Bulgarian anti-immigrant fence

Article published on Nov. 29, 2013
Article published on Nov. 29, 2013

A year after Greece completed its border fence with Turkey, Bulgarian authorities announced their own 30 kilometer fence. It is an effort to combat a spike in illegal migration following bloody fighting in Syria. This heavy handed approach will only lead to thousands more deaths and human suffering on the periphery of Europe. For many, the promised land becomes a kind of hell on earth

Like cer­tain well-known mar­itime routes across the Mediter­ranean, the short land bor­der be­tween the EU and Turkey is a hotbed of il­le­gal mi­gra­tion. The fences are just one piece of the EU's ex­pen­sive at­temps to po­lice the bor­der, which are widely crit­i­cised as in­ef­fi­cient and con­ducive to human rights abuses. Over the past years, Eu­rope’s bor­der with Turkey has be­come one of the most im­por­tant points of entry for mi­grants from Asia, the Mid­dle East and Africa. A decade ago, Span­ish and Ital­ian bor­ders bore the full brunt of mi­grants flee­ing war and des­ti­tu­tion to come to Eu­rope. As mar­itime bor­der con­trols were beefed up and repa­tri­a­tion ex­pe­dited – both Spain and Italy signed repa­tri­a­tion agree­ments with North African gov­ern­ments. Traf­fick­ers evolved ac­cord­ingly.

The hun­dreds of thou­sands of mi­grants that cross Eu­rope’s bor­ders every year from as far away as Afghanistan can pay up to $10, 000 to traf­fick­ers for the jour­ney, mak­ing it a multi-mil­lion dol­lar in­dus­try au­thor­i­ties reckon. With so much money at stake, traf­fick­ers can adapt much faster than Eu­ro­pean bor­der au­thor­i­ties can ad­dress the chang­ing land­scape of il­le­gal mi­gra­tion.

100, 000 il­le­gal im­mi­grants a year

In 2011 alone, around 100, 000 il­le­gal mi­grants were ar­rested try­ing to enter the EU through Greece, up from just 36, 000 in 2010. As im­mi­grant flows in­ten­si­fied in south east Eu­rope, Greek au­thor­i­ties felt as if they had been hit by a bus. 'We just can’t han­dle it,' said Greece’s sec­re­tary of cit­i­zen pro­tec­tion, Chris­tos Pa­pout­sis, in 2011. With cash-strapped au­thor­i­ties un­able to bear the bur­den, asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tions backed up and mi­grants found them­selves packed into over­pop­u­lated fa­cil­i­ties, suf­fer­ing in­hu­mane con­di­tions for months.

Greece com­pleted its €3 mil­lion fence in De­cem­ber of 2009. The four meter tall barbed wire fence spans 10.5 kilo­me­ters, pro­tect­ing a short stretch of dry land along the 125 mile bor­der with Greece, most of which runs along the Evros River. Au­thor­i­ties say the fence has been ef­fec­tive, but it seems to have done lit­tle but force mi­grants to at­tempt riskier mar­itime or river cross­ings.

Greek bor­der guards told local news­pa­per Kathimerini that the pro­ject had a huge im­pact on the flows of il­le­gal im­mi­grants across the land bor­der. They claimed that il­le­gal ar­rivals were down by 95%, how­ever, there has also been a sharp spike in mar­itime cross­ings of the Aegean Sea. In the first se­mes­ter of 2012, po­lice and coast guard of­fi­cers in the re­gion de­tained 102 un­doc­u­mented mi­grants, while 1, 536 were in­ter­cepted in the three months fol­low­ing the com­ple­tion of the fence.

Bul­garia fol­lows suit 

Bul­gar­ian au­thor­i­ties have found them­selves in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion since the be­gin­ning of the Syr­ian con­flict. In a seven-fold in­crease since 2012, about 10, 000 mi­grants, two-thirds from Syria, have ar­rived so far this year, leav­ing au­thor­i­ties help­less to curb the tide or offer basic ameni­ties to those ar­riv­ing. Speak­ing to The Econ­o­mist, one refugee called the sit­u­a­tion in Eu­rope’s poor­est mem­ber state a 'night­mare.' Food and med­ical at­ten­tion for the war-torn refugees are scarce and hold­ing fa­cil­i­ties squalid.

Like the Greeks, the Bul­gar­i­ans hope the fence will pro­vide some respite. The fence will span roughly 30 kilo­me­ters of the coun­try’s 274 kilo­me­ter bor­der with its neigh­bor Turkey, in  a forested, hilly area where vis­i­bil­ity for bor­der pa­trols is lim­ited. The fence, they say, is also part of a broader ef­fort to deal with the sit­u­a­tion, in­clud­ing new re­cep­tion fa­cil­i­ties cur­rently under con­struc­tion and a few thou­sand ad­di­tional po­lice of­fi­cers to pa­trol the bor­der.

Greece has also begun send­ing hun­dreds of mi­grants back to Syria, in a move strongly crit­i­cized by the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. Bul­gar­ian of­fi­cials fret that the surge of mi­grants is spark­ing a wave of xeno­pho­bia. Skin­heads beat up a Bul­gar­ian Mus­lim on No­vem­ber 9th, mis­tak­ing him for a Syr­ian. Thou­sands re­cently protested in Sofia after a shop clerk was stabbed by an il­le­gal Al­ger­ian mi­grant.

25, 000 im­mi­grants drowned

In Greece and Bul­garia, the fences rep­re­sent a des­per­ate at­tempt by au­thor­i­ties to gain con­trol over events that are get­ting out of hand. While of­fi­cials are un­der­stand­ably wor­ried about pro­vid­ing for refugees with such scarce re­sources, crit­ics worry that fences are counter-pro­duc­tive. Adrian Ed­wards of the UNHCR, ar­gues that '[i]in­tro­duc­ing bar­ri­ers, like fences or other de­ter­rents, may lead peo­ple to un­der­take more dan­ger­ous cross­ings and fur­ther place the refugees at the mercy of smug­glers.'

To curb the ris­ing flows of il­le­gal mi­grants, the EU has built a set of far-reach­ing bor­der con­trol and en­force­ment poli­cies over the past decades, known pe­jo­ra­tively as ‘fortress Eu­rope’ by crit­ics. Many argue that the ex­pen­sive Eu­ro­pean bu­reau­cracy is in­ef­fi­cient at keep­ing mi­grants at bay, and that this leads to se­ri­ous human rights in­fringe­ments on Eu­rope’s bor­ders. More­over, these poli­cies force traf­fick­ers to take ever greater risks. In the last two decades, 25, 000 im­mi­grants have drowned in the Mediter­ranean Sea ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Im­mi­gra­tion.

Ac­tivists say that the crim­i­nal­iza­tion of ir­reg­u­lar im­mi­gra­tion is in­evitably coun­ter­pro­duc­tive in the end and leads to abuse, both by bor­der au­thor­i­ties and the bru­tal traf­fick­ers that mi­grants en­trust their lives to. Refugee rights groups have ar­gued for more chan­nels for legal im­mi­gra­tion. In the end, how­ever, it is only by ad­dress­ing the dis­rup­tive sit­u­a­tions and wealth in­equal­i­ties that fun­da­men­tally drive mi­gra­tion that Eu­rope can ad­dress the root of the prob­lem.