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Friday, January 7, 2011

Europe's new Berlin Wall?

The TurkEU Blog is returning from the dead (or at least the holidays)!

The big recent news is the Greek decision to erect a 12 km long wall/fence along its border with Turkey, to curb immigration flows across the border. The original plan - to build a wall/fence along the entire 200+ km border - was scaled back after heavy criticism from human rights groups and various European commentators. But even this smaller version is receiving criticism from international bodies like UNHCR, Amnesty International, and even the EU. A Commission spokesperson stated (on Jan 3) that
Fences and walls have proven in the past to be really short term measures that don't really help address and manage the migratory challenges in a more consolidated and structural way.
Greece’s Citizen Protection Minister Christos Papoutsis emphasized Monday that the wall should not be seen as being directed against Turkey as such, but was instead a way to "boost mutual cooperation" between the two countries. Exactly how a three meters tall concrete wall and barbed wire fence will serve to further cooperation across the border remains to be seen.

As always, it is interesting to consider European media reactions. Germans, in particular, of course have experiences with big walls and Spiegel Online has a summary of some recent editorials in German newspapers, most of which are critical of the wall, and some of which are quite eloquent in their criticism. But not all. Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung (center-right) makes the EU-Turkey link and
paints a scary scenario, arguing that the massive wall (which it describes as "absurd" since it won't work)
gives us a foretaste of what would happen if Turkey is, one day, accepted into the European Union. Europe's doors would be thrown wide open. At the same time, no one should kid themselves that a fence would stop people wanting to cross the border.
If a "massive wall" won't stop anyone wanting to enter Europe, I have to admit that it is unclear to me how Turkish EU membership would make much of a difference. But I am sure that I am missing the point. The narrative being perpetuated is that Europe is besieged by Turks (and other Others). Unfortunately, Spiegel Online also contributes to the defensive (and, in my terminology, Tragic) European narrative - of borders being overrun by ever increasing numbers of aliens - by uncritically reporting that
there was a 369 percent increase in the number of illegal immigrants crossing the northern Greek border in the nine months to the end of September 2010, compared with the previous year.
Scary numbers indeed! If they weren't entirely misleading, that is. A rather different perspective on the numbers issue is given by a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Metin Çorabatır, who points out (in an article by the Turkish online journal Bianet) that traffic in the Meriç region in north-western Turkey has quintupled mainly because there has been a roughly equivalent drop in the number of crossings via the Aegean Sea. Apparently, increased control of the Aegean coordinated by the European border control agency Frontex (Joint Operation Poseidon) has simply led crossings to shift to the north. So while more people cross the border in the Meriç region, Çorabatır notes that
There is actually no difference in the number of people who entered the country [Greece] in 2009 and 2010.
Maybe Spiegel Online should have mentioned this when throwing around the 369% increase number...

Btw, while we are on the topic of Europe allegedly being overrun by illegal immigrants, the Tragic narrative is in need of a Comic makeover. Frontex itself reported a 39% drop in all "illegal" immigration to the EU in its first quarterly report last year:
The quarterly report by the Frontex Risk Analysis Network (FRAN) for the first three months of 2010 showed significant drops in all indicators of irregular migration at the external borders of the European Union. These lows continue a general decreasing trend already noticeable in 2009 and are attributed to reduced employment opportunities for irregular immigrants in the EU, combined with stricter migration and asylum policies in Member States and more effective co-operation with key countries of origin.
This tremendous success, then, is made possible by xenophobic policies and depressed economies experiencing mass unemployment across the continent. Apparently, the best strategy for combatting irregular immigration to Europe is to make the continent so deeply unattractive that not even the persecuted or poor would want to come here. In this noble quest, maybe the "Thracian Wall" is a brave step in the right direction! As the Berliner Zeitung concludes, it will be difficult to ignore the
countryside-disfiguring border fence running across ancient Thrace. Fortress Europe? It has existed for a long time.
Welcome to Europe. Or then again, not so much.

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