Shifting frontlines in the Schengen zone

Featured, Forced Displacement and Migration, News

By Sonal Marwah and Philip MacFie

The Schengen Agreement was conceived in 1985 in Schengen, Luxembourg and came into effect in 1995. Today 26 European countries (including four that do not belong to the European Union) participate in the agreement, which replaced internal borders with a single external border, within which people can move freely. Foreign visitors can travel anywhere in the area on one visa.

The operational framework of the agreement was fleshed out in a convention, which, inter alia, outlined the beginnings of a common framework on refugees. Articles 26 and 28 specifically state that signatory members to the Schengen zone are required to uphold the principles of the Refugee Convention; member states are therefore obligated to process asylum claims immediately upon a claimant’s arrival. The responsibility of member states also extends to asylum seekers who arrive through irregular channels: Article 31 of the Refugee Convention bans states from penalizing refugees who enter a country illegally.

Keeping Europe secure

Last December, in response to the November 13 attacks in Paris by so-called Islamic State jihadists, the European Commission proposed changes to the Schengen Agreement. The amendment would permit police and border officials to check the identification of EU citizens and of members of their families who are not EU citizens, in addition to the regular identity checks that non-EU visitors undergo before entering Europe. A systematic exit check of visitors would also be imposed. The intent of the amendment was to ensure that no persons who enter or exit Europe represent a security threat.

Investigations into the Paris terror attacks revealed dense intra-European connections among the attackers and the weapons they used. But some commentators, primarily right-wing politicians, also linked the attacks to asylum seekers and migrants. UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming declared, “Asylum and terrorism are not compatible with each other. The 1951 Refugee Convention is clear about that and in fact excludes from its scope people who have committed serious crimes…. Refugees should not be turned into scapegoats and must not become the secondary victims of these most tragic events.”

Whether out of fear of terrorists or from concern about over-extended resources, some countries in Europe are reluctant to help the migrants. In September 2015, the EU pushed for a deal to relocate 120,000 refugees across member states. Even a modest number was opposed by the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania (the last not a Schengen Area Member State). The UN warned that this lack of consensus “was a threat to European unity.”

That same month Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven declared, “My Europe takes in people fleeing from war, my Europe does not build walls.” But in 2015, an estimated 163,000 people applied for asylum in Sweden; as a percentage of population this was the highest rate in Europe. And, as Löfven explained, “The [asylum] system cannot cope.”

Thus, at the beginning of this year Sweden introduced border controls. On January 3, Sweden began to require transportation companies to ensure that all travelers entering Sweden from Denmark on their trains and vehicles have valid identification cards. Those without adequate documentation were to be turned back. Denmark announced similar temporary border controls the next day.

Germany, which has taken in a majority of asylum seekers, recently warned that Europe’s Schengen zone is “in danger” from the actions of Sweden and Denmark. Other critics argue that any form of national border control is contradictory to the principle of freedom of movement achieved with European integration. But the new controls are part of a broader European trend; border-tightening measures are increasingly being introduced in an attempt to contain or curb migrant flows. As of January 2016, France, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, and France had all introduced different border control measures.

It is important to note that temporary border restrictions have been instated in the Schengen area before. France introduced border checks after the London tube bombings in 2005; during the Euro 2004 football tournament, the Portuguese immigration and border police imposed internal border controls as a security measure. The Schengen Agreement allows member states to temporarily introduce measures for reasons of domestic security, as long as the controls are in place for a brief period only.

Will the Schengen Agreement survive?

Any refugee relocation program will have to take into account security considerations—legitimate or perceived. But seeing the arrival of asylum seekers and migrants as the threat to the Schengen zone is inappropriate. Rather, the problem lies in the EU’s inability to agree to a common migration policy. Focusing on the disorderly influx of asylum seekers and migrants into Europe has only shifted attention away from the divisive ideological views held by EU members. In the resulting chaos, the political far-right has gained ground and traction, spreading fear among residents of Europe by categorizing asylum seekers and migrants as threats to the Schengen zone. In reality, the people seeking asylum in Europe are fleeing the same extremists and terrorists who attacked Paris.

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