New barbed wire fences are being erected across Europe’s eastern borders. Many of these barriers are between the EU and Russia or Russian-friendly states like Belarus, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But they also stop migrants and asylum seekers from entering the bloc.
At the beginning of November, Polish soldiers began work at the country’s border with Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania. They laid out long coils of razor war and plan to install cameras and border guards to patrol the area, reported the news agency Associated Press (AP) in a feature.
The Cold War officially ended in 1989 when the Berlin wall came down and the former Soviet bloc countries gained independence from Russia. In reality, tensions between Russia and the West didn't entirely go away and became much starker in the last few years, leading first to Putin’s annexation of Crimea and areas in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region in 2014 and then in February this year to the invasion of Ukraine.
'The barbed wire curtain'
"The Iron Curtain is gone, but the 'barbed wire curtain' is now unfortunately becoming the reality for much of Europe," Klaus Dodds, a professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway and Bedford college, part of the University of London told AP.
Professor Dodds added that the "optimism that we had in Europe after 1989 is very much now gone."
Finland too has announced that it will be strenghtening its 1,340 kilometer border with Russia. Just a month ago all of the country’s main political parties backed the building of a fence along part of the border. Baltic neighbor Norway, which also shares a border with Russia, has recently increased patrols of its oil fields and energy concerns in the region following fears of sabotage.
In part these border strengthening exercises are fueled by fears of a potential Russian invasion, but after the experience with Russian satellite country Belarus, many European countries also fear that Russia and its allies might continue to try and use migrants as a "weapon" sending them across the borders in great enough numbers to destablize European countries both just in terms of having to provide reception for them but also politically as the fear of any kind of 'invasion' causes political division and unrest.
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The barbed wire fences which are now being errected are not the first. Back in 2015 and 2016, countries like Hungary began installing checkpoints, fences and wire along its border to stop migrants crossing towards Western Europe. Since then other countries along the Balkan route have followed wholly or partially this trend, increasing border patrols and barriers in some places.
The barriers might be more effective at stopping individual migrants crossing at a particular point, but they would not keep out an army of tanks if Russia actually decided to invade. But this fear of a "hybrid threat" is what has motivated countries like Finland to start fortifying, reports AP.
Professor Dodds told AP that Russia has been "weaponizing migration for several years." He said the same techniques of destabilization with Europe could also be seen in how Russia approached the Syrian conflict. "Russia bombed and harassed Syria’s population in 2015 in a deliberate attempt to create a humanitarian crisis," explained Dodds.
"I think one of the difficulties we sometimes have outside of Russia is in actually appreciating quite how cynical, quite how calculating, quite how deliberate some of this work is," added Dodds.
Crossing the barriers
Life for the migrants kept out by the new barriers has been made more difficult in some cases. In Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, migrants who were found to have crossed from Belarus found it difficult to try and claim asylum because they were often refused entry or got stuck in a no-man’s land between the wires.
Some migrants who were pushed back to Belarus say they have suffered abuse at the hands of Belarusian guards, reports AP.
Some human rights activists in Poland held protests about the wall built on the border with Belarus. They told AP that they believe the wall "keeps out the weakest peole but not the most determined."
Anna Alboth, an activist from the Minority Rights Group in Poland, says she has seen migrants use ladders to scale the 5.5 meter wall or even tunnel under it.
Alboth says the people she has encountered in the forests of eastern Poland who did make it past the barrier have found things very difficult. She said she believed that one group of women from Sudan "appeared to be human trafficking victims." She also reports having met medical students from Russia who said they wanted to leave Russia because it was "falling apart and we want to live in a normal country."
Although the barriers might not stop all migrants, for governments they do work at "conveying a strong message to Minsk [the capital of Belarus] and Moscow [the capital of the Russian Federation] that Poland takes the security and integrity of its borders extremly seriously," said a Polish government official, Stanislaw Zaryn to AP.
"I believe that Russia will think twice before pursuing the weaponization of migration again."
Barriers push migrants down more dangerous routes
For Professor Dodds on the other hand, the walls and barriers simply cause migrants to take even more dangerous routes, or pay more to smugglers. This in turn increases crime and instability across society.
On the western edge of Europe in Calais for instance, fences several meters high around the ferry, lorry and train terminals abound. There are frequent police and drone patrols all along the northern French coast. And yet in the last few years, the number of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats has continued to increase.
From a sociological position, thinks Dodds, "building such walls and fences sucks empathy and compassion from our societies," and appears not to solve the problem that they were constructed to solve.
This article was largely based on a feature from Associated Press written by Vanessa Gera