Migration: Misconceptions and tough opposition

Of People and Numbers - Eastern Europe in your pocket

When it comes to refugees, Eastern European Member States speak with one voice – which says: No! A comparison of perceived perception and the actual numbers.

As Asadullah from Afghanistan squatted in the abandoned brickyard of the Serbian border town Subotica during those cold December days, he had no idea that he was just the vanguard. It was bitterly cold, and he was afraid that his mobile phone would run out of power and the smugglers would no longer be able to call him when the time came – when he could finally cross over to Hungary, into the European Union.

The images of the derelict brickyard would later feature in media worldwide: men washing themselves in oil barrels, men trying to keep warm over a fire made of piles of plastic waste. Reporters arrived, and politicians. In the small town of Subotica at the Serbian-Hungarian border the refugee crisis was summed up in a brickyard.

Asadullah did not know any of this when he told his story to UNHCR. This was in December 2014, when discussions and media reports still focused primarily on people crossing the Mediterranean. Nobody spoke of the “Balkan route” yet, except maybe Frontex, the European Border Agency. According to the Eurobarometer survey of 2014, less than one third of Hungarians said that the immigration of people from outside the EU evoked a “very negative feeling”. A year later this applied to every second Hungarian.

answered in a survey conducted throughout the EU that the EU was not responding adequately to immigration issues.

58 %
answered in a survey conducted throughout the EU that the EU was not responding adequately to immigration issues.

In the EU as a whole, one in four agreed with this back then; in Germany it was every fifth and in Austria every third citizen. In Austria this value, however, dropped by more than ten percentage points in a matter of months, after the so-called Balkan route was closed. Still, 58 per cent of respondents to an EU-wide survey said in 2017 that the EU was not addressing immigration issues adequately.

There is no doubt: the refugee movements of 2015 have changed the EU. They have confronted the calls for solidarity, made in easier times, with political reality; and they have clearly shown its limits. They have rebalanced the relationship between old and new EU Member States. In Berlin, they speak of a breach of trust; in Budapest and Warsaw they call it emancipation. They have also united the Eastern European Member States Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic and turned the Visegrád group – a loose association initially formed to promote NATO membership and then maintained to boost economic cooperation – into an interest group within the alliance, which now speaks with one voice about refugee issues – and which says: No!

UNHCR Definition

Refugees include individuals recognised under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees; its 1967 Protocol; the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa; those recognised in accordance with the UNHCR Statute; individuals granted complementary forms of protection; or those enjoying temporary protection. Since 2007, the refugee population also includes people in a refugee-like situation. Asylum-seekers are individuals who have sought international protection and whose claims for refugee status have not yet been determined, irrespective of when they may have been lodged, and are not included in this definition of refugees.

However, this does not necessarily mean that the individual Visegrád states will streamline their political agendas. Their interests are too different, for example in economic policy, where countries such as Slovakia have closely interlocked their value chains with Germany. Ideological views also differ greatly, with the Polish government under Jarosław Kaczyński representing a closed ideological view, while attitudes in Prague and Bratislava are more flexible and opportunist.

Still, the common position on immigration has strengthened the bloc. It will be more difficult now to catch individual countries stepping out of line, which Brussels still succeeded in doing with Warsaw in 2008 when Prime Minister Kaczyński opposed the Lisbon Treaty.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has already announced that he would veto any EU move to strip Poland of voting rights. The present case concerns deficits of Poland’s rule of law. The alliance could also show this solidarity in all other respects, however.

It will be increasingly difficult to pursue a common EU policy on immigration. The Hungarian government has already made the topic of immigration a question of national interest. The practical aspect of the martial setting: it is a readily available backdrop that can be deployed in case of internal problems, scandals or declining popularity rates among voters.

Asylum applications in the EU by country of origin and destination 2015-2017

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Today, a border fence stands where Afghan Asadullah once tried his luck. Stretching over a length of 175 kilometres along the Serbian border, it was built in autumn 2015 by the Hungarian government, without their making much effort to coordinate this with the other European countries. The border fence was followed by the EU-Turkey refugee deal in March 2016, coordinated and controlled by Berlin, which shut down the smuggler routes across the Aegean to Greece. Shortly before that, after a meeting held in Vienna had sealed the closure of the Balkan route.

The aim of all these initiatives was soon accomplished: the continuous flow of people coming to the EU has diminished noticeably. This is the statistical side. The impact of the summer of 2015 lives on – as a real challenge to those countries that took in refugees; and as a rhetorical whip for those who refused to do so.

Original in German. Translated into English by Barbara Maya.

This text and infographics are published under the Creative Commons License: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. The name of the author/rights holder should be mentioned as followed. Author: Eva Konzett / erstestiftung.org, infographics & illustration: Vanja Ivancevic / erstestiftung.org.
Cover picture: © iStock/Andreas O.

Of People and Numbers – Eastern Europe in your pocket

Fourteen years have passed since the European Union set off towards the east. The initial euphoria first gave way to day-to-day life and has now turned into disillusionment on both sides. In some places people have become or remained strangers, despite visible and hidden relationships, and personal, official and business relationships. Despite the numerous similarities and the value chains that now know no borders. And sometimes precisely because of them.

Of People and Numbers aims to highlight the political, economic, cultural and social realities of life in the newer members of the EU and the accession states of South-Eastern Europe on a small scale and compare them to Western European realities, at least as they appear in Austria. Are the two really always miles apart? When does the view from above fall short?

When preconceptions are put aside, a different world emerges. Of People and Numbers brings this world to you in images, figures and words. A monthly serving of Eastern Europe. Delivered to your smartphone each month.

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