Fences built along EU borders to curb migrant crossings

Attitudes harden ahead of expected increase of arrivals from Afghanistan

Migrants, mainly coming from Afghanistan and apprehended by Turkish security forces, wait for registration at a deportation centre in the Turkish city of Van which borders Iran and Turkey. Photograph: Emrah Gurel

Migrants, mainly coming from Afghanistan and apprehended by Turkish security forces, wait for registration at a deportation centre in the Turkish city of Van which borders Iran and Turkey. Photograph: Emrah Gurel

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Towering fences have been constructed along the European Union’s frontiers as member states brace for an increase in migration from Afghanistan.

Polish soldiers built six kilometres of razor wire fencing reaching 2.5m high along the border with Belarus, the defence minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, announced on Friday. The fence would “strengthen the borders”, Blaszczak  wrote, and “significantly hinder any attempts to cross it illegally”.

Lithuania has begun construction of a barrier it says will stretch 508km along its border within a year, while Greece announced it had completed a 40km fencing and surveillance system along its border with Turkey.

Further east, Turkey has also built a border wall along much of its frontier with Iran, a neighbouring state to Afghanistan through which migrants have long passed in a weeks-long journey on foot.

Fresh work to complete and extend the fences reflects concerns among EU governments and beyond that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan will cause mass numbers of people to flee to seek safety.

Attitudes have hardened since the surge of migration prompted by the Syrian civil war in 2015, particularly in EU border states.

The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, warned Lithuania that amendments to its migration system removed “significant safeguards”, prompting an exchange of letters with the government amid tensions over accusations of the use of “pushbacks”, or the forcible turning away of migrants, along EU borders.

‘Weaponisation’ of people

On the Poland-Belarus border, a group of migrants claiming to be from Afghanistan became trapped in a desperate situation as they were prevented from advancing by Polish police, and from returning by Belarusian forces.

Lithuania and Poland have accused the regime of Alexander Lukashenko in neighbouring Belarus of deliberately sending migrants across the border as a means of exerting political pressure against EU sanctions imposed in response to a crackdown on dissent.

EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said on Friday that the situation on the Poland-Belarus border was “not a migration issue, but part of the aggression of Lukashenko toward Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, with the aim to destabilise the EU”. 

The so-called “weaponisation” of people seeking asylum echoes accusations by EU governments last year that Turkey was organising migrant crossings into Greece as a means of pressuring the bloc for more assistance in hosting its population of four million refugees.

Turkey as well as Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan, have both warned that they do not have the capacity to host additional refugees.

Border crossings

Nevertheless when EU justice and interior ministers meet for an extraordinary meeting in Brussels on Tuesday, they are expected to agree to aim to persuade non-EU states to host migrants and refugees on their soil, in deals like one reached with Turkey in 2016 that is credited with curbing the last migration crisis by providing financial support in exchange for holding back border crossings.

The European Commission argues that there should be a convincing system to process applications for asylum from non-EU states, in order to avoid incentivising migrants to resort to using people smugglers in a bid to reach Europe over land and sea.

Most European countries wound up their evacuation efforts from Kabul airport on Friday amid a deteriorating security environment and with the withdrawal of United States troops imminent.

EU officials have expressed hope any Afghans with grounds for resettlement in Europe who were left behind would be allowed to leave by the Taliban regime once civil flights resume from the airport.

While Canada announced a pledge to resettle 21,000 from Afghanistan and the United Kingdom 20,000, the EU has not yet agreed a joint number.