Monday, 10 January 2011

Mexico on the Aegean

Is there anything more controversial than a wall? From Berlin to Palestine to Mexico, border walls have often proven to be as incendiary as they are ineffective. Recently, Greece signaled to the European Union that it wants to build a wall along its border with Turkey similar to the wall that has been partially built along the US-Mexico border. But the European Commission was quick to shoot down the idea last week, saying walls and barriers are merely short-term measures that cannot solve the EU's immigration problems.

Greece has been struggling to deal with a huge influx of illegal migrants trying to cross its land border with Turkey after the EU cracked down on illegal sea crossings from Africa to Europe via the Mediterranean over the past two years. According to the Greek government, 200 illegal migrants are crossing its land border with Turkey every day. These migrants aren't Turkish, instead they have crossed through Turkey from countries further afield in Central Asia and Africa. And since Greece is in the passport-free Schengen Zone, once the migrants get in they can travel to almost all other EU countries (with the notable exception of the UK and Ireland who have opted out of Schengen) without having to show identification.

In the Autumn Greece asked Brussels to send EU border guards to help them deal with the overwhelming flow of illegal migrants. 200 guards from 24 European countries are now patrolling the Greek-Turkish border under the leadership of the EU border agency Frontex. Frontex says that since it started patrolling the border illegal entries have fallen by 44%.

Over the weekend Athens reacted angrily to the EU's condemnation of their wall plan, accusing Brussels of hypocrisy for shooting down the wall idea at the same time that they criticise Greece for not dealing with the illegal crossing problem. It looks like Greece intends to go along with the wall plan, though it is unclear where the bankrupt nation will get the money if not from the EU. Then again, if Greece says a wall is needed to secure the immigration policy of the entire Schengen area, the EU may just have to take their word for it. Because even though the continental EU is now one borderless zone, immigration enforcement is still a member state competency. That means it is now the responsibility of the border states to stop illegal immigration into the entirety of the continental EU.

The continued problems at the Greek border are likely to influence ongoing talks about Romania and Bulgaria joining the Schengen zone. At the moment once those illegal migrants enter Greece they must board an airplane to get to the rest of the Schengen Zone. Though these flights don't require a passport, they can be prohibitively expensive for an illegal migrant and many end up just staying in Greece. If Romania and Bulgaria were to join the Schengen Zone it would mean a passport-free land path would exist through the Balkans for migrants to get to Western Europe after entering from Turkey. It would also open a whole new, much larger Schengen land border with Turkey on the Bulgarian side.

From an American perspective the debate is interesting because in the US immigration and border control are federal issues, and it is outside of the competency of individual states.  But recently there has been conflict between states that border Mexico such as Arizona and the federal government. Border states are complaining that the federal government isn't doing enough to stop illegal immigration and that they are being overwhelmed by the number of migrants coming across the frontier. This was the genesis of Arizona's new "papers, please" law that requires police officers in that state to stop anyone who looks foreign and demand to see their identity paperwork. The federal government has sued Arizona over that legislation, saying the state cannot get involved in immigration because it is a federal issue.

Given the recent politics of that state, one can assume that Arizona would build its own 60 foot high electric shock wall with a moat full of alligators if they could. But they can't, because they don't have the authority. And perhaps that makes the most sense. After all, why should the entire United States' immigration policy be beholden to the whims of the states that happen to be along the border? In this vein, perhaps it is time for the EU, and Frontex, to become more involved in policing Schengen's borders. Right now, Frontex can only come in to patrol the border if invited to do so by the member state. Greece requesting this help in the Autumn was the first ever instance of this.

As long as border patrols remain a national issue, then the European Commission isn't going to have much say in what Greece does or doesn't do at the EU's borders. But without some kind of centralised policy, the stability and practicality of the Schengen area could be threatened. It is a tension that is likely to come up increasingly often in the future.

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