In the summer of 2015, Hungary built a fence. Residents in the village of Röszke saw workers erect a 4-meter-high fence tipped with razorwire along the Serbo-Hungaian border. Since the fence has gone up, the number of asylum seekers crossing the border has fallen dramatically. Yet critics argue that people are just going around the fence, crossing into different countries or attempting the dangerous journey by sea.
Hungary is part of a group of EU Member States, including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland, who have either already built border fences to stem the influx of refugees or are considering it. Activists say these fences have caused tremendous environmental harm because they cut across wildlife habitats (and, of course, are visually very ugly). They also risk putting even greater pressure on countries such as Greece and Italy as refugee flows are diverted in their direction.
However, there is no doubt that less people are now crossing into Hungary. From the exodus of 2015 when up to 7,000 people were crossing every day, the number of daily crossings in early 2016 fell to just 116. So, has the fence been worth it?
In order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we launched our ‘Cities & Refugees‘ project – aimed at fostering a Europe-wide dialogue between citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, NGOs, politicians, and European leaders. The emphasis will be on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.
This week, we are looking at Röszke, Hungary. The village of Röszke is located 3 kilometers away from the border with Serbia. It was a hotspot for conflict between police and refugees in 2015, when police fired tear gas and water cannons to scatter asylum seekers trying to cross into Hungary. Röszke is now one of two transit zones where asylum seekers can legally enter Hungary (though only handful of people per day are now allowed through this way). The waiting time for access to the transit zone is a minimum of 6 months.Curious to know more about the refugees, border walls and fences? We’ve put together some facts and figures in the infographic below (click for a bigger version).
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Maia, who is very supportive of Hungary’s border fence. In fact, she thinks other countries should follow Hungary’s lead. But has the fence really been a success? Should it be expanded?
To get a response, we spoke to Boldizsár Nagy, Associate Professor of International Relations at the Central European University in Hungary and a specialist in refugee law. We did also contact representatives of Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz, for them to take part in this debate, but they declined to participate.
So what did Professor Nagy think? Have the border fences been a success?
Success is always judged from the perspective of an actor. The government claims it is a success. I’m a refugee lawyer working with refugees, and I don’t think it’s a success. Moreover, I don’t think it’s a success from the point of the view for the government either, and certainly not from the perspective of asylum seekers and refugees because it makes it very difficult to get access to the territory and to get access to the procedure. So, from their point of view it’s a disaster. For the government, if the fence itself stopped people from arriving, of course it didn’t. Nobody would stay in Afghanistan or Eritrea simply because he or she knows there’s a fence. The answer was that it decreased the numbers for a few days, then it started to increase again. The major impact was that people turned towards Croatia when the fence was errected in 2015. It’s just pushing the buck on someone else. It’s a very unfriendly gesture politically with your neighbours, because you force them to take in the people who genuinely would have come to you. It’s not a success, not even from the point of view of the government.
Next, we had a comment from Antonios, who points out that many former Soviet countries (such as Hungary) have a history with fences. For many years during the Cold War, people were escaping to the West across fences. Does this make the building of fences not just a practical question, but a moral one as well?
Antonios, I would respond that, yes, you are right in your approach. However, I would broaden it and I would claim that states like the states of Eastern and Central Europe that were part of the Soviet Empire have a moral and historic duty. Moreover, many of these countries were also victims or perpetrators during fascist times, which also led to large-scale escapes from the country. So, we do owe a lot to other countries who helped our fellow citizens in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and so on.
So, that’s the larger picture. Because we were once countries of origin, can we today avoid our historic responsibility to pay back to history? Not necessarily to pay back to the same nations, but to pay back more broadly to history the loan we took up from them. Sometimes it’s reciprocal: in 1956, Hungarians fled to Yugoslavia; in 1991, people from former-Yugoslavia (at that time Croatia and Bosnia) fled to Hungary. That was reciprocity. But there is also a more indirect, subtle reciprocity. That is, as I say: Russians, or Czechs, or Hungarians had to escape communism. Now they should take in people fleeing from countries very similar to former communist regimes – think, for example, of Turkey.
Should more European countries build fences to keep out refugees? Are fences and walls counter to European values? Or are they a sensible reaction to an unprecedented crisis? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!