Fortress Europe: EU turns to military to stop new migrant crisis

Troops respond to Belarus surge as fears grow of Afghan refugee influx

Members of an armed Lithuanian police unit arrive at a refugee camp amid a surge of arrivals from neighbouring Belarus. AP
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Determined not to open Europe’s borders to another wave of refugees, the EU is preparing to guard its frontiers with a growing reliance on military might.

Fears of a new refugee crisis are increasing as the Taliban gain ground in Afghanistan and Iraqi migrants are being ferried to the European Union’s eastern borders.

After an influx in 2015 that caused a bitter political backlash, the message from European leaders is that there can be no repeat. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the face of her country’s open-border policy six years ago, says that Berlin “cannot solve all of these problems by taking everyone in”.

In the past week, Lithuania has agreed to build a new border fence topped with razor wire, while Latvia sent troops to push migrants away.

Watchdogs are concerned by reports of migrants being forced back across the EU border to Belarus and harassed by warning shots and patrol dogs.

People travelling to Europe can expect to face drones, army troops and more guards from the EU’s border agency Frontex.

Based in Poland, Frontex began life as an organising centre for national border guards but is now a patrol corps in its own right that hopes to expand to 10,000 recruits.

The agency uses planes, helicopters, sea vessels, patrol cars and other equipment, such as heartbeat detectors, to root out illegal migrants in what experts consider a growing militarisation of its operations.

Airbus supplies Frontex with drones equipped with infrared vision to monitor the Mediterranean. Guards are allowed to use service weapons.

“It’s gone from being a co-ordinating agency to a full-on Euro gendarmerie,” Alexander Clarkson, a migration expert at King’s College London, told The National.

“Every time there’s a border crisis, Frontex shows up and says 'we can help if you give us more people and more money and more guns'.”

Although beset by allegations over its treatment of migrants in the Mediterranean, Frontex is in high demand from EU countries.

Poland and Lithuania want its help with arrivals from Belarus. France suggested the agency should tackle migration across the English Channel, while Greece believes that Frontex guards should work outside EU waters.

Latvia is the latest country to send in its own troops to tackle migration, after Austria expanded its military presence at the internal EU border with Hungary earlier in the summer.

Greece wants Brussels to offer more support to Turkey, which already hosts millions of refugees, to handle arrivals from Afghanistan.

With EU countries divided over how to manage migration within the bloc, they rely increasingly on outsiders, such as Libya and Turkey, to keep people out.

Frontex has working arrangements with 18 countries, including Ukraine, one of the main sources of people who are deported from the EU.

Italy renewed its support for Libya after a migrant influx on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa.

“Everybody agrees that it’s good to enlist third countries to stop migration, so that’s happening more and more,” said Mark Akkerman, a researcher at the Dutch Campaign Against Arms Trade.

“If you came from Libya a few years ago, you would get on a boat and at a certain point you would be stopped by Frontex or Italian naval operations.

“What you see now is that they’re being spotted by drones used by Frontex or by EU member states, and then they will contact the Libyan coastguard to pull you back.”

Belarus flashpoint

Iraq is the most recent country enlisted to help after many of its citizens crossed from Belarus into Lithuania, the EU’s latest border flashpoint.

Brussels suspects Belarus of funnelling people to the border wilfully. After talks with the EU, Iraq stopped flights to Belarus and repatriated 370 people.

Latvia this week began pushing people back into Belarus despite concern from watchdogs over the use of force against migrants.

“Belarus’s weaponisation of migrants does not absolve Latvia and Lithuania of refugee rights obligations or justify pushbacks,” said Nils Muiz, a European director for Amnesty International.

Mr Akkerman described a repetitive cycle in which migrants are blocked at one border before seeking another entry point.

“Every time a border gets militarised, migrants are pushed to other routes, to more dangerous routes,” he said.

“Then that becomes a big problem in the eyes of the EU and they put more focus and more militarisation on that route.”

People will still get through but it will slow down the process
Alexander Clarkson, migration expert

Some EU countries want to deter migrants from coming in the first place by signalling that they will be deported upon arrival.

Six countries caused an outcry by announcing that removals to Afghanistan must continue despite the Taliban advance.

Germany and the Netherlands backed down and suspended deportations, but others, including Austria and Greece, plan to press ahead.

Dr Clarkson said the EU’s efforts would not prevent a wave of migration from Afghanistan, but would slow it down and soften the political effect.

“If you’re an Afghan migrant, they are not going to be nice,” he said of Frontex guards. “They have a paramilitary mentality. If they are tasked with guarding the borders, that’s what they are going to do.”

The Afghan diaspora in Europe means that migrants who get through may be able to settle in relatively unnoticed, he said.

“People will still get through but it will slow down the process, whereby bit by bit refugees will arrive in Europe,” Dr Clarkson said. “That doesn’t mean that the migration won’t happen.”

Updated: August 14, 2021, 6:00 AM