Spotlight on Geopolitics

A few days ago while seeing the hundreds of refugees from the Middle East flock on Greek ferries, buses, taxis and trains in their drive north to the Macedonian border, I recalled a 20-page seminar paper I was required to write on the question of frontiers at Sciences po Toulouse.

The year was 2010, just one year before the start of the Arab revolutions in Maghreb, Egypt and the Middle East.

After briefly outlining the evolution of the European concept of frontier – the frontier as a zone like in the middle ages, or the frontier as a line like in our times – I dealt, as requested, with the question of human trafficking, illegal immigration and the options available for securing the EU’s external borders.

During the seventies I had completed my military training as a border guard patrolling Romania’s eastern frontier with what was then the Soviet Union. The reserve officers’ school provided me and my colleagues with the essential legal and logistical knowledge employed at the time to secure the country’s borders. That type of specialized knowledge proved of great assistance in 2010 for completing my assignment at Sciences po. The conclusion of my paper would not please many European policymakers, because it stated in no uncertain terms that the European efforts to make the continent’s borders impenetrable were probably doomed to fail and that a host of other solutions had to be considered in order to address the problems of smuggling, trafficking and illegal immigration.

Still, European politicians from Hungary to Ukraine or Estonia wrongly believe that a frontier can be secured by erecting fences and they are even willing to spend large amounts of cash to do so. Unfortunately, as a recent article published by American geographer Reece Jones (“Why Border Walls Fail”, Project Syndicate, September 2015) clearly proves, putting up fences between the US and Mexico, or as now around the European Union, only marginally slows down the influx of illegal immigrants. Moreover, as Reece Jones argues, fences are mainly meant to stop poor people from entering a richer country or region. That’s because people with means will always find alternative ways to reach their desired destination: fake papers and passports, bribes and so on.

At the end of WWII, according to a Canadian specialist, only five border fences or walls existed in the world, the best-known of them all being the Berlin Wall. Today we have no less than sixty-five, with two thirds of them having been built in the last twenty years. Expensive and inefficient, they stand proof however of flawed neoliberal thinking and vain efforts to securitize frontiers sometimes stretching for thousands of kilometres.

By abandoning such misguided efforts and by concentrating instead on slowing down or regularizing the flow of migrants, and by tackling the root problems that had forced them to leave in the first place, we will be in a better position to arrive at a humane solution to the plight of illegal migrants and refugees.

Sure, migrants should not be allowed to make a mockery of the EU’s external borders, even if all the billions spent on securing them were in fact a dodgy investment. Alas, most politicians would prefer to listen to sellers of border surveillance hardware than to finance a comprehensive study provided by geopolitical consultants such as myself, which would probably save their taxpayers large amounts of money. Migrants should be made to understand, as much as possible, that they should wait for their resettlement or asylum papers in the few “hot spots” (in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Greece, Italy, Serbia and possibly Bulgaria) created by the Union and the UN to that end, instead of arriving or stampeding in very large numbers inside the countries of their choice in Europe.

To be an effective deterrent against mass migration, however, such centers should provide decent accommodation and nourishment to refugees – which has not been the case until recently, according to the UNHCR – as well as fair and speedy processing of asylum applications that should become the norm and not the exception.

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