Development & Aid, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, Population

EUROPE: Schengen ‘Wall’ Moves Further East

Zoltán Dujisin

PRAGUE, Jan 24 2008 (IPS) - The enlargement of the Schengen free-travel zone has been celebrated as an opportunity to reunite Western and Eastern Europe, but those further east feel it was done at their expense, and some in the West have not welcomed the change.

The Schengen space allows for citizens of its signatory states to travel freely without border controls. All European Union countries except Cyprus, Ireland and the United Kingdom have joined it after the Central and Eastern European member states acceded Dec. 21.

Airspace borders will only be abolished on Mar. 29, 2008.

The free-travel treaty is welcomed for strengthening cultural and economic ties and helping tourism, but Westerners fear an increase in crime and illegal migration while Eastern Europeans complain of being cut off from the EU.

The new Schengen members have reinforced their eastern borders as their western counterparts suspect that illegal migrants might use Central-Eastern Europe as a transit to the West.

Ukraine, which harbours aspirations to join the EU, has been the loudest critic of the Schengen enlargement as its citizens feel a new wall has been erected between them and the much sought after West.

“For some countries with clear accession prospects, such as the western Balkan countries, this potential wall is short-term, but there are other countries without accession prospects, such as Ukraine and Moldova, for whom it is apparent that the wall that existed before between older and newer member states has been shifted further to the east,” Jan Karlas, head of the research department at the Institute of International Relations in Prague told IPS.

Similarly to Belarusians or Russians, Ukrainians did not have to pay for their Polish, Slovak and Hungarian visas. Now they will have to come up with 35 euro, submit documents such as employment letters, and insurance and income statements, and wait 10 days to get a visa.

Fourteen categories of citizens, among them journalists, students, the disabled and pensioners, will not be required to pay.

But many Ukrainians living in border regions make a living out of crossing the border several times a day to sell cigarettes and alcohol.

Some border checkpoints between Poland and Ukraine have been the site of protests, blockades and kilometre-long truck queues, and last week saw 500 demonstrators gather in front of the Polish consulate in Lviv, the main urban centre of western Ukraine.

Ukrainians from the Western regions are dissatisfied with the failure of Polish authorities to reach an agreement on border crossing procedures for residents of border regions.

Ahead of Schengen accession, Polish officials had said that travel into the country from its eastern neighbours would not be hampered, and authorities are now rushing to implement a new agreement in the first half of 2008.

Hungary is the only country to have signed such an agreement with Ukraine, though a similar accord with Slovakia is expected for the summer.

Poland faces the danger that a cheap Ukrainian workforce will head further west, and that the restrictions at the eastern border will harm the average citizen rather than creative smugglers and criminals.

Experts in Poland, which is interested in attracting Ukraine to the EU’s sphere of influence and away from Russia’s, speculate that the country could also lose its weight in the neighbouring country and become more dependent on Brussels.

The countries directly involved in the Schengen enlargement are cooperating in combating smuggling and illegal migration, and with their border police forces significantly reduced, document checks are being stepped up in border regions and construction sites.

While border checks have disappeared within the free travel zone, random checks on travellers are regularly being carried out in areas close to the defunct crossing areas. The checks will be relaxed after an adaptation period concludes.

The Austrian government, which has seen four bordering countries join the free-travel treaty, wants to maintain the checks until the end of the year, when it plans to carry out an impact study on Schengen.

Local politicians in Austria’s and Germany’s border regions have favoured stricter checks, claiming there is a danger of criminals and migrants invading their regions. Many believe such statements to be a populist attempt at gaining votes.

But the number of refugees in the Austrian refugee camp Traiskirchen, south of Vienna, has grown well above its capacity. This was used by the right-wing opposition as an example of the increasing dangers Austrians will face with the expansion of Schengen.

The right-wing Alliance for the Future of Austria has said the eastern border had “more holes than Swiss cheese”, and called on the government to reimpose border checks. The Austrian government has promised to send illegal migrants back.

The German police had warned earlier that it was opposing the Schengen enlargement, citing lower security standards in Eastern Europe due to corruption, technical problems and lack of cooperation. They said this would lead to criminals crossing the border, to property offences and an increase in human trafficking.

The German Police Trade Union recently declared that there had been a massive increase in illegal migration from East Europe and that “counter-action” was required to “protect people”, though it also acknowledged that crime had not risen.

It is believed that border guards have opposed the Schengen enlargement due to a fear of losing their jobs or being re-incorporated into traffic or street police from border regions.

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