Eastern Europe slams doors on refugees from Middle East
States with history of conflict and emigration show little desire to help new arrivals
Migrants wait for Macedonian police to allow them to cross the border along the Greek-Macedonian border, near the town of Gevgelija, on Friday. Photograph: Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images
A migrant family who have just crossed the border from Serbia into Hungary walk towards buses organised by the police that will take them to a nearby reception centre close to the village of Roszke, on Friday. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
The truck was abandoned pointing west, towards what the 71 people locked inside hoped would be a safe and prosperous future, and away from whatever misery they were leaving behind, whether war, persecution or unremitting poverty.
The journey into Austria was also supposed to deliver them safely from eastern Europe, where states with recent experience of conflict, economic hardship and mass emigration are doing almost nothing for this new generation of refugees.
With Slovakian livery and Hungarian number plates, and operated by suspected traffickers from Bulgaria, the lorry may become a symbol not only of the migrants’ plight and the European Union’s inaction, but of eastern Europe’s shoddy role – part-callous, part-criminal – in this crisis.
Whether from the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, or the last decade’s westward flow of huge numbers of jobseekers from Poland, the Baltic states and Romania, the people of eastern Europe are familiar with the need to leave home to find a brighter future.
But now their leaders want only to keep shovelling migrants west, pandering to cries for tougher action from far-right groups, as the region’s criminals make a killing by smuggling desperate people through ever-tighter borders.
Hungary has made the most headlines, with prime minister Victor Orban ordering the construction of a four-metre-high security fence along the country’s 175km border with Serbia; razor wire is due to be in place by Monday.
Orban has rejected an EU plan to distribute refugees around the bloc as “mad and unfair” and warned that “a modern mass migration could take place of millions, even tens of millions and even hundreds of millions.”
“There is no way back from a multicultural Europe. Neither to a Christian Europe, nor to a world of national cultures,” he said in June. “If we make a mistake now, it will be forever.”
Neighbouring Slovakia has said it will accept 200 refugees from the Middle East, but it only wants Christians because, among other issues, the country doesn’t have any mosques.
“Since Slovakia is a Christian country, we cannot tolerate an influx of 300,000-400,000 Muslim immigrants who would like to start building mosques all over our land and trying to change the nature, culture and values of the state,” Slovak prime minister Robert Fico said earlier this year.
Echoing comments from Orban that there “is a clear link between illegal migrants coming to Europe and the spread of terrorism”, Czech president Milos Zeman said in June that “by accepting the migrants, we strongly facilitate Islamic State’s expansion to Europe.”
After police fired teargas to stop migrants breaking out of a camp last month, Zeman said: “Nobody invited you here… If you are already here, you have to respect our rules. And if you don’t like it, go away.”
Poland recently accepted 2,000 refugees to ease pressure on Italy and Greece, but resists calls for more even distribution of refugees from the Middle East, with new president Andrzej Duda also citing the need to prepare for a possible influx from Ukraine.
“If the conflict escalates again, many more refugees will come to us,” Duda said this week, claiming there were “already indications that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians want to flee to us.”
“Other European countries should consider that when we talk about a willingness to help,” he added.
While resisting distribution of refugees around the EU to reduce the burden on the most popular states for migrants like Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, eastern European countries increasingly characterise the crisis as a security issue.
Hungary is building its fence, and is sending more than 2,000 police to the Serbia border to form rapid-reaction “hunting” units and may also deploy the army.
Bulgaria fears the fence will re-route migrants through its territory, and has deployed 25 soldiers to help police near the Macedonian frontier, while Czech finance minister Andrej Babis said this week that “we have to engage Nato” to guard EU borders against illegal migrants.
It would take a great deal of EU cash to persuade eastern European states to agree to a major quota scheme, and refugees may resist being sent to Latvia or Bulgaria when their hearts were set on life in western Europe.
What Europe and the refugees need above all, however, is uncharacteristically swift, bold and co-ordinated EU action. “Either there’s solidarity or don’t waste our time,” Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi reportedly told a summit of EU leaders in June, when they baulked at distributing a mere 40,000 refugees around the bloc.
“If this is your idea of Europe, you can keep it.”