On Tuesday, September 15th, Hungary completed the protective border fence on its southern frontier with Serbia. Its completion closes the so-called ‘green’ border that has seen more than 170 thousand illegal crossings in 2015, making it the busiest migration route into the European Union and Schengen Area.
The green border refers to those stretches of the country’s international frontier that run through natural terrain and are not otherwise marked. The official border crossings to Serbia remain open.
A day earlier, Austria and Germany announced that they would temporarily restore passport control on their own borders. Many other EU and Schengen member countries announced similar measures in recent weeks.
These past few weeks have been extraordinary indeed. While the media is full of stories about the latest wave of migrants being stopped in Austria, a large number who crossed illegally into the EU and Schengen Area earlier in September are now on their way to Finland and Norway. Having refused to register, many of them have along the way passed through Greece, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. Yes, tens of thousands of people, who entered the territory of the EU illegally, have been moving about freely without registering in any of the six EU countries they passed, but certain civil society groups and media have criticized Hungary for “inhumanely” trying to make them register.
The EU convened a meeting on Monday of ministers responsible for border protection, but they failed to find a compromise solution. Meanwhile, the freedom of movement within Europe, one of the greatest achievements of the EU, is now in serious jeopardy. Some are already wondering aloud if these disruptions are just temporary or are we witnessing the end of Schengen and the return of frontier posts, long lines and passport controls on the EU’s internal borders.
Sooner or later, the EU will have to find a robust solution to this problem or the result will inevitably be the demise of the Schengen Area. Yet, the proposal coming from the European Commission fails to address the first essential step: determined and effective protection of the external borders of the European Union. Without it, the European Union will not be able to effectively manage the dramatic increase in migration, not be able to responsibly preserve Europe’s security nor be able to humanely receive refugees who merit asylum. “Those who are overwhelmed,” wrote Prime Minister Orbán recently in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “cannot offer shelter to anyone.”
Hungary’s approach is straightforward. It expects those coming to our borders, which are also the borders of the Schengen Area, to respect our laws and cooperate with authorities. Backed by an information campaign in transit countries and signs at the southern border fence, we have made more serious the punishment for crossing the border illegally. We believe that, in accordance with international practice and the EU’s own rules, a person with a legitimate asylum claim should have no problem registering at an official border crossing and waiting in a refugee shelter until their claim is decided. Similarly, we believe that bona fide refugees would submit an asylum request in at least one of the safe countries on their way, understanding that EU countries and EU candidate countries are considered safe. Hungary is attempting to do its part, as an EU border country, to preserve the freedom of movement in a Europe without internal borders.
That’s not enough, though. Other EU Member States must also do their share and protect the external borders. If individual countries, like Greece, fail to do so, the EU must be able to step in under the framework, for example, of an empowered Frontex. Protection of the border must be the first step, and following that, we should discuss other practical measures, like assistance to countries such as Jordan and Turkey who are bearing a large part of the burden in this migrant crisis. We also need to work harder on how we can promote stability in the Middle East so that refugees can eventually return. Then, once we’ve attended to these important steps, we may turn to a discussion of how Member States may appropriately share in receiving and housing the refugees.
When certain leaders of the EU try to force some kind of migrant quota system among Member States as a first step without first taking proper measures to secure the border, they are fooling themselves. Recall that at the beginning of the year, some EU leaders were talking about the distribution of 40,000 migrants through a quota system. Prime Minister Orbán said at the time that this would simply encourage even more migrants to come. Now, six months later, they talk about 160,000 migrants.
Today, tens of thousands of unregistered, illegal border crossers are moving through the territory of the European Union. As the Member States struggle to manage this huge influx and restore order, it has become painfully clear that the protection and reinforcement of the external border is an essential first step. A common response to this challenge must begin there. Anything that fails to do so is not a solution, but a delusion.