May 11, 2023 - 1:00pm

Like much British political discourse, the ongoing small boats crisis in the Channel is utterly divorced from developments in the rest of Europe. Opponents of the Government’s scheme to deport irregular arrivals, as the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby demonstrated yesterday, cite Britain’s humanitarian obligations under the European Court of Human Rights as an immovable obstacle. Yet in the EU itself, national governments facing similar migration flows remove unwanted migrants through the simple expedient of ignoring their legal obligations, to their voters’ approval.

Following Hungary and Greece, who both push back migrants at the border (in Greece’s case, while denying it does so and clamping down on the pro-migration NGOs it blames for accelerating migrant flows), Lithuania is the latest EU country to take a proactive approach to border security. Last week, a new law came into effect legalising pushbacks of unwanted asylum seekers, regularising what was already the country’s unofficial but technically illegal policy. 

Even more dramatically, Lithuania has passed legislation allowing a corps of civilian volunteers, including citizens of other EU countries, to work alongside the country’s border guard service, as well as permitting them to use force to remove migrants if they deem it necessary. To make their task easier, the legislation covers a 5km-deep swathe of territory along the border with Belarus, from which journalists and NGOs are banned, and in which individual border guards are deputised to make instant decisions on whether to admit migrants or push them back.

Naturally, Lithuanian pro-asylum NGOs aren’t enthusiastic about these developments. “These amendments are against both international law and our own commitments,” Jurate Juskaite, the head of the Lithuanian Centre for Human Rights, told journalists, “They are immoral, they endanger the life and health of the people trying to enter.” But Lithuania’s conservative government, which passed the new law with an overwhelming majority in parliament, is unrepentant. “When it comes to national security and human rights, there are no easy solutions, but also there are no alternatives,” the country’s interior minister Agne Bilotaite told journalists.

As in Britain, Lithuanian NGOs are preparing to challenge the new laws at the European Court of Human Rights, and the European Commission has expressed scepticism at their legality. As elsewhere in the EU, there is a growing tension between the supranational bodies which have enshrined humanitarian obligations into law, and the growing impatience of national governments — and their voters — across Europe with an ever-growing migrant flow. 

This tension was highlighted by last year’s resignation of Fabrice Leggeri, chief of the EU Frontex border force, following accusations of Frontex complicity in migrant pushbacks by the Greek coastguard. Caught between the opposing wills of supranational courts and national governments, the EU is in a situation where its legal obligations have not yet caught up with its shifting political mood.

But even the EU’s Commissioner for Home Affairs, Sweden’s Ylva Johansson, who criticised the Government’s migration bill for “violating international law”, is herself striving to increase and accelerate the deportations of migrants from safe countries she claims have “overloaded” the EU asylum system, including by throttling visa applications from uncooperative source countries. Instead of being a uniquely hostile environment for migrants, Britain looks increasingly behind the new European mainstream.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.