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"The fence must go!" - reflections on the meaning of Europe's most recent fortifications in Hungary

25 years ago, a fence in Hungary made history. Today a new fence in the country is also making history - but for entirely different reasons.

Part of the fence Hungary is building on its border with Serbia. Demotix/Maciej Krawczyk. All rights reserved.More than 25 years ago a Hungarian fence made history. Back then, the gradual dismantling of physical border measures enabled thousands of East Germans to escape the German Democratic Republic (GDR) via Hungary. This historical move contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall and marked the start of a peaceful revolution that ended the German division. Today, the fence is being put back up: this time to shield the entire 175 kilometre long Serbian border from a dramatic increase of migration from Syria and Afghanistan.

To those of us born in the GDR, the news might bring back unpleasant memories of Europe’s divided past. But also someone who didn’t experience the limitations of physical borders first hand might perceive it as a significant step back in history. The new fence in Hungary provokes the question whether Europe hasn’t learned from past mistakes and symbolises exactly what’s going wrong with EU migration policies.

Indeed, Hungary isn’t the first European country setting up a fence in order to protect itself from an unwanted influx of migration. In fact, European frontiers have been increasingly fortified across the board over the last few years: the Spanish enclaves Melilla and Ceuta are surrounded by razor-wire fences, Bulgaria plans to fence its borders with Turkey, and Britain announced to recycle their 2012 Olympic wires to keep migrants away from the Channel Tunnel. Where there are no physical barriers yet, countries tighten their border management and asylum criteria, as recently announced by Denmark, Poland and Austria. And Italy’s Matteo Renzi even polemically suggested sending refugee boats back onto the Mediterranean Sea.

‘Better a wall than a war’

Whilst it’s easy to criticise these desperate attempts to deal with migration, it’s worth noting that they have (at least partially) arisen from a lack of collective solutions. At present, the Dublin Regulations largely leave the responsibility to deal with asylum requests with Europe’s border-states, where migrants most often first enter the EU. Hungary in particular has been struggling with an extraordinarily high influx of migration over the past year:

As more and more refugees have taken land routes via the Balkan region, the country is now facing a situation similarly critical to that in Greece. Over the last 6 months Hungary received more than 60,000 refugees, compared to 43,500 in 2014 and a mere 2,300 in 2010. In light of these numbers, it is hardly surprising that countries claim not to have time to wait for EU consensus, asHungary’s Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Szijjarto recently remarked.

Instead, they have started to take migration control measures into their own hands. In light of the lack of EU solutions and an ostensibly unmanageable amount of migration- could the fence be a legitimate solution?

1961 heard a similar argumentation. While GDR leaders were sure that East Germany would eventually become a much more attractive place to live than the West, statistics suggested otherwise: With 20,000 GDR citizens emigrating each year, the GDR was threatened to fall apart. So even though no one initially had ‘the intention to build a wall’, as Walter Ulbricht famously put it, the pressures of the Cold War eventually led Chruschtschow and Ulbricht to the conclusion that it was apparently necessary to start immuring the country’s borders in the summer of 1961. President Kennedy reportedly commented their move with the words “A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war”.

What’s striking here is that both the German and the Hungarian scenario present us with an either/ or dichotomy, suggesting only two possible ways out of an enormously complex situation. This is particularly conspicuous in contemporary Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is known for his xenophobic rhetoric. In both cases, it seems that populist solutions built on fears have undermined the search for truly better alternatives.

People are regulated, trade is liberated

While the core of the problem and its resolutions appear rather similar, it is equally necessary to highlight that the German and the Hungarian scenario have developed within different historical contexts. In the second half of the twentieth century, Eastern Europe was largely governed by Communist regimentation. Respective states were characteristically organised as planned economies, which functioned as closed systems. As the survival of the nation therefore largely depended on the presence and productivity of its people, it was in the interest of respective states to keep their citizens within this system.

In contrast, contemporary European border measures fulfil the purpose of keeping outsiders out. This might appear paradoxical considering that since the fall of the Iron Curtain the EU’s endeavours have largely revolved around the reduction of national boundaries: Today, Europeans have access to products from around the world, can freely choose to live and work anywhere within the European Union and even share the same currency, all under the motto of being ‘united in diversity’. The latest investments into fortified European borders suggest however, that some countries must be more different than others, to re-appropriate George Orwell’s famous phrase.

The Argentinian semiotician Walter Mignolo suggests that this paradox links back to the initial logic of global capitalism. Mignolo, who explores the topic in relation to colonialism and modernity, reminds us of a peculiarity of borders in contemporary global society: while people are being stopped, capital and commodities can freely flow. Or, to put it in Mignolo’s exact words, “people shall be ‘regulated,’ but trades shall be at all cost ‘liberated.’” If this was the starting point, then we seem to have to negotiate these costs that “free” trade entails. At present, the EU seems to spend considerably more efforts on deterrence measures than on the improvement of refugees’ reception conditions and their allocation. Fences that are designed to keep migrants from entering our economic system thus visualise the clear deficit that the current accounts hold in regards to humanitarian values. 

If not a fence, then what?

Evaluating a topic like migration control methods inherently contains the risk of simplifying the context of behalf on an ideological dichotomy. However, a consideration of the historical and symbolic meaning of border fences illustrates that it can be equally fatal to underestimate or downplay the latest trend for further border intensification in Europe.

Fortunately, solutions that go beyond reductionist or populist approaches already exist. Amnesty International recently published a report called “Europe’s Borderlands” which analysed the migration situation in the Balkan region. The publication gives recommendations for alternative short-term solutions including the opening of legal and thereby safer routes into EU countries and a significant enhancement of frontline support. Equally important, however, the report also states that the stress on Europe’s border countries “can only be resolved by a much broader rethink of EU migration policies”, namely the Dublin Regulation.

Unfortunately, the EU is not currently displaying signs of rising to this challenge. Even Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, was forced to admit this when the promised reallocation of 40,000 refugees from Greece and Italy had failed due to a lack of consensus amongst EU member states.

The Hungarian fence is a visualisation of this failure and symbolises the desperate need for truly better solutions that put humanitarian values first. An urgent review of the Dublin Regulation should be the minimum takeout of this symbolic history lesson. The EU needs to act now before its countries end up erecting a wall around Europe that no one intended to build.

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About the author

Antje Scharenberg is an author and activist born in the GDR. The privilege of being able to live in London today only reinforces her opinion that Europe shouldn’t be putting up migration fences all over again. Antje studied Media, Communication and Culture and writes about youth culture and generational politics in Europe. She is a member of European Alternatives and the Young European Collective, whose current initiative “Who, If Not Us?” aims at empowering the continent’s young generation.


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