Twenty five years after the Iron Curtain fell, eastern European states are once again building walls to stop people fleeing westward.
But this time they are blocking African and Middle Eastern refugees fleeing wars and dictatorships. And the European Union (EU) is using regional governments as its frontline border cops.
But refugees have been forcing their way through. Thousands travelled through Croatia last week, after Hungary locked down its border with Serbia.
A new wall the border. It was constructed just in time for new anti-migrant laws coming into force on Monday of last week.
Migrant Solidarity (Migszol) activist Karmen Kollar went to the newly?blocked border at Roszke, southern Hungary on the Tuesday morning.
She told Socialist Worker, “Hundreds of people were stuck on the border—within hours it became thousands. People started desperately camping on the empty motorway.”
Refugees chanted, “We want the gate open.” The state responded with terror. Karmen said, “By Wednesday afternoon, people were gathering at one of the old border crossings. Then the anti-terror police turned up.
“Somehow the people had got hold of a loudspeaker and tried to negotiate with the police.
“In the end they started throwing empty bottles, and then two or three stones. I heard one of the cops say “finally”—and without warning they started pepper-spraying everyone.
“People tried to run, but the crowd was too dense. I saw people crying, throwing up. Some migrants pushed back, setting fire to T-shirts and throwing them at the police. The police answered with tear gas and water cannon.”
Serbian ambulance workers ended up hospitalised themselves after a tear gas grenade hit their ambulance.
The lockdown follows six months of racist scaremongering across the region. Jan Majicek, a revolutionary socialist in the Czech capital Prague, told Socialist Worker, “A refugee boat sinking in 2013 was reported as a tragedy. Now the media talk about a ‘migration crisis’.
“They talk of an ‘uncontrollable wave’ or a ‘threat to our security’. Along with Islamophobia, this created a toxic cocktail that’s helped the far right.
“The Czech, Slovak, Polish and Hungarian governments are all repressing refugees—and using this to raise military and police budgets. The most serious situation is in Hungary.”
Karmen said, “The new law is the culmination of a xenophobic campaign. The government put up
billboards in spring telling migrants, ‘If you come to Hungary, don’t steal Hungarian jobs’. But they were written in Hungarian, so the aim was obviously to create hatred.
“There’s opposition, but in this political atmosphere it can be hard to get a hearing.
“And the far right party Jobbik organises dangerous anti-migrant rallies—one of them forced refugees to be evacuated from Budapest’s Keleti train station.”
Hungary’s government in particular is also virulently Eurosceptic.
Both Jan and Karmen say the politicians are using the EU as an “alibi”. But Karmen added, “The problem is that there is some truth to it too.”
The EU’s Dublin Regulation say refugees have to apply for asylum in the first country they reach—and can be turned away elsewhere.
Karmen said, “These rules should be completely replaced. They are one reason the situation is so extreme.”
Both Germany and Denmark closed their borders before Croatia did. The authorities in France and Austria have tried to criminalise helping migrants—though resistance has stood its ground.
Meanwhile, Britain’s border at Calais is increasingly fortified. Cops pepper spray refugees there too.
EU politicians have criticised Hungary’s fence, but it was a condition of EU membership.
This follows a pattern already seen in Greece. The EU demanded a wall along the river Evros at its Turkey border. Hundreds of Syrian refugees held a sit-in protest there last week.
They rightly argued that this land blockade forces people onto the dangerous sea crossing. It has also given an alibi to any Greek politician who tries to use racism to shore up support.
Now EU border policies are poisoning the politics of newer eastern Europe members states in the same way. But here they are harder to resist.
For Those building a genuine left, the legacy of Stalinist dictorships remains an obstacle. And social crisis followed the fall of those regimes—with only glimpses of the kind of working class resistance that has shaped Greece.
Jan said, “We should demand our governments open the borders and stop their war games. But that’s only one part of our task. The other is to fight for better jobs, wages and welfare—to undercut the Nazis and racists’ claims that refugees are the problem.”
Much of the debate about how to stop the violence at the EU’s border has revolved around the need to “share the burden”.
But this reinforces the idea that refugees are a problem—and the repressive system that tries to control them.
It’s a contradiction Karmen struggles with. “It’s a big question and I don’t know what to do about borders,” she said.
“There needs to be some control. But the more I hear from the migrants, the more I think the EU shouldn’t get to decide where they stay.
“People might enter in one country, but have family in another.
“Why should we tell someone they have to stay in Hungary if they want to go to Sweden, for example? I believe they should have this freedom of movement.”
Abandoned in Belgrade
Hungary’s new law states that Serbia is a “safe country”. That allows the government to deport anyone coming through there—or jail them for several years if they enter Hungary.
Just a few dozen metres from Roszke’s closed motorway checkpoint is one the two remaining legal crossings. Karmen described a small, unmarked prefab building where a small group of people are allowed inside every 15 minutes.
“A Syrian man told me they’d let him in, kept him in a room for 30 minutes, then handed him some forms he couldn’t read.
“A translator told him to sign them. The forms said he had been returned to Serbia and wouldn’t be coming to Hungary.”
But Serbia is not a place where many refugees expect to find a future. British campaigner Tom Ullman went to the camp in its capital Belgrade.
Many stay at the camp because Serbia’s new laws mean refugees are kicked out of hotels after three nights. Tom said, “Over the past week refugees have had to face abrupt downpours.
“Heavy rains are followed by a flurry of activity as those without storm-worthy tents head for what shelter they can find.”
Muthanna told Tom he fled Syria after dictator Bashar al Assad’s secret police tortured him. But after a year in Turkey he pushed on to Greece in an overloaded boat.
Tom said, “Sombre stories are told, and affect the mood of the camp. A ship sank the previous week, its passengers only rescued because one of them happened to have a flare.
“But for all the suffering there’s a peculiar festival spirit where strangers become friends.
“The most joyous moment came when a local organisation brought supplies to make tea and music. Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans danced to familiar songs.
“We should be thankful to welcome such people into our countries.”
Racism helps our rulers
Our rulers’ biggest lie about border controls is that they protect the working class.
Even a piece in the supposedly liberal Guardian newspaper argued that letting in refugees would “hit the UK’s working class areas hardest”.
And some trade unionists argue that immigration harms workers’ wages and conditions.
But pressure on services comes from politicians slashing funding. Bosses push down wages and conditions.
There is plenty of wealth in our society. Workers produce it—and when we stand together we have the power to reclaim it.
The racism and repression we are seeing at borders from Roszke to Calais only help our rulers divide us.
The Communist Manifesto famously ends with a call for international solidarity. “Workers of all countries unite—you have a world to win, and nothing to lose but your chains.”
David Cameron understands this. That’s why he wants to extend the border controls we are seeing in Hungary throughout the EU.
Our side must understand that we can only win if we smash them.