Several months ago, when Hungary announced it was going to build a wall along the border with Serbia, I realised that the consequences of such an act could be very serious. When I say ‘serious consequences’, I am not referring to the Hungarian-Serbian relations (between an EU member state and an EU candidate state), but to the European identity itself.

Truly horrific images coming in every day from the Hungarian-Serbian border, and from other countries on the so-called Balkan refugee route (Greece Macedonia, and now Croatia) are the result of policies that favour walls instead of freedom of movement, repression instead of solidarity. In the end, the consequences of these policies may be catastrophic for Europe, although this claim may be perceived as exaggerated at this moment. All of ‘us’ (Europeans) should ask ourselves:

  • How did we come to a situation where an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees into Europe results in a humanitarian crisis?
  • What should we do in order to prevent the crisis from turning into a catastrophe?

In September 2015, hundreds of desperate people began to walk on foot on one of the major highways in Central Europe because they were forbidden to take the train in Budapest. The image of a huge column of people walking along a European highway, with cars passing by and refugees waving an EU flag will probably be published in history books in the future. How could we allow hundreds of people who already walked and travelled thousands of kilometres from their homes to be forced to do something like that? These images of thousands of people suffering in the middle of Europe has become an integral part of the European identity. It’s up to us to decide what goals we have, and what values we will chose. The answers to these questions and the actions we take will reshape our common identity. We also have to pose a serious question: what did we do wrong? And what should we do to prevent these situations from happening again?

All of us who are living in the countries on the transit route are witnessing an unprecedented crisis that Europe has not experienced since the end of World War II. I live in a former Yugoslav country, so I know very well what a refugee crisis means: hundreds of thousands of people were expelled from their homes during the brutal Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. As someone who has been actively involved in transitional justice issues in the counties of former Yugoslavia, I assumed that the enormous number of refugees from the Middle East (Syria particularly) would be something I could psychologically handle using my personal experience with victims of the 1990s wars.

But, this refugee crisis is something different. These people (families with children, old people, men and women) have experienced a horrific journey from their homes to Serbia. More than 120.000 refugees have passed through Belgrade. They usually spend one or two days sleeping in parks near the Belgrade bus and train station, before they continue their journey north, to Hungary. Several times I went to these parks. I spoke with dozens of people, the majority of them coming from Syria. Some of the experiences from the Syrian civil war they shared with me are simply horrid (particularly the ones of those who left the ISIS-controlled territories). Almost all of them want to go to Germany, and they pay the smugglers huge amounts of money to reach Hungary and Austria.

Although there are a number of organisations (both international and national ones) providing help, it is not enough. As I am writing this blog, hundreds of people are sleeping in the open air in Belgrade, with volunteers begging Belgrade residents to provide warm clothes and blankets.

The Dublin regulations have collapsed. The European Union needs to adopt new, coherent policies to effectively address the current situation. The shame and blame game between EU member states should be avoided, because it could lead to further fragmentation of the integrated EU immigration policies, and to even more divisions between the EU member states, who are already deeply split over the proposed quota system. EU member states from Central and Eastern Europe especially refuse to accept a mandatory scheme. These divisions, as well as the – often shameful – images of the treatment of the refugees will weaken the EU’s soft power, which can lead to a marginalised position of the EU in international relations. Therefore, one of the causes of the current refugee crisis is to be found in the lacking and dysfunctional Common Foreign and Security Policy.

I would normally avoid criticizing the policies of some of the EU member states, but the current refugee crisis fragmented the European public space so much, that I feel compelled to speak up. The Visegrad group (Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland), Denmark, Romania, Bulgaria and the United Kingdom, and their reluctance to assist in this pan-European crisis may damage not only the EU’s ability to solve the current crisis, but the European identity itself. The Hungarian government in particular should be warned that it has to respect all the UN conventions concerning refugees and human rights, as well as the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, as Chancellor Merkel already did earlier.

At this moment, the European Union must act decisively, effectively and rapidly. It has to:

  • provide help to those member states that are most affected by the refugee crisis;
  • give humanitarian aid to the EU candidate states (particularly those from the Western Balkans), in order to cope with the crisis;
  • develop mechanisms that monitor the human rights issues in those member states that are most affected by the refugee crisis (including mechanisms that would sanction human rights abuses);
  • re-negotiate a new agreement that would replace (or improve) the Dublin regulation.

As walls and fences and wires with razors have been erected in the middle of Europe, no one actually knows what the current crisis might bring. When Hungary adopted new strict anti-immigration laws, thousands of refugees were trapped in the Western Balkans, and they have already started to look for alternative routes through Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia and other countries. Therefore, we should ask ourselves: do we really want walls in the middle of Europe in 2015? Is that the solution to the refugee crisis? I believe it is not, and as the UN agencies warn, these policies may only provoke further chaotic situations, with terrible consequences.

Srdjan Hercigonja (Serbia) holds an M.A. in International Relations and International Security from the University of Belgrade. He interned at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, at UNDP/SEESAC, and at the Serbian National Assembly. With expertise in human rights and transitional justice, he is working within the Initiative for Contemporary Art and Theory on projects dealing with the consequences of political and economic transition in post-Yugoslav countries.

This text was first published at FutureLabEurope blog. 

Srdjan Hercigonja

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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