrants arrived in the two refugee camps built by the government.
While European chancelleries rack their brains over the possibility of building a migrant processing centre in the Balkans, in mid-August Russia was already providing the Serbian government with humanitarian aid through the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Centre (RSHC). This is subtle but not irrelevant interference considering that there is rising discontent about the lack of support from Brussels in Serbia, currently the country less hostile to guaranteeing migrants safe passage through their country. This negligence has come at a significant price seeing that, for the moment, Serbia has decided to manage on its own, allowing migrants a temporary 72-hour residency visa permitting them to continue their journey towards Hungary, thereby repaying the European Union tit for tat.
This autumn we shall see how the route will change now that Hungary has completed its wall along the Serbian border. This autumn will be a tense one to the extent that the EU’s Justice and Home Affairs Council has already summoned an emergency summit for September 14th to discuss what should be done as requested by Chancellor Merkel. The tough icon has surprisingly spoken of the sovereignty clause in order to suspend the Dublin Regulation, rejecting the rule that involves returning Syrian refugees to the first European country they arrived in. This is a decision that has led to global questioning of the Dublin system and, were this still necessary, emphasised who is the holder of European political hegemony.