Europe facing a new migration wave

Image: Tobias Steinmauer/APA

One of the major train stations in the Austrian capital Vienna: the entrance hall just recently renovated, a stylish waiting lounge with around 100 chairs. As for the „Wien Meidling Station“, enough space for everyone waiting for corresponding connections. But not at the moment: All chairs are occupied with young male refugees from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Northern Africa. They sit there, all day and night long, everyone with one or two backpacks, staring at mobile phones. It is not clear what the young men between 16 and 25 are waiting for. Most of them look „stranded“, without any perspective where to go. In fact, their eyes look desperate, bored, apathetic, sometimes aggressive. The station police and also shop employees already observed that female travelers are already frightened crossing the waiting hall in the evening and night, although no incident was reported so far.

The rising numbers of refugees are being observed with some nervousness by politicians throughout Europe. The responsible authorities have been registering increased movement on the so-called Balkan route and across the Mediterranean for the last weeks.

The increase in the number of refugees is once again occupying domestic politics of governments like the one in Germany, Austria or Scandinavia. The current trend is mainly due to the situation in Turkey: the fear of deportation is growing among the 3.5 million Syrians who have fled to Turkey in recent years.

For some time now, the Turkish government has been pushing for “repatriations” of Syrians. Human rights organizations speak of a significant increase in deportations, often involving the use of force.

The background to this development is the Turkish parliamentary elections in the coming year. Aid organizations report that the mood among the Turkish population towards the Syrians who have fled has long changed. Not Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but the refugees are often blamed for the catastrophic economic situation in the country.

Politicians from nationalist parties in particular are calling for all Syrians to be thrown out of the country by 2026. The brutal approach has now led to many Syrians in Turkey organizing themselves into groups and making their way to Central and Northern Europe.

With the practice, Turkey is also violating the EU-Turkey deal concluded with the European Union (EU) in 2016. Among other things, the agreement stipulates that Turkey will take action against illegal migration to the EU. In return, the EU takes in Syrian refugees from Turkey and supports the country financially. Turkey should guarantee migrants “adequate protection” and “prospects”.

But not only the Turkish migration policy is a reason for the new migration wave: According to observers, the fact that migrants are increasingly going north has something to do with Greek border policy. Athens aims to let as few migrants into the country as possible. The officials systematically resort to methods that violate human rights.

In so-called pushbacks, people are collectively expelled without their claims for protection being checked. Numerous research documents this practice. The events are usually accompanied by violence. In many cases, even people who have already made it to a Greek island are rounded up, put on life rafts and towed towards Turkish waters.

Difficulties on the Balkan route also apparently play a role. Anyone who makes it to Greece and wants to continue to Western Europe first has to leave the EU and cross several borders in the Western Balkans, such as North Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. But even there, rigid border controls are increasingly being used.

The Border Violence Monitoring Network describes the situation as follows: “Systematic pushbacks by masked and armed authorities are a recurring feature … along the entire western Balkan route.”

The EU border protection authority Frontex confirms that more and more migrants in Turkey are switching to the route to Italy: “It is gaining in importance, even if it is not yet the main route. The main one is the Western Balkans route. But yes, we have noticed an increasing trend from Turkey to Italy and occasionally also to Albania,” a Frontex spokesman said.

This route has grown disproportionately, because the entire migration across the Mediterranean increased by only 55 percent. And this despite the fact that the Turkish coast guard has repeatedly reported that boats have been prevented from crossing to Italy. “We have an agreement. We are doing everything we can to cut off this route to Italy,” said Turkish Interior Minister Soylu.

Departures from crisis-ridden Lebanon are also increasing. Movements across the eastern Mediterranean are therefore increasing significantly overall.

Persistent but also new crises are responsible for the development. They affect both the home countries of the migrants and the so-called transit countries, i.e. the junctions on their way. In addition, travel restrictions due to the pandemic were relaxed again.

In addition to the general political instability in countries like Lebanon and Libya, there are negative effects of the Corona crisis on the economy: people cannot find work and are looking for it in Europe. Added to this are increased food prices due to the Ukraine war and a new flight from Afghanistan since the Taliban took power again.

The nationalities of the migrants from the Eastern Mediterranean also fit into these causes: they are mainly Afghans, Egyptians come second, followed by Syrians and Iranians. Those who are not entitled to asylum often leave Italy for the north – Germany, France and the Scandinavian countries are among the preferred destinations.

The Balkan route led migrants to Bavaria via Hungary and Austria. But Austria has recently strengthened its eastern border, people are moving north via Slovakia and the Czech Republic. German border officials therefore start to accuse their Czech colleagues of knowing exactly what is happening, for example, on the Prague-Dresden train route – and consciously looking the other way.

One Syrian in Vienna said they wanted to go to Germany so that their children could follow and go to school here. Everyone in the group would have a specific city as their destination because friends or relatives already lived there. “Germany is a big country. There is enough space for us there.”

Word has gotten around in Vienna and Prague that the German police are checking trains. It costs 400 euros to enter the country by car via one of the many country roads instead.

Unlike in 2015, the situation cannot be traced back to one reason – the civil war in Syria at the time – says a parliamentarian from a governing party in Germany: “The unstable situation in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq is currently coming together with the effects of the war against the Ukraine. Added to this are the geopolitical interests of Russia and Turkey and the lack of a consistent EU refugee policy.”

He refers to the situation in Serbia, for example, where the pro-Moscow government is increasingly allowing citizens from third countries to enter the country without a visa and head west. The behavior of Belgrade is “problematic,”: “Serbia is causing human suffering and destabilizing European states.” That must stop. The crisis cannot be explained by the behavior of Belgrade alone. The announcement by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he intends to send refugees from Turkey back to Syria, the uncertainties surrounding the new right-wing government in Italy, the state crisis in Lebanon and the rise in food and energy prices worldwide are also having an impact on migration movements.

Controls at the border as a solution, as announced by the Czech Republic and Austria at the border with Slovakia? The Ministry of the Interior is reluctant to ask. “We will continue to carefully monitor the overall development of the situation, especially with regard to the Czech measures on the border with Slovakia,” says one spokesperson of the German Interior Ministry. Christoph de Vries, German conservative MP criticizes: “If the interior minister is so concerned about the constantly increasing number of illegal border crossings, I wonder why she is not doing anything to counteract this, even though she has known about it for months?”

In any case, nothing is likely to change on the Prague-Dresden and Vienna-Munich route for the time being, with the newcomers sitting on every train. For many, encountering the police is synonymous with the longed-for end of a journey lasting months. When seeing the border police, the men immediately take their belongings from the hat rack, exclaim happily that they have no ID, and go with the police.

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