European Union – At the beginning of March Hungary de facto suspended the possibility of filing for asylum by forbidding asylum seekers access to border transit zones. The decision was officially linked to the propagation of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was explained that Iranians are the fourth largest nationality among asylum seekers, behind Afghans, Iraqis and Pakistanis, and Iran was then one of the countries most affected by the Chinese coronavirus. The first cases of COVID-19 in Hungary were Iranian students, who began presenting symptoms after returning from Iran and who were the first source of infections. The Chief Security Advisor to the Prime Minister stressed the additional threat posed by illegal immigration at a time of pandemic, as a majority of illegal immigrants who reach the Hungarian border arrive from Iran or through Iran. Therefore, it was officially to protect the 321 persons already in the transit zone at the southern border that Budapest decided to suspend the admission of new entrants.
Today, with over 86,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 2,000reported deaths as of April 20, Turkey is also among the most affected countries in the world, and this is one more strong argument in favour of putting a check on all kinds of illegal immigration passing through Turkey and the Balkans. Having reacted at a relatively early stage of the propagation of the epidemic on their territory, by mid-April the four countries of the Visegrád Group were still in a much better situation than Western European countries. By April 20 they had had a combined number of over 19,000 confirmed cases since the beginning of the epidemic in early March, with a linear increase throughout, instead of the exponential rise seen in Western Europe. The combined number of deaths linked to coronavirus stood at less than 800 on April 20, and in spite of their poor health systems, all four countries still had most of their intensive care and ventilator capacities available by that date, one-and-a-half months after the number of confirmed cases began to rise on a daily basis.
When all national borders remain closed and all incoming nationals are required to spend at least two weeks in self-quarantine, with strict controls, an influx of illegal immigrants would make such efforts purposeless. The decision by Hungary to suspend the possibility of seeking asylum was taken at a time when the land border between Turkey and Greece was under enormous pressure, after Ankara had announced in the last days of February that it would henceforth allow all migrants to pass through its territory to Europe, and the Turkish authorities organised the transport of thousands of migrants to the border on the Evros River. President Erdogan’s decision seemed to be motivated by a lack of support from NATO allies in northern Syria, where Turkish forces were confronted with an offensive by Syrian government forces aided by Russia. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had shown some vocal support for Turkey, but most Western countries had condemned Turkish incursions against the Kurds in northern Syria. Orbán’s main concern was the spectre of a new immigration crisis in the Balkans resembling that of 2015, which Turkey had the power to prevent or provoke. Hence, while holding talks with Erdogan, Orbán vowed to strengthen the protection of Hungary’s southern border when Turkey sent migrants to the Greek border. Together with Poland, the Czech Republic and Austria, Hungary was also one of Greece’s staunchest supporters during the latest migrant crisis unleashed by Turkey, sending reinforcements to defend the Greek border. Even before that, Hungary had for several months been under increased pressure from illegal immigrants trying to break through its southern borders, and it was already preparing for a repeat of the 2015 crisis, with some 100,000 illegal immigrants stuck in the western Balkans by the end of last year. During the migrant crisis provoked by Ankara in March, Bulgaria also sent reinforcements to its own border with Turkey and opened a dam on the Evros River at the request of Greece, in order to make the crossing of the river separating Greece from Turkey more difficult.
Due to Turkey’s role in bringing thousands of migrants to its land border with Greece and in encouraging others to make their way to the islands of the Aegean Sea, Athens suspended all asylum applications for a month starting from March 1, so that those who got through could be detained and sent back rapidly, in order to dissuade others from trying their chances too. This decision was criticised by the EU. However, while repelling migrants in a more brutal manner than Hungary did in 2015, Greece benefited from much broader support from the EU, certainly in large part due to Turkey’s ruthless behaviour, with interior minister Süleyman Soylu going as far as to say on March 5 on CNN Turkey that over one million refugees would soon try to make their way to Europe and that many a European government would fall, European economies being destabilised by such massive arrivals and Europeans not being able to do anything about it.
Will the current pandemic change attitudes towards external borders and illegal immigration?
European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen called Greece “Europe’s shield”, and Ylva Johansson, a Swedish socialist who is EU commissioner for home affairs, indicated that EU asylum law allowed for some flexibility under exceptional circumstances, although she later on warned that Greece had to uphold the right to asylum.
Because Turkey withdrew the migrants from the Greek borders on March 27, explaining its move as a response to the coronavirus epidemic, at the beginning of April Greece ended its month-long suspension of asylum applications. However, since the coronavirus pandemic has only grown worse, Hungary has not reopened access to its transit zones, de facto keeping in place its own suspension of asylum applications. In any case, the same Süleyman Soylu boasted that migrants would be back on the Greek border as soon as the epidemic was over, but on April 13 it was revealed that, based on new satellite evidence and intelligence reports, the Greek government believed that Ankara was once again releasing tens of thousands of migrants from its deportation centres and moving groups of migrants to Turkey’s shores, to places where Greek islands are just kilometres away.Contrasting with Turkey, Greece, having reacted to the coronavirus epidemic at an early stage just as the V4 countries did, had only 2,235 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 113 dead by April 20. The fact that the pandemic is clearly out of control in Turkey is one more reason for Greece and the countries of the Balkans and Central Europe not to let illegal immigrants land on their shores or cross their land borders.
With the coronavirus pandemic, even the left-wing government of Giuseppe Conte in Italy finally decided on April 7 to again close ports to non-Italian ships transporting illegal immigrants rescued in the Central Mediterranean, usually off the coast of Libya. Although the decision was officially motivated by the fact that Italy cannot be considered a safe country in the current situation, this has brought us back to the same situation as when Matteo Salvini was interior minister. Even when the situation in Italy improves, Rome will certainly have to protect its territory from a new wave of the epidemic coming from abroad, and this will include the need to fight illegal immigration from Africa and the Middle East, where the SARS-2-Cov virus has also propagated widely. On April 9, Malta too closed its ports to ships transporting illegal immigrants. On April 13, the Maltese government called for urgent intervention by the EU in Libya to stop “over 650,000 people [waiting] to leave Libyan shores for Europe”. Valletta wants the EU to “boost the empowerment of the Libyan Coast Guard in enhancing the control of its borders, as well as concretely ensuring that Libya represents a safe port for the disembarkation of migrants.” So again, because of the current pandemic, a leftist (Labour) government is asking for policies similar to those previously enforced by Matteo Salvini when he was the interior minister and deputy prime minister of Italy, and also to those which have been advocated for years by Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán and other leaders of the V4, including the PiS-led governments of Poland since late 2015.
In contrast to Libya, Morocco is a stable and well-governed country, and the social distancing measures put in place to fight the pandemic have made it almost impossible for migrants to reach the coast and make their way to Spain on the so-called Western Mediterranean route. But even before the current pandemic, and in spite of its pro-migrant rhetoric, the government of socialist Pedro Sánchez had already reverted to a policy of clamping down on illegal immigration in 2019. Contrary to its early promise made to leftist voters in 2018, Sánchez’s government even continued the previous centre-right government’s appeal against the 2017 decision of the European Court of Human Rights to forbid “hot returns” of illegal immigrants at its land border with Morocco in Ceuta and Melilla. And Spain won its appeal: last February, the European Court ruled that such express deportations of migrants caught just after they have illegally crossed the border are not in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights as “the applicants had in fact placed themselves in an unlawful situation when they had deliberately attempted to enter Spain (…) by crossing the Melilla border protection structures as part of a large group and at an unauthorised location, taking advantage of the group’s large numbers and using force”, instead of making use “of the official entry procedures existing for that purpose”. It is thus going to be much harder for pro-immigration officials in Brussels to continue attacking Hungary for its policy of express deportations of illegal immigrants caught near the border, as both Greece and Spain have now been officially authorised and even encouraged to enforce such hot returns on their land borders with Turkey and Morocco.
In a late move decided on March 17, the whole of the EU closed the block’s external borders to non-EU nationals. The V4 countries had provided the first impulse by announcing the closure of their national borders to foreigners from March 12. They were quickly followed by Germany, and it was only then that the Western European countries agreed to a closure of the EU external borders. However, by then the epidemic had already propagated widely in the western part of the continent, and sealing the external borders no longer made much sense. Nevertheless, when the spread of the disease is at last under control, keeping the border partly closed – with stringent controls and compulsory quarantine for people flying to the EU or landing in European ports or crossing the EU’s land borders – will make sense for as long as we lack a vaccine or cure for COVID-19. In this situation, allowing illegal immigration to continue on its previous scale would be simply reckless on the part of European leaders.
Before the epidemic wreaked havoc in Europe in late February, illegal immigration had been on the rise again, and by mid-April Italy was under renewed pressure with several landings in Sicily, and local mayors asking for governmental action to secure those arrivals in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, so that efforts made by Italian citizens to contain the disease would not be ruined by uncontrolled immigration. The number of immigrants landing in Italy in January 2020 was almost eight times as high as in January 2019. While only 2,476 illegal immigrants landed in Italy in the first eight months of 2019, when Matteo Salvini was interior minister in the Lega–M5S coalition government, 7,611 landed in the five months between September 2019 and January 2020, with the new leftist PD-M5S coalition in power. In the Eastern Mediterranean, over 71,000 illegal immigrants arrived in Greece from Turkey in 2019, compared with less than 57,000 in 2018, and at the beginning of this year Greece was expecting at least 100,000 in 2020, as only a very small proportion of those migrants were being sent back to Turkey under the 2016 EU–Turkey agreement. There are already an estimated 110,000 people living in migrant facilities in Greece, including 40,000 in overcrowded camps on five islands in the Aegean, some of which have been placed under quarantine because of cases of COVID-19.
Talking very much like the V4 countries, Austria’s chancellor Sebastian Kurz has warned his European partners not to bow to the pressure exerted by Turkey, predicting that if we accept the people Erdogan sends to the border, then millions more will come. A debate is now emerging in Western European countries as to the stubborn ideological refusal to close national borders which has led to the current catastrophic situation, and the likes of Conte, Sánchez and Macron will have to explain to their voters why they had to wait for the Visegrád Four to lead the way.
This article was originally published on Kurier.plus by the Felczak Institute of Polish–Hungarian Cooperation.