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Refugees Magazine Issue 113 (Europe : The debate over asylum) - Knocking on Europe's door

Refugees Magazine Issue 113 (Europe : The debate over asylum) - Knocking on Europe's door
Refugees (113, 1999)

1 January 1999
But many more people still want to come.

People are trying ingenious ways to reach the continent

Austrian journalist Eva Menasse recently visited that country's frontier with Hungary for a firsthand look at the problem and filed this report for REFUGEES:

It was, according to one Greek coast guard official "the most inhumane sight I have ever seen." One hundred and sixty-seven Iraqi Kurds, half of them children, were packed into the hold of a decrepit 66-foot long fishing smack in a space designed for 10 people. They had received no food or water for five days, after paying the equivalent of $3,000 for a "trip to a better world." Instead, according to the official who intercepted the craft as it attempted to land the Kurds on the island of Crete recently,"When we found them, they were as good as dead."

The Kurds had gambled their life savings in an attempt to gate-crash Europe. As the continent has effectively closed its doors to economic migrants and made it increasingly difficult for bona fide refugees to receive asylum, people are trying increasingly ingenious means of entering.

Fleets of rusting tramp steamers, fishing smacks and tiny sail boats regularly leave ports on the eastern Mediterranean, from Algeria and Tunisia, full of Africans or Middle Easterners determined to reach Greece, Italy or France. Other people from as far away as Afghanistan and Bangladesh, trek overland on foot, bus, truck or train, trying to gain entry through eastern and central Europe.

The cold-war divide between East and West, Winston Churchill's so-called Iron Curtain, may have long since disappeared, but Europe today is engaged in another type of conflict along its borders.

Beefing up operations

Germany has beefed up operations along its 1,600-kilometre eastern frontier where 7,000 border police are equipped with the latest high-tech gadgetry. Italian authorities have stepped up helicopter, warship and motorboat patrols along its 8,000-kilometre coastline as well as opening 'holding centres' for illegal immigrants. Greece, with a coastline twice as long as Italy's, has strengthened its defenses, but one official admitted recently, "Our coastline is almost impossible to patrol effectively."

All three countries are members of the so-called Schengen group of states, a border free, passport-free zone within Europe which includes France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Austria. At a September meeting Schengen representatives agreed to a tougher coordinated approach against the illegal traffic including expanded external border controls, increased checks at air and sea ports, the immediate deportation of illegal immigrants and sanctions against travel companies carrying passengers without proper documentation.

The situation may get worse before it gets better. German guards last year detained more than 35,000 'illegals', a 30 percent increase over the same period a year earlier. But the International Centre for Migration Policy Development in Vienna estimates between 150,000 and 300,000 people successfully entered western Europe last year without visas, joining anywhere from two to five million people already living illegally on the continent.

Officials estimate the trade in human beings is as large as the drug trade, netting ruthless traffickers who charge anywhere from $500 to $3,000 to smuggle desperate people, as much as seven billion dollars annually.

Genuine refugees may be among the major casualties of this escalating conflict, their legitimate claim for asylum being lost or drowned out amid the growing tumult and chaos.

This border is once again under siege; only the barbed wire is missing. Soldiers are back again, but this time it is western troops. As early as 1990, Austria deployed forces along the border to turn away illegal immigrants. Since then, night after night, 18-year-old recruits stretch out on their stomachs, a few hundred metres apart, staring into the dark through nightvision binoculars. The soldiers are on duty for weeks at a time, through both the ice and snow of winter and hot, mosquito-ridden summers.

Their reward is a 'catch.' A young Carinthian trooper has stopped a 28-year-old Romanian who lies face down, and he exults: "Amazing, for weeks nothing, and then two in two days." The once quiet border is at its liveliest at night when men, women and entire families with children attempt to sneak through the forest, past the watching soldiers.

While they patrol, their superiors play strategic games and smugglers are the main enemy. Technically, they are probably better equipped than their military and police adversaries; they listen to official radio transmissions and monitor troop movements. When one of their hideouts is discovered and dismantled, they quickly find another. They have time, they have money and enough clients who cannot complain.

People are transported in hammocks secured under railway wagons. They are crammed into hollow spaces in tour buses from which air conditioning systems have been removed. Some die from suffocation during the journey. Several years ago, smugglers simply threw eight dead Tamils from Sri Lanka onto the grass verge of a motorway parking area between Vienna and Salzburg.

Would-be refugees lie prostrate on top of freight wagons, near overhead power lines. There have already been many fatalities because of electrocution. One Kurd had to be cut free recently when he was unable to escape from his hiding place aboard a train. Smugglers advise their 'customers' to wrap wet cloth around themselves to outwit the army's thermo-binoculars, but this ploy works best in winter when it is easy to freeze to death.

People try to enter Europe for a variety of reasons, but the border here is closed to all of them - refugees whose very lives are threatened and those who merely wish for a better life

But what happens to them when they are expelled?

Austria has a treaty with Hungary allowing for the return of 'illegals' without any bureaucratic obstacles. Budapest has agreed to take back an almost unlimited number of asylum seekers and migrants because it wants to join the European Union and hopes that later, with European technical and financial support, it can shift the problem to its own eastern border.

Earlier this year, when journalists gained access to the Hungarian detention centre at Gyor near the Austrian border they found it hopelessly overcrowded with men, women and children all packed together in a single desolate barrack, cut off from information and with only emergency rations for food. And who knows what the situation is in other centres along the outer wall of Fortress Europe?


Traffickers trying to smuggle 30 Kosovars and Albanians into Italy in October began tossing young children into the Adriatic Sea when Italian police intercepted them.

Nine children, including several babies, were thrown into the waves in a rush to unload the rubber raft, but police dived into the water and rescued them.

"The crew had pistols. They threw the children in the water because the police were drawing near," one would be refugee told journalists later. "They threw in a baby of four months."

A local police chief said, "We almost couldn't believe our eyes. There was a moment we couldn't move." The group, including the children, were later reported to be doing fine.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 113 (1999)