MS Risk Blog

Does Eastern Europe need to Increase Security Measures to Handle Mass Migration?

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Does eastern Europe need to increase security measures to handle mass migration?

Some countries certainly think so. Feeling threatened by both the coronavirus and the potential surge of migrants, several states in eastern Europe has increased their border security throughout February. After Turkey announced that it would no longer stop Syrian refugees from going to Europe there has been concern that a new wave of migrants will hit the region. Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina agreed at a meeting in Sarajevo to strengthen cooperation in combating illegal migration, including better coordination; data exchange; and joint patrols. Bosnian border police chief Zoran Galic said that this cooperation was needed in addressing the growing migratory pressure on the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its neighbours. At the end of February, Croatia put up a barrier about three meters long at a border crossing with Bosnia to facilitate controls and prevent the illegal passage of migrants. Tuzson, the state secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office in Hungary, said that vigilance in protecting the border was essential, adding that patrol forces had been doubled in south of Hungary.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Sziijarto labelled mass migration a threat to humanity during a counter-terrorism conference in Vienna. He connected mass migration to at least 30 terror attacks since the migrant crisis in 2015, adding that promoting mass migration could present “a very serious threat to the whole of humanity.” Bosnian Security Minister Fahrudin Radoncic has called on the EU to recognise that the migratory crisis is not only a humanitarian question, but a security crisis. He said that in Bosnia and Herzegovina there was a lack of about 1,200 border police, and that each border police officer had to patrol a 25-km stretch of land. The main problem, he said, was that 93% of aid from some EU countries is given to humanitarian organisations and only 7% to security agencies. Croatian Interior Minister Bozinovic said that there was an increase in organised crime that accompanied illegal immigration. In only the first month of 2020 Croatian police had arrested 95 human traffickers, Bozinovic said. In addition, there are significant health concerns as many migrants are exposed to respiratory infections and skin diseases as a result of poor conditions in camps.

These concerns should be recognised and addressed. However, some consider that the current state of refugees and migrants is a more pressing issue. Many of those entering Bosnia and Herzegovina illegally have been detained and ended up in camps with poor conditions. If they are not given proper shelter and medical care many will die. These countries’ views of migrants and refugees as security threats have also been criticised. The European Council on Refugees and Exiles warned that refugees “seeking protection should not be treated as a security threat, with heavy-handed military tactics and language,”. “We are alarmed at the hysterical and inappropriate language of political leaders: this is not a war; this is not an invasion.” In addition, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor warned that Hungary’s continued policy of denying foods to asylum seekers in transit zones to deter refugees was disturbing. The organisation also called on the EU to apply the infringement procedure against Hungary for its serious and repeated violations of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU.

The way these countries handle migrants has not gone unprotested by migrants themselves. Hundreds clashed with police as they attempted to break out of a camp in western Bosnia in protest of the conditions under which they were held. There were no reports of injuries, but witnesses said they saw police detaining migrants who were shouting “stop beating us”, among other things. Many of these migrants also complained about Croatian border guards, accusing them of violent push-backs and mistreatment when they had tried to cross the frontier on earlier occasions. “The Croatian police are very, very bad. We want the border to be opened. Please don’t hit us anymore. Don’t remove our jackets, shoes and socks. They take it all,” camp resident Salam Batu told Reuters.

The desire to bolster border security has only been fuelled by the outbreak of the coronavirus. “The current wave of migrants is not a threat only with the direct risk of terrorism. Most of the illegal migrants are arriving from territories like Iran, which is also a focal point of the coronavirus,” said Istvan Hollik, the communications director of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party. “We cannot put at risk the security of the Hungarian people, so we continue to say ‘no’ to immigration and we protect the Hungarian borders.” Officials in Croatia has also cited migrants and refugees as a risk factor for further spread of the virus. These fears about the coronavirus are not helped by the strong anti-refugee sentiment that already exist in these countries.

In addition, public health experts believe that it is refugee and migrant communities that the coronavirus pose the real risk to. Dr Adam Coutts, a public health specialist at Cambridge University, said this was due to “high geographical mobility, instability, living in overcrowded conditions, lack of sanitation and WASH (waters, sanitation and hygiene) facilities, and lack of access to decent healthcare or vaccination programmes in host communities”. This also raises the concern that that the fear of coronavirus could discourage rescue attempts of migrants at sea. In addition, we have already seen anti-Chinese prejudice across the states. This may now be extended to anyone that is foreign and is considered “out-of-place” in the countries.

One expert said: “Before the enemy was the migrant, now the enemy is the migrant carrying the coronavirus.” Disease control can become an excuse for attacking the movement of migrants and refugees. There is of course genuine fear of further spread of the virus. However, some countries might use the outbreak as an excuse to crack down on immigration. The virus gives weight to the arguments of those that want national border controls tightened. For instance, the Hungarian government “indefinitely suspended access to border transit areas of asylum-seekers” according to Hungarian Prime Minister Orban’s national security adviser Bakondi. He added that “we observe a certain link between coronavirus and illegal migrants”, but provided no evidence to back this up. Meanwhile the World Health Organisation has warned that trying to restrict border security probably won’t work, and might actually hinder, the global fight against the virus. It could “interrupt needed aid and technical support, may disrupt businesses and may have negative social and economic effects on the affected countries.”

This area has for years been the crossing point for people trying to flee war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Given the geographical positions of countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Hungary these migration issues will not die down any time soon. In fact, the situation will only worsen as the coronavirus spreads across eastern Europe. This could lead to a humanitarian crisis which would not only have damaging effects on migrants, refugees and these three countries themselves, but also on the region as a whole.