The dangerous Mediterranean journey that many migrants take from North Africa and the Middle East in order to reach Southern Europe has been well-reported in the media, with countless news stories chronicling the boatloads of immigrants who die attempting the treacherous voyage. Second to the Mediterranean route, but far less covered, however, is what is known as “the Western Balkan route”—which 40% percent of migrants use in order to cross into Europe. Many using the Balkan route are Syrians and Afghans who take boats from Turkey, or elsewhere, to Greece, where they then walk for thousands of miles through Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia and finally Hungary, in order to attempt to then cross over into affluent Western European countries, such as bordering Austria.
In recent weeks, however, the “Western Balkan route” has gained unprecedented attention thanks to plans by the Hungarian government to erect a 4-meter (13-foot) wall along Hungary’s 109-mile border with Serbia, which they hope will prevent incoming flows of Syrian and Afghan refugees into the country.
Moves by the Hungarian Parliament to construct the wall, which began on Monday, June 15, come following Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s frustration over the European Union’s (EU) ineffectiveness in dealing with the increased flow of migrants pouring into the region. Denouncing the EU’s plan to evenly redistribute migrants throughout the region’s 28 member-bloc as “border[ing] on insanity,” Orban has justified moves to build the wall by arguing that Hungary suffers from a higher rate of incoming refugees then neighboring EU states. According to Orban and the Hungarian government, about 54,000 migrants entered the country this year, compared to only 43,000 in 2014. The EU’s Eurostat agency has also revealed that Hungary received the second-highest number of applications for asylum in the EU after Germany in 2015, with most applications coming from Kosovo.
Hungary’s wall has received extraordinary levels of criticism from the rest of the EU and from neighboring Serbia, who argue that plans to erect the wall reflect growing levels of blatant xenophobia within Hungary’s illiberal government. Critics also point to national campaigns that were conducted in the past year, in which posters reading anti-immigrant sentiments such as “if you live in Hungary, you have to respect our laws,” were put up throughout the country, helping to paint refugees residing in Hungary as lawless job-stealing thieves and criminals.
Human rights organizations have further critiqued the Hungarian government’s response to the migration crisis, arguing that it requires desperate refugees to put themselves at ever greater risks in order to escape the violence of their home countries. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has argued that Hungary’s “wall” is not only morally wrong but also hypocritical, based on Hungary’s own authoritarian past. Alluding to the fact that Hungary was an axis power during World War Two (in fact Hungary was the first country to join Hitler’s cause), HRW has stated that “[it is] tragic… that Hungary, from where about 200,000 Hungarians were forced to flee in 1956 to obtain protection from Western Countries, is currently closing its borders to those fleeing their countries for similar reasons.”
This frustration has been echoed by the refugees themselves, who argue that a wall isn’t going to stop them from attempting to reach safety in Western European countries. Mr. Nayab, for example, who was a surgeon working for the Afghanistan government before he was stabbed four times by the Taliban, believes Hungary needs to focus its efforts on stopping the Islamic State rather than on building a wall to curb migration flows into the country. According to Mr. Nayab, “In Afghanistan, life is not safe, and every human who wants a safe life will make a hole in that wall, or find another way.”
Indeed, it is undeniable that alarming and ever-increasing rates of refugees pouring into Europe from all sides is one spill-over effect of the horrifying wars ravaging parts of the Middle East and Northern Africa. But, it is also undeniable that building walls—which has also been contemplated by the British government in order to resolve the refugee crisis in Calais, France and the Kenyan government in order to prevent Al-Shabaab from crossing over from Somalia—fails to effectively discourage desperate refugees from attempting the journey. The only way to begin to resolve Europe’s current refugee crisis is to spend energy and resources attempting to contain the source of the problem, rather than attempting to contain the victims of the problem.
– Ana Powell