Goran Miletic, Director, Europe and MENA Department and Deputy Global Programme Director, Civil Rights Defenders

I remember very well March 1995 when Benelux countries, together with Germany, France, Spain, and Portugal, opened their borders in order to implement the Schengen agreement. Wars in Croatia and Bosnia were underway yet another bloody phase of the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. No one in the Balkan region was too interested, and many believed that the agreement would collapse after several years. However, year after year, 19 other countries signed a treaty, creating the Schengen zone. The entire project is one of the greatest achievements on the European continent, and 27 years later, new generations have never experienced and can not even imagine waiting at European borders. Moreover, Croatia – one of the countries with the war in 1995, will become part of the single Schengen area at the beginning of 2023.

Unfortunately, internal borders and the Schengen Area are in a situation, which its founding members have never foreseen it to be. The new reality started in 2015/16 with the “temporary” introduction of borders due to high numbers of migrants and refugees. In many countries, the reason was defined as a “continuous big influx of persons seeking international protection” or “unexpected migratory flow”, while later, everything was covered with a short phase of “secondary movements”. In reality, such developments were quite bad news for the ones that are leaving their countries due to serious human rights violations or breaches of humanitarian law. Instead of helping people to get protection and support, situations often lead to new violations of human rights standards. Shortly after, during 2017/2018 new reasons for the reintroduction of borders were defined as “terrorist threat” or “continuous serious threat to public policy and internal security”, but in reality, these new reasons affected the ones that were trying to get refugee status or asylum. And then the pandemic started in 2020 leading to introduction of borders in many European countries for quite a long time. However, we have never properly discussed neither if the introduction and closing of internal and external borders contributed to the decreased number of cases during the pandemic, nor if it improved the situation in particular countries. I think that the effects on the number of cases were minor, while at the same time, many people suffered due to the inability to travel both internally and externally. Moreover, exceptions from the rules in that period were too vague, leaving a lot of discretion to the border police.

And then the war in Ukraine started. Several countries introduced border control due to “facilitation the entry and reception of people arriving from Ukraine”, but also justifications like “high risk of weapons from Ukraine”. If there is an honest wish to help people from Ukraine, then the introduction of internal borders in any Schengen country is in contradiction with this objective. Moreover, since the beginning of the war, neighbouring to Ukraine countries (including countries from the Schengen area) have eased border and customs control for Ukrainian citizens, as well as documents requirements. In the current circumstances, it appears to be much more needed for people fleeing war.

If someone has already entered one Schengen country, then having a border for “facilitation” in another is illogical. Mentioning “people from Ukraine” in the reasons for the introduction of borders will make them the target of additional checks or suspicions by different police authorities in the Schengen area. This is especially the case for countries that have “weapons smuggling from Ukraine” as a reason for profiling on borders or internally can have a negative impact on the freedom of movement of people of Ukraine.

Being connected to weapons and consequently seen as a threat was quite common for refugees from the Balkans in 90’s. It looks that lessons are not learned and that some countries are making the same mistake again, creating stereotypes and prejudices toward people who are coming not only from Ukraine, but also from Russia in 2022.