Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the pulling back of the Iron Curtain, borders within Europe have largely disappeared. Now more than 400 million inhabitants of the Schengen area are allowed to travel freely throughout Europe.
Joining the Schengen area implies the end of border controls and changes security facilities. But has the opening of the borders really brought a United Europe? In the face of economic and identity crises, as well as growing migration flows, European countries are again strengthening their borders with walls, barbed wire and tighter controls.
Rise in xenophobic sentiments
Xenophobic sentiments are on the rise throughout Europe and right-wing parties are using anti-immigrant invectives to court voters. They are calling for the reintroduction of border controls, arguing that the Schengen area does not provide a sufficient safety filter. And their views have resonated with the voters. Right-wing populists are now represented in the national parliaments of almost every country in the European Union.
When in 2015 hundreds of thousands of people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea fled war and persecution, most European countries tried to prevent their admission. At the outer borders of the Schengen area, new barriers emerged and countries resumed border controls.
Almost 1,000 km of walls have been constructed in the Schengen Area since the nineties, more than six times the length of the Berlin wall, according to a report published on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall by researchers from the Transnational Institute. The researchers found that of the 28 EU member states, ten have built walls on their borders to prevent the entrance of migrants; namely, Spain, Greece, Hungary, Bulgaria, Austria, Slovenia, the UK, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. From only two walls in 1990, the number of walls increased to 15 in 2017. “Rather than building walls, Europe should be investing in stopping the wars and alleviating the poverty that fuel migration”, says Nick Buxton, editor of the report.
Several member states, including Austria, Sweden, Germany, France and Denmark, have also reintroduced internal controls due to “terrorist threats” or “threats resulting from the continuous significant secondary movements”.
Externalisation of borders
The Schengen area is reinforcing its external borders, but before migrants even get here, they have to pass through the countries on the European periphery that operate as borders before the borders. Since the beginning of 2000, Europe has been negotiating agreements to externalise border controls. It delegates this task to third countries, which are to contain migration flows as far away as possible from the EU.
Turkey, Libya, and certain countries in the Sahel region are being tasked with stopping and arresting migrants, even though these countries do not respect human rights, making Europe a party to human rights violations.
Despite the dangers, tens of thousands of migrants are still risking their lives to reach Europe. For over 20 years, countless people have followed the long and treacherous path. They drown in the sea and die in the desert, as silent, mostly invisible victims. When they finally reach Europe alive after all these hardships, many Europeans welcome them with hostility.
Is the Schengen area soon history?
The Schengen area was a response to the territorial fragmentation of the EU in the early 1990s and allowed the free movement of persons. Today new obstacles are being raised to stop those who want to travel to European territory. The migration debate focuses above all on the protection of Europe.
How many walls and fences will we build in response to the fears of migration? Do we want to live in a closed society, excluding all those that are beyond our borders? Or will we try to invent an open and responsible Europe that does the right thing to integrate refugees and treats migrants in a humane way?