Return to the xenophobic normal: One year into the invasion of Ukraine, anti-immigration sentiments are back in Central Europe7 min read
The countries of the Visegrad Four (V4) are infamous for their strong anti-immigration stance. Ever since their inclusion into the Schengen Area, and even more so since the so-called ‘migration crisis’ of 2015-16, the four Central European states have consistently argued that the EU’s approach to immigration is misguided, calling for a stricter, less welcoming asylum policy. Hungary and Slovakia were so opposed to the idea that EU member states should share the responsibility of providing asylum to refugees that they took the matter to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The ECJ eventually dismissed the case citing “an emergency situation” that required sharing of responsibility among the EU member states.
Their legal loss notwithstanding, the Central European countries have translated their persistent anti-immigration rhetoric into action. Hungary built a reinforced fence along its entire border with Serbia and Croatia. Similarly, Poland built a barrier at its border with Belarus in 2022 and has since been continuously developing its border reinforcement technology aimed at preventing people from reaching its territory. This came as a response to the situation in 2021 when Lukashenko ferried asylum seekers to the Polish-Belarusian border. Poland acted brutally when instead of offering humanitarian assistance, it militarised the border and let dozens of people suffer lasting injuries or even die. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Poland also collaborated with the Ukrainian border police force in an effort to stop people from reaching the EU border. A collaboration on preventing migration towards the EU is one of the themes of the Eastern Partnership agreement between the EU and Ukraine.
Similarly, in Czechia and Slovakia, the two other V4 countries, the mainstream political discourse is filled with anti-immigrant rhetoric and the countries are notorious for their extremely low numbers of accepted asylum seekers. For example, between 2010 and February 2023, Slovakia granted asylum to only 370 applicants, making it one of the most hostile countries in the EU.
This is just a small selection of instances that point towards a larger, structural presence of deep-seated anti-immigration and anti-humanitarian sentiments in Central European politics. Except for a few progressive politicians and parties, the general direction of the region at the beginning of 2022 seemed to be towards an ever-tightening immigration policy. However, this changed last spring.
The changed border regime after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Upon hearing the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, many observers of the EU’s border politics envisioned an upcoming humanitarian disaster at the EU’s eastern border. However, the response of the Central European countries came as a shocking surprise. Instead of closing the borders and implementing overly bureaucratic procedures, countries like Poland and Slovakia — the immediate Schengen neighbours of Ukraine — opened their borders and unconditionally accepted all Ukrainians who were fleeing the war. This move was in stark contrast to the hard-line anti-immigration rhetoric that all the countries in the region espoused before the war. In a matter of days, the countries that previously “did not have the capacity” to accommodate refugees and provide assistance managed to set up humanitarian infrastructure able to process tens of thousands of people per day. And all of this was supported by the very officials who built their careers on stoking anti-immigration sentiments. Many, myself included, believed this might be the impetus that would challenge the structural anti-immigration politics pervasive in the region.
Back to normal on the EU’s eastern border
Unfortunately, looking on a year later, any hope that the openness the V4 countries showed to Ukrainians would be extended to all people seeking asylum in the EU has been violently crushed. Even among Ukrainians fleeing, there were numerous instances of racial differentiation, especially among Ukrainian citizens of Roma ethnicity as well as many non-white foreigners living in Ukraine at the time who experienced routine discrimination when trying to cross the border or access humanitarian assistance.
When I travelled by train from Bratislava to Prague between October 2022 and February 2023, I routinely experienced the following situation. Upon reaching the border station in Czechia, a group of heavily armed border police would board the train and proceed to check the passengers’ travel documentation. If they were diligent, they would ask everyone to show their ID/passport. If they did not feel like doing that, they would approach only the passengers with darker skin colour; something I witnessed many times. In addition to that, the platforms were guarded by dozens of armed police, soldiers, and dogs. For those legally categorised as refugees or migrants, it was yet another demonstration that the EU is far from the welcoming place it presents itself to be.
The Czech Republic decided to introduce border checks with Slovakia in September 2022 after an “increasing number of irregular migrants [began] crossing the Czech border, most of whom [were] Syrians coming to the EU from Turkey.” This move echoed the tightening of internal border controls within Schengen in 2015-16 and violated the ECJ ruling. Czech Interior Minister Vit Rakusan, known for his hardline stance on immigration, described the decision as “an extreme step by which we react to the deteriorating situation in the area of transit illegal migration through our territory to Germany.” Czechia was not the only country ramping up its border controls, with Austria and Germany similarly fortifying their south-eastern borders.
It was the same situation as earlier in the spring: people from a war-torn country attempting to move to Europe in search of political stability and existential safety. Yet, the Central European countries reacted in a radically different fashion. Instead of the country-wide mobilisation of humanitarian infrastructure, the borders were closed. Instead of fast-tracking the asylum claims of people stuck in legal limbo, the countries in the region treated them as criminals, building ad-hoc detention facilities and squashing any hopes of openness and solidarity.
The permanent border checks were officially called off at the beginning of February 2023. Over the few months they were running, the Czech border police detained over 12,000 people, mostly from Syria. In the year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Czech Republic welcomed over 460,000 Ukrainian refugees. There were hiccups and complications, sure, but overall, the country showed an unprecedented willingness to offer support to the people in need. And yet, when a much smaller group of people showed up at the country’s border in the autumn, what they encountered was radically different. This time the infrastructure that was quickly mobilised was not meant to help them, it was meant to keep them away at all costs. In fact, during the most intense period of the border controls, members of various local police forces were stationed at the border, suggesting that keeping people away is higher than serving the population on the government’s priority list.
The future of V4 border politics
Although the full-time border checks are now over, the overall direction of the region’s immigration policy is fairly clear. There are many reasons why the countries of Central Europe reacted the way they did when the invasion of Ukraine started. The strongly felt personal impact of the conflict, together with the geographical and ethnocultural proximity of Ukraine, made it possible for the countries and their people to momentarily unite in a humanitarian cause. But confusing the one-time wave of solidarity with war refugees for a structural change in the region’s xenophobic anti-immigration politics turned out to be rather shortsighted. Instead, once the number of refugees coming from Ukraine stabilised, the countries returned to their ethno-nationalist anti-immigration stance best epitomised by the Czech Republic’s militarised border controls.
In conclusion, is there anything that can be done to overturn the exclusionary border politics the Visegrad Four espouses? The answer to this is twofold. On one hand, the past year has shown that with the right amount of political will, the Central European countries can open their borders to refugees and become hubs of humanitarian assistance. On the other hand, it also demonstrated the ethno-racial dimension of this humanitarianism. With the electoral results in the region suggesting a further entrenchment of the conservative right in power, it seems unlikely that the push for an inclusive border and asylum policy will come from above. It must be the task of grassroots organisations and civil activist groups to struggle for a more open society. Last year we saw that citizens in Central Europe can be in solidarity with people fleeing war, now it is time to make that solidarity universal – regardless of where one comes from or their skin colour.