Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced on 26 August that the country is planning to build a second fence on its southern border with Serbia that would effectively enable it to keep out any major new wave of migrants.
Orban told public radio that the new barrier, which is to be built alongside the existing one, would strengthen defences to respond if Turkey’s policy on migration changed, adding that if that occurred, hundreds of thousands could appear at Hungary’s border. He noted that “technical planning is under way to erect a more massive defence system next to the existing line of defence, which was built quickly (last year).” Orban also disclosed that Hungary had to prepare for the eventuality of a deal between Turkey and the European Union (EU) to clamp down on migration into Europe via the Balkans unravelling, adding, “then if it does not work with nice words, we will have to stop them with force, and we will do so.” He also indicated that Hungary would increase its police presence to 47,000 from 44,000, of which 3,000 will be constantly deployed on the southern border.
A razor-wire fence built along Hungary’s southern border with Serbia and Croatia has sharply reduced the flow of migrants. Last year, hundreds of thousands of migrants moved up from the Balkans towards northern Europe. That flow however has since been reduced to no more than a steady trickle.
Under the existing agreement between Turkey and the EU, Turkey has agreed to help stem the tide of illegal migrants into the bloc in exchange for aid and visa-free travel for Turkish nationals. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan however has repeatedly stated that European leader are not living up to their side of the pact.
On Friday, Orban and other prime ministers of Central European EU member states, the Visegrad countries, met in Warsaw along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Orban stated that the task for politicians was to change a decision by the EU to let in migrants and distribute them based on quotas among member states. Oran stated that “the question is whether Angela Merkel will be willing to change this flawed Brussels decision together with us. Whether she is willing to fight with us for this, or not.” Hunger is due to hold a referendum on 2 October on whether to accept any future EU quota system for resettling migrants.
There has long been a fear that Greece will become the victim of a bottleneck through the Balkans. This often discussed fear has finally become a reality. On March 8, three Balkan nations joined with a growing number of countries imposing increasingly restrictive immigration policies. Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia announced they would only allow people to cross their borders if they already possessed valid visas. This would effectively stop the thousands of migrants in Greece from moving north in an attempt to reach asylum in Germany. Also on March 9, Macedonia announced it would no longer allow migrants to freely enter the country. One report estimated that 13,000-15,000 migrants were currently living in makeshift camps near Greece’s border with Macedonia. Though exact estimates differ, numerous media organizations reported on March 9 that over 35,000 migrants from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan are currently inside Greece. The number is expected to rise as more migrants land on mainland Greece and islands near the border with Turkey.
This last development puts even greater pressure on Greece. However, it also poses new challenges for other countries in the region. Hungary had seen a drop in migrants attempting to enter the country after it built a border fence and increased penalties for entering illegally. According to the Washington Post, over 2500 people were arrested for attempting to enter Hungary in February (far higher than previous months). Bulgaria and Albania have both increased monitoring are their borders with Greece. The Italian Government is particularly concerned migrants about migrants reaching the Albanian cost and then crossing the Adriatic Sea to Italy. As a result, the two countries announced they would conduct joint military patrols in the Adriatic Sea.
The European Union’s latest attempt to handle the crisis has come under considerable public criticism and legal scrutiny. On March 8, EU and Turkish leaders announced a new plan to return discourage further migrants from attempting the dangerous trip to Greece. The plan indicated that all undocumented migrants arriving in Greece would returned to Turkey. In exchange, the Turkish Government had requested that the EU resettle one Syrian migrant for each returned to Turkey (the so-called ‘one for one’ policy). As part of the plan, the EU also pledged to more quickly implement visa-free travel for Turks and faster approval of a €3 billion Euro aid package. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has criticised the agreement as a violation of the EU’s international obligations and the European Convention on Human Rights. Even if the plan is not stopped by a legal challenge, it is unclear when it would be fully implemented.