Record levels of illegal immigration are straining relations in the bloc
With the flow of migrants from east to west across Europe hitting levels not seen since 2015, countries on the migrant route are being forced to take a tougher stance. Yet as they confront the problem, serious questions are being raised about the viability of the freedom of movement which forms a cornerstone of the European single market.
Truckers in Slovakia blockaded a border crossing with the Czech Republic in the small hours of Monday morning to protest against what they called “nonsensical checks” imposed by Prague, which have led to long delays in the transportation of goods. The truckers’ frustration is understandable, but the Czech government was left with no option other than imposing border controls after illegal immigration skyrocketed over recent months, increasing by 1,200% year-on-year.
The controversial controls first introduced in September were recently extended for another month and a half, aiming to halt movement further west, with Germany the most popular target destination for migrants. Many of the migrants arriving in the Czech Republic entered the EU from Western Balkan countries which have visa-free travel arrangements with the bloc, such as Serbia. Over 90% of those being detained are Syrian, and most are men between the ages of 20 and 40, according to local police.
Such migrants are viewed differently by Czechs to the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees who have entered the country in recent months. It’s felt that while Ukrainians had no choice but to flee to Eastern Europe, people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia who undertook complex routes passing through Serbia or Turkey to reach the EU fall into a different category. And the heavy strain being put on accommodation and services by the Ukrainian refugee influx means a wider migrant crisis is the last thing the region needs right now.
Yet, while it’s right for the Czechs to clamp down on people-smuggling operations, border controls with Slovakia pose new complications. For one thing, road checks are encouraging more lawless behaviour, as migrants increasingly attempt border crossings through forested areas, necessitating the deployment of police helicopters and drones with thermal imaging cameras.
And unilateral restrictions on movement raise uncomfortable questions for the EU as a whole. Indeed, the scale of the migration crisis and the strain it is putting on law enforcement cast doubts on whether EU freedom of movement can remain viable in its current form, when it’s so commonly taken advantage of.
These questions strike at the principles underpinning the European economy, as the Slovak trucker blockade highlighted. The truckers fairly argued that “if the Czechs have a problem with migration, they should solve it at the Hungarian-Serbian border”. Unilateral measures may be feasible for an independent country like Britain, but they’re incompatible with EU membership.
It’s for this reason that real solutions will only be found by dealing with migration flows at the fringes of the EU. On Sunday Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán applauded Italy’s decision to turn away an NGO ship carrying 179 migrants, only allowing children and vulnerable people to disembark. A similarly bullish approach will be required elsewhere too, and relations with external partners will also need re-examining. Gateway country Serbia recently ended visa-free travel regimes with Burundi and Tunisia, while also pledging to end similar arrangements with India and Cuba, after Brussels hinted that Serbia’s own visa-free regime with the EU could be suspended if it fails to stem migrant flows.
Faced with a migrant influx which is running out of control, the Czech government is calling on other partner countries to take similar steps. And as the EU battles a worsening crisis, the country’s border checks with Slovakia show that in order for freedom of movement to survive within the bloc, tougher responses to immigration will be needed all around its edges.