Four years ago, European leaders chided then U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall on America’s southern border with Mexico. “We have a history and a tradition that we celebrate when walls are brought down and bridges are built,” admonished Federica Mogherini, then the EU’s foreign policy chief.
But Europe now is accelerating its own wall-building for fear of future migration crises.
In the near-term European Union governments are worried about an influx of Afghans and are hoping to persuade Afghanistan’s near neighbors to corral those fleeing the Taliban.
The U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has warned that up to 500,000 Afghans could flee their homeland by the end of the year. EU officials say they are considering spending a billion euros to induce Afghanistan’s neighbors to act as gatekeepers. But Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan appear reluctant and have warned they are only prepared to serve as transit countries for Afghan asylum-seekers.
Saturday Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said a potential refugee wave toward Europe must not take place. Recently French President Emmanuel Macron said Europe should “anticipate and protect itself from a wave of migrants” from Afghanistan.
That counsel is being heeded by other European national leaders eager to stop Afghan refugees from entering Europe en masse, thereby hoping to avoid a repeat of the 2015-16 migration crisis, when more than a million asylum-seekers from the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia entered Europe, roiling European politics and fueling the rise of populist nationalist parties.
Last week at an emergency meeting in Brussels the interior ministers of the 27 EU member-states agreed “to act jointly to prevent the recurrence of uncontrolled, large-scale, illegal migration movements faced in the past.”
The prospects of more Afghan refugees appearing on their borders has acted as a spur for Central European, Baltic and Balkan states to complete planned walls and to erect more razor-wire fences. Greece last month completed a 40-kilometer wall along its land border with Turkey and installed an automated surveillance system to try to prevent asylum seekers from reaching Europe.
“We cannot wait, passively, for the possible impact,” Greece’s citizen protection minister, Michalis Chrisochoidis, said announcing the completion of the project. “Our borders will remain safe and inviolable,” he added. Asylum-seekers from Afghanistan have made up 45% of recent arrivals to the Greek Islands this year, according to figures from the U.N. refugee agency.
In an interview Monday with Politico.eu, a news site, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson played down the determination of member states to keep the doors firmly bolted, saying she is convening a high-level resettlement forum later this month where member states, Britain, the U.S. and Canada will discuss commitments to resettle specific numbers of Afghan refugees.
“Of course, it’s voluntary but I expect them to step up,” she said. But several states, including Greece, Austria and Hungary, have already said they won’t.
On Saturday, the EU’s migration commissioner, Margaritis Schinas noted the bloc’s external borders are much stronger now than they were when the continent was rocked by the 2015-16 migration influx, prompting a wave of wall building.
EU member states have collectively constructed more than 1,000 kilometers of border walls or barbed-wire fences in recent years.
Each day sees more wall building. In the 1990s there were just two walls built, by 2017 that jumped to 15. Spain, Greece, Hungary, Bulgaria, Austria, Slovenia, Slovakia, Latvia, Estonia, Norway, Lithuania and Poland have all in recent years completed new external walls.
France, Slovenia and Austria have even built border walls since 2015 along parts of their shared borders with other EU countries.
Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have been frantically wall-building and militarizing their borders with Belarus to stop record numbers of migrants, mainly from Iraq, crossing their borders.
They accuse Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of orchestrating migrant crossings as a form of “hybrid warfare” against the EU for imposing sanctions in the wake of last year’s disputed elections, which were widely seen as rigged.
At a press conference last month, Lukashenko denied Belarus was seeking to blackmail Europe by trying to create a migrant crisis, but said he was reacting to foreign pressure.
“We are not blackmailing anyone with illegal immigration,” he told journalists in Minsk’s Independence Palace. “We’re not threatening anyone. But you have put us in such circumstances that we are forced to react. And we’re reacting,” he said.
But it isn’t only the weaponization of migrants by EU foes or the more immediate turmoil in Afghanistan that’s caught the attention of worried EU policymakers and national leaders. A series of recent studies suggest that Europe will see much larger migration challenges in the coming decades.
In a paper published earlier this year, researchers at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies warned that between now and 2030, climate change and conflict and political dysfunction in the EU’s neighboring regions, alongside massive population growth in Africa, will inevitably lead to a substantial increase in the numbers of people trying to migrate to the EU.