As already stated, my plan is to bike from Berlin to Budapest, and on to the border, and write my reflections on the migrant movement and local responses along the way. I wanted to write a bit on my current planned route and the migration situation in each country:
An overview of the route and the time-plan:
July 18th to July 25th – Berlin. July 25th- 26th on to the German Border
I will start in Berlin, where I should arrive sometime around July 18th. Below, I will outline in (very) brief, why I decided that Berlin would be my starting point.
On July 25th, I will start a three-week journey towards Budapest. The first day biking (85 miles) will bring me to the German town of Torgau, and the next day should bring me to Dresden (65 miles). Dresden will be my last major stop in Germany.
July 27th – August 1st Czech Republic
From there I will cross into the Czech Republic and stay the night in Decin (65 miles) before I make it to Prague (50 miles).
I hope to stay two days in Prague, to learn about the city, and the local migrant situation. Next stop would be Tabor (80 miles). That would bring me to the end of July. August 1st, I will cycle on to Vratenin, on the border with Austria (75 miles).
August 2nd - August 4th Austria
August 2nd will take me into Austria, and I will spend a night at Krems an der Donau (42 miles) before heading to Vienna (50). In the hopes to learn more about the migrant situation, I will stay one or maybe two days in Vienna, before crossing into Slovakia.
August 5th -August 6th Slovakia
Around August 5th, I should be in Bratislava (40 miles), where I also hope to stay a day.
August 7th – 15th Hungary
August 7th will be my longest day: almost 100 miles to cross into Hungary and to reach the town of Esztergom. After a night’s rest, I will just have 30 miles to get to Budapest- where I will stay at least three days, before finding a way to the Serb-Hungarian border.
Here is a little bit about each of the countries and their stance towards migration
Why Berlin? Germany & Migration in brief
I could have chosen many starting points for my journey. Berlin stood out, and not only because it is my hometown.
Chancellor Merkel’s monumental role in setting a tone for Europe’s migration policy cannot be understated – she is one of EU’s rare leaders, who are pushing for more human-centered responses. Her decision last September to advance an open-border policy electrified Europe and weakened her popularity and her political party. In response opposition at home and abroad, Merkel made a moral and economic argument. As a consequence of her political choices, Germany took more migrants in than other EU nations last year.
While internationally, Merkel gained accolades, many European countries expressed criticism – Hungarian senior officials described Merkel’s policy as “moral imperialism" and added that “Germans think they’re the Americans of Europe.”
Merkel was also a driving force behind the EU-Turkey deal, which since looks weakened. More on this deal to come at a later time.
Throughout the evolution of the blog, I will write in more detail about migration policies of each country, but I wanted to lay out a brief overview of the situation.
Germany has born a large share of the burden: In 2015, 2 Million people migrated to Germany, which once we account for emigration, amounts to net in-migration of 1.1 Million in just one year. Those arrivals increased the number of foreign born German residence to 9.11 Million, which is more than 10% of its population. Per consequence, 2015 marked a 49% increase in in-migration. This trend is continuing: In May of 2016, Germany already registered half a million of new asylum claims.
In response to the migrant influx, the right-wing national party Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) rose in popularity: In March, when three states had their state-parliamentary elections, AFD garnered two-digit percentage points in all three states.
The migration influx to Germany is likely to change Germany’s culture and political landscape in the near and long future.
Next stop- Czech Republic.
The Czech Republic joined the European Union in 2004, and three years later, joined the border-less Schengen area. Currently, migrants don’t seek out the Czech Republic directly, but rather treat it as a transit country. This may explain why I could not find any detailed numbers on how many refugees and migrants have transited, or remained in the Czech Republic- just vague statements that few choose to remain and that the Czech Republic sports some of the lowest numbers of asylum requests. The Czech government helped along that trend when they decided to no longer detain any migrants in route to Germany last fall.
Despite comparably small numbers of asylum seekers, the country exhibited a rather checkered response: At best, the Czech government has appeared rather unprepared to be a migrant-receiving country, as evidenced by such historically-insensitive moments at Czech border guards writing numbers on migrants arms in train station- a move which echoed the Nazi practice in concentration camps and caused international outcry.
At worst, the country’s president has made overt-xenophobic statements and anti-migrant comments, warning that the Muslim migrants and refugees would want to ‘cut of the hands of thieves’ and ‘stone unfaithful wives.’ Late last fall, thousands of Czechs protested the arrival of migrants. Despite the popular opposition, right-wing parties have consistently failed to garner the 5% margin to enter the Czech Parliament.
Together with Hungary and Slovakia, the Czech Republic opposes the recent European Commission proposal for an EU quote system, in which 26 out of the 28 EU countries would be mandated to take a quota of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Eritrea (note that these would be individuals whose claim to protection has already been deemed valid). The quotas would relative to their population and GDP of the country.
Interestingly, according to the 2015 statistics, migrants appear to be economically well integrated in the Czech Republic: 78.7% foreign born migrants work, almost on par with the nationals, 79.2% of whom are employed.
Austria- at the forefront of Europe’s right-wing movement.
From the Czech Republic, I will cycle across to Austria. The country has seen one of the most dramatic rises of right-wing political parties, and its response to the migration crisis has been progressively deflective.
After receiving 90,000 migrants last year, Austria announced earlier this year that it will cap its acceptance of migrants at 37,500 this year. The cap inspired a domino effect of border closures in the Balkans, and caused backlogs at the border.
Additionally, Austria reformed its asylum laws to restrict access: the laws would allow Austria to evoke a state of emergency should the government decide that it lacks the capacity to receive, house and integrate the incoming migrants and refugees. Since this law, the government may block entrance to the masses of desperate people, on the presumption that Austria’s neighbor states are safe countries for the migrants.
This week, the country’s Foreign Minister called for an Australian, off-shore solution to the migrant crisis calling for Europe to send all asylum seekers on boats back to North Africa.
Less than a month ago, Austrians almost voted a right-wing candidate to the country’s presidency: The Austrian Freiheitlichen Partei Österreichs (FPÖ) (Freedom Party) gained 49,65 % of the vote, breathtakingly close to a majority. The recent elections caused political commentators to describe the right-wing party as the country’s new majority party, right in a European wealthy social-democratic country.
A streak of well-publicized crimes committed by migrants fueled the right-wing rhetoric further.
Onward, I will cycle through Slovakia, which is traditionally not a destination country for migrants. In fact, within the EU, Slovakia has the sixth lowest proportion of foreigners, and more than half of these are from fellow EU countries. Last year, Slovakia only received 260 asylum requests.
So why stop in this country, might you ask? Well, Slovakia is set to take the rotation seat at the helm of the EU: it will take the rotating EU presidency July 1st, in the midst of the time when Europe will be grappling with how to respond to the summer influx of migrants. The position will be crucial to create consensus on the challenge and a momentum for a more effective response.
However, my hopes are tempered: Despite negligible migration to Slovakia, its Prime Minister (PM) Fico ran his reelection campaign on xenophobic and anti-Islamic slogans: his campaign to “protect Slovakia” from Muslim threats successfully deflected attention from problematic thematic areas such as unemployment, the economy and healthcare scandals. The PM publicly vowed to let no Muslim refugees and migrants in, asserting that “multiculturalism is a fiction” and that Muslim migrants would endanger Slovakia.
If Fico’s right-wing statements were an attempt to contain a burgeoning popular right-wing political movement, this political calculus backfired. In fact, the election diminished his party at the expense of right-wing, and openly neo-Nazi parties gaining parliamentary seats. Thus the entire political landscape in Slovakia is moving towards the right, just as Slovakia will be at the helm of the European Union.
To date, Slovakia has worked to block current proposals for solutions on the EU level: Slovakia vehemently opposed the aforementioned proposed plan for migrant re-distribution through quotas, going so far as filing a lawsuit at the European court of Justice challenging the plan.
On towards Hungary:
To treat Hungary in a few sentences will not do it justice, so I will write a brief introduction:
Hungary has been at the forefront of the migrant crisis in so many ways: Before erecting a border fence, Hungary was a significant transit country: around 400,000 migrants crossed Hungary in 2015.
Simultaneously, Hungary is at the forefront of political opposition to admitting and integrating migrants: Its president Viktor Orbán continuously argues for the importance of preserving a Christian Europe and for the need to protect this besieged Europe from migrants. Orbán is the most vocal opponent of the moral obligation to help, which Merkel proposes. Often, his policies have inspired other right-wing politicians in Europe, building a coalition of those opposed to letting migrants into Europe.
On a personal note, Hungary’s hard-line response to the masses of migrants is what inspired me to do this trip: Last year, Hungary hardened its response to the migrant crisis: in the spring, the government enacted a state of emergency and soon thereafter, used used its military to block the border. The move resulted in masses of desperate people beings stuck in limbo without accommodation, food or any provision of human dignity. The images of migrants stranded at rail stations, as Hungary refused to let them travel through to Germany, deeply affected me and started the questioning that drives me now.
I will include just one picture of a women clinging in desperation to the tracks before being detained by the police. During Hungarian's attempts to stop migrants from traveling on to Germany, many protested fiercely.
Since Hungary also filed a lawsuit against the proposed EU quota system. Additionally, Hungary build a fence, which has slowed but not stopped the in-migration: in February, Hungary arrested 2,500 people for sneaking through the fence at the Serbian border. Once arrested, migrants go through a trial in Hungarian, are ordered to pay a penalty and serve prison time, and then theoretically expelled- except that Serbia refuses to take the migrants back. Thus, ironically, due to Hungary’s tough law enforcement, migrants are stuck in legal limbo in detention camps.
Below, a moving picture of the border fence, which I hope to visit during my trip.
I will continue to write on Hungary, as the country’s hardline response warrants a much more detailed treatment.