EU struggles to reconcile values with barbed wire fences

Several European countries, including France, have set up barriers on their borders.

European politicians gathered in Calais on Monday (31 August) to make assurances that the EU will not abandon those who need protection. But they also reaffirmed the need to protect the bloc’s external borders. EURACTIV France reports.

Two commissioners, a prime minister and two ministers were present in Calais to demonstrate the EU’s commitment to the migrant question.

Additional funding was also announced to help manage the thousands of people camped near the Channel Tunnel, mostly in unhygienic and unsafe conditions. €5 million will be made available in order to accommodate 1,500 migrants in tents, beginning in 2016, in what the media have quickly started calling a “new Sangatte”, after the previous refugee camp that was bulldozed in 2002.

Taking a leading role in proceedings, Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans said that the EU is ready to welcome migrants on a sustainable basis.

“The influx of migrants is not going to wane; people are going to continue to flee conflict in order to protect their families. The EU will continue to welcome them. We will do his because it is a part of our values and what we stand for. We will never turn away those who need protection,” added Timmermans.

A Europe of walls

Yet, barriers and walls have come to characterise the EU’s borders. Hungary was heavily criticised recently, although France is also putting up its own barriers, having constructed a fourth ring of barbed-wire fencing around the entrance to the Channel Tunnel this summer.

Sometimes physical barriers replace non-existent natural boundaries, such as between Turkey and Greece, and Greece and Bulgaria, as well as around the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta in Morocco.

Asked about the difference between the barbed wire in Calais and the Hungarian equivalent on the border with Serbia, Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos, supplied a cryptic response. He said what is acceptable in one case, is not necessarily acceptable in another, but that the borders must be respected.

“Whatever has to do with obstacles, we are against it,” Avramopoulos said. “But on the other hand we must protect the European borders.”

Asked in Brussels about Hungary’s fence, a Commission spokeswoman told reporters, “Fences […] do not send the right message, particularly to our neighbours. The Commission does not promote the use of fences and encourages member states to use alternative measures for border surveillance.”

The spokesperson noted, however, that there were no EU legal restrictions on governments using fencing to protect their national frontier.

Political leaders are currently discussing establishing a list of “safe countries”, which should be announced soon, with the intention of shortening the waiting times for asylum seekers.

“We are going to propose a list of safe countries; the EU candidate countries are safe countries, allowing asylum requests to be processed quicker,” said Timmermans. Essentially, this means that the EU will refuse to grant the right of asylum to nationals of its neighbouring countries. The remark mainly concerns the nationals of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. This year, Eastern European countries have indeed seen an influx from the Balkans of economic refugees.

In France, as in Italy, “60% of migrants are economic refugees and do not fall under the asylum process,” said Manuel Valls, France’s Prime Minister. “To come to Calais is to throw yourself into a dead end,” he added.

Plans to welcome 40,000 refugees?

Regarding the plan that the Commission tried to implement back in June, Timmermans agreed that they would have liked to have acted more quickly, but that they had struggled to convince everybody. “It’s quite revolutionary, because now all states accept the principle, sharing is no longer a problem, we could even expand the programme,” said Timmermans.

France and Germany are opposed to the principle of quotas for how many refugees should be taken in by each country. But in the last few weeks, strong political support has arisen in favour of welcoming refugees, including at the highest level from Angela Merkel and François Hollande. “Nobody is going to hide and avoid doing their share of the work,” said Timmermans.

Problems remain, however. Slovakia has agreed to accept refugees, but only if they are Christians, the living conditions of refugees in Austria are deplorable, as highlighted by Amnesty International, and Greece and Italy are failing to implement the Dublin system correctly, due to the sheer numbers of arrivals.

Thousands of migrants attempt to cross the Channel and are waiting patiently in Calais, while hundreds of law enforcement officials on both sides of the Channel are trying to discourage them with more and more increasingly systematic checks and controls.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls arrived in Calais accompanied by two European Commissioners to announce that €5 million will be made available to help the refugees currently living in the French port. This will be used to create a structure to accommodate about 1,500 migrants, in addition to the Jules Ferry welcome centre that has already been built.

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