LAS VEGAS (KSNV) —
Border security is certainly one of the top issues dominating the political conversation in the United States, but there are comparable problems happening right now in Central Europe.
The RIAS-Berlin Commission has a mission of fostering journalistic understanding on both sides of the Atlantic, and recently sponsored a series of meetings between American broadcasters and European experts on migration, assimilation and border security with stops in Berlin, Bavaria and Croatia.
Part of the current wave of migration from the Middle East into Central Europe began with Syrians fleeing for their lives from a civil war that began in 2011. Four years later, the trickle was becoming a flood, and the geography was changing.
“Close to 200,000 people in the summer of 2015,” said Hungarian Ambassador to Germany Péter Györkös. “We realize that these people are coming at least from more than 100 countries, from Bangladesh to Morocco. From the Middle East, from Africa and even from other parts of the world.”
Györkös argues that his country built a barrier to immigration so that other countries deeper in Central Europe don’t have to.
“How many people were telling us it’s impossible to protect the green border? Give it up. It’s not only inhuman but was mission impossible. I guess the Hungarian example demonstrates that this is not only possible, but it is also necessary, it is feasible.”
As the border fence between Hungary and Serbia was being completed in late 2015, a steady stream of migrants began circumventing the obstacle by heading west from Serbia into Croatia and from there to Austria with a goal of Germany or perhaps Sweden–the two European countries with the most liberal immigration laws.
But since 2015, Croatia also has worked on stemming the unchecked flow of undocumented migrants heading west and north.
RIAS journalists visiting a border checkpoint at Ilok in Croatia on the Serbian border were taken to a steel fence where residents of a refugee camp approached from the other side.
“What is this crossing,” asked a young man who said he was a Kurd who left Iran for his safety. “Why crossing like this? We are not animal. We are human.”
He was joined by other men who said they came from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
“See camp,” gestured the first man. “Not good. We are not coming here for food. For bed. We are coming here for respect us. But nobody respects us.”
Ilok border guard Martina Halas says keeping the checkpoint secure is a difficult job, “Because we have a lot of illegal border crossings. This is an open concept refugee center. So they tend to hide in trucks and cross the border illegally, or they cross it here.”
Because of this, the vehicle crossing inspections have become much more robust.
“Last year we found around 500 in 110 cases,” said a Croatian big rig inspector. “This year we have by now around 160 cases with more than 600 persons.”
“You can never know when they will try something, so you have to keep your eyes open all the time,” said Halas. “We have a good border surveillance system here. We have a lot of cameras. So we can see them. They know that.”
For the undocumented immigrants who do manage to make it around or through those highly controlled crossings, it becomes much easier to reach Germany, where police don’t check everybody coming over the border from Austria. That’s because both countries are completely within the “Schengen”–26 European states that have officially abolished passport and all other types of border control at their mutual borders.
Bavarian State Police frequently set up checkpoints where undocumented immigrants are detained, but not every vehicle is stopped. Colonel Walter Buggisch pointed to an officer along the road occasionally flagging cars down to be inspected. In the United States, it might be referred to as profiling.
“They are doing this for years,” said Buggisch. “So usually you just look at the car, license plate, where does the car come from, who’s sitting inside, how does he look like. And then they decide this might be somebody who is interesting to check.”
The stop might be very brief.
“If he’s German or if he’s Austrian, OK. That’s OK if he only has a driver’s license. If he’s from another country in Europe or a non-European country he has to have some other sort of documentation. So we check the ID card, we check the passport. We have lots of opportunities to check whether they are forged or not.”
Most people are just sent along their way. If someone is seeking asylum, has no ID or displays forged papers, they’re held for investigation. But even if their application is ultimately rejected, they are in the country. And once in, it’s a long and difficult process to kick them out.
“It’s a problem to get this huge number of people out of Germany when they’re not permitted to stay here,” said Bavarian Police Superintendent Sandro Heymig. “Sometimes the home countries don’t work together with us. Because everyone who leaves has to leave the country with an ID.”
And if someone knows they are potentially going to be deported, in Germany there can be an incentive to delay the process because of the country’s humanitarian stance.
“They’ve been given money by the state,” said Heymig. “There’s a fixed budget for them every month so they can buy food, clothes. Get some leisure time also.”
Germany has been the most welcoming country for immigrants, largely because of its past.
“A history of dictatorships, a history of violation, fundamental violation of human rights,” explained Dr. Christina Krause of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation—a think tank associated with the centrist Christian Democratic Union political party. “A history of bringing war to other countries.”
She sees her country as having a responsibility to the rest of the world.
“So Germany knows that those who need protection will be granted protection and Germans know this. They should be granted protection here. We cannot send them back. We don’t want to. We want to become a nation of protecting and not of persecuting.”
Beatrix Von Storch is Deputy Leader of the right-wing AfD (Alternative for Germany) party and thinks allowing massive immigration is not the way to right past wrongs.
“We are willing to help people in need. One must say that very clear,” said von Storch. “But this does not mean that we can allow everyone to come to our country.”
Krause looks at the large numbers of migrants in terms of how they best fit into Germany.
“There are students coming,” she explained. “There are labor migrants coming. There are families coming. Seasonal workers, and all for different reasons.”
But von Storch sees the new arrivals in a very different light.
“I have traveled in a train and there were eight people speaking Arab, and I just didn’t feel comfortable,” she recounted. “Nothing happened, but you just don’t feel comfortable because so many things have happened.”
Von Storch sees Germany in a similar situation to the United States.
“I think it’s the right of a country to protect its border and decide whom they let in and whom not. I think this is the right of every nation in the world. And so, it’s the right of the Germans and it’s also the right of the American people.”
Some of the new arrivals are being successfully assimilated into the German workforce and culture. The RIAS group was taken to Berliner Wasserbetriebe (Berlin Water Works) and introduced to a 23-year-old technical worker who had six years earlier been a windsurfing instructor in Morocco.
“So, in these eight months [of job training], you really have the chance to get to know Germany better. The training gives you the opportunity to know many different Germans who have not heard stories of your home and have had to deal with refugees at all. It offers the possibility of knowing the German people.”
A trip to a school in the western part of Berlin was a chance to see young refugees taught not just a new language, but German teaching methods appropriate to their age so they would fit in with their new country’s schoolmates.
“I find this school very good,” a Syrian mother told News-3. “It is easier for the kids here to learn because the teachers speak both languages. And also the methods. So the kids really like to come here.”
Von Storch sees these as exceptions to the norm.
“It’s difficult for hundreds of pupils to fit into German society at school when there are no Germans at all. So the mother tongue of everyone else is represented except the Germans. So how will they fit into our society,” she asked rhetorically.
While von Storch wants to see the immigration from the Middle East and Africa come to a halt, she knows her country has a labor shortage and would welcome immigrants from other parts of the world.
“When we look at numbers we realize that Asians, from Japan, from Korea, from Vietnam, they fit into our society. We do not have problems with them. They are better at school for example like Germans. I think we could use millions of Asian people.”
But for now, most of the immigrants are coming by land, which is why Györkös is unapologetic about Hungary constructing and extending a barrier to—in his view—protect the countries within the Schengen.
“It’s not necessarily comfortable, but necessary experience,” explained Györkös. “Because in order to have order in the house, and to protect our people and even to protect migrants, it means you need control of the extended borders, and the extended borders have two pillars. One is the green border, one is the official border crossing points. And if there is no other way to protect the green border, you have to build a fence.”
Meanwhile, those detained indefinitely in the Serbian refugee camp on the border with Croatia feel like political pawns.
“Don’t people go to another country,” complained the self-identified Kurd from Iran bitterly. “We are in the game. The game of president of Germany country. President of England country. We are in the game.”
Ultimately there is no one solution that will satisfy all sides of the debate. Hungary has taken the hardest stance and is now extending its border fence, while Germany seems to be approaching a tipping point on its open arms policy toward refugees.
For now, in Central Europe as in the United States, it is a constant political battle, how to address massive numbers moving from south to north, and whom to allow in.
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