Soldiers patrol Bulgaria's border.
Soldiers patrol Bulgaria's border.

It has been 34 years since the Schengen agreement removed most internal border checks in the EU, and nearly three decades since the Berlin wall fell. The feeling is that, for those inside it, Europe is open, but is that really true? A new study points out we have more walls than before.

"Member states of the European Union and the Schengen area have constructed almost 1,000 km of walls, […] since the nineties to prevent displaced people migrating into Europe," say the authors of the study, "Building Walls: Fear and Securitization in the European Union." 

The two academics, Ainhoa Ruiz Benedicto and Pere Brunet, describe not only physical walls, but also "virtual walls." "Maritime walls" have been created through the operations patrolling the Mediterranean. On land too, increased border control systems have crept back in, despite the Schengen agreement. The idea of 'Fortress Europe' does not just keep people out but "has implications for [the] citizens within the walls," say the authors. These are "walls of fear stoked by xenophobic parties that have grown in popularity and exercise an undue influence on European policy," Ruiz Benedicto and Brunet say.

Greece No Borders

Barriers increase

The number of new walls built has risen in the last couple of years. "In 2015 the number of walls grew from five to twelve." By 2017, the total number of walls had reached 15. In fact, ten out of 28 member states now have walls on their borders to prevent immigration. Norway too, although not a member of the EU, has built a wall to prevent migration. According to Benedicto, Slovakia even built internal walls "for racial segregation." Controls internal to Schengen have increased from just three in 2006 to 20 in 2017. Many of these walls are electrified barbed wire fences, with thousands of soldiers and border guards deployed along their perimeter. When no physical barrier exists, border controls increase, like for instance on the Oresund bridge between Denmark and Sweden.

Building walls on water is the kind of miracle that might have been featured in the Bible, but the EU’s border control authority, Frontex, has managed to place barriers in the sea through maritime operations: (Mare Nostrum, Poseidon, Hera, Andale, Minerva, Hermes, Triton and Sophia.) The report authors argue that these operations were not just about "rescuing people" but rather "fighting crime." Their mandate meant refugees have become framed as an issue of "security […] and threat."

Walls built by European Member States 1990-2017. | Credit: Ainhoa Ruiz Benedicto · Pere Brunet. Building Walls report 2018.

Costs of control and surveillance

Surveillance has also increased, with IT systems used to control migration such as the Visa Information System, the Schengen Information System and the EURODAC data storage system.

In order to pay for all these checks and surveillance, the Frontex budget increased from 6.2 million in 2005 to 302 million in 2017. Of this, 53 million euros had been deployed by 2017 for deportation operations.

Walls of fear

There has been a "worrying rise in racist opinions in recent years," says the study. This xenophobia then demands more physical walls, to keep out those they fear. Keeping people out then leads to growing fears of hordes of migrants at the borders wanting to come in.

Far right demonstration in Germany

Across the 28 EU members, by 2018 there are already 39 political parties pushing a form of anti-migrant rhetoric, the authors say. In ten member states (Austria, Denmark, Germany, France, Finland, Sweden, Italy, Hungary, Poland and The Netherlands) these parties have a strong presence in parliament, and it is growing stronger. In Italy, the Lega (Northern League) are now running the government, along with the Five Star Movement. These parties often seek to criminalize the movement of people making it more and more difficult to seek asylum.

Refugees as a 'problem'

The study quotes the philosopher Emilio Lledó who points out that although "95 percent of analysts talk about the refugee problem, but only five percent analyze why. We must insist, demand, that they tell us the causes of people fleeing. Why is there a war?," it says.

And it is not just war which is causing migration. The authors point out that by making refugees and migrants the problem we are essentially ignoring all the things western states do (e.g arms trade, mining of resources, subsidized trade agreements) which essentially create the conditions pushing migration.

Refugees holding a protest on Mytilene square were attacked by members of a far-right group April 22 2018

Hope for the future

The report authors hope that their extensive analysis will start to make people think again about the state in which we find ourselves. They hope they can show that there has been a progressive militarization and securitization not just within Europe but the world as a whole. Making “the other an enemy […] isolates us from international social reality and distances us from policies committed to human rights and the culture of peace.” They put the choice before the peoples of Europe: Do we continue to reject these "so called 'strangers' or welcome them and learn to live together," in a different future.

This thesis was published by the Centre Delás d’Estudis per la Pau, The Transnational Institute and the organization “Stop Wapenhandel,” and forms part of a doctoral thesis by Ainhoa Ruiz Benedicto for the Peace Conflict and Development Program at Jaume I University. The authors analyzed data from Frontex, the Eurobarometer on Racism and look at EU, UN and NATO reports and commissions.


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