Walls are not the solution

Thousands of migrants seek asylum in Europe
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Story highlights

  • Authors: Walls and fences designed to keep out immigrants create more problems than they solve
  • Fences can seal in unauthorized immigrants and enable human traffickers, they say

Akos Rona-Tas is professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. David Scott FitzGerald is co-director of UC San Diego's Center for Comparative Immigration Studies. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.

(CNN)Presidential contender Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have at least one idea in common. Both believe that to stem the tide of foreigners arriving in their respective countries, they must barricade their borders.

David FitzGerald
Akos Rona-Tas
Trump wants a seamless wall on the U.S. southern border to stop migrants mostly from Latin America. Orban wants to fence off the European Union to keep out refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and troubled countries in Africa. Orban's government has completed a 100-mile-plus razor wire fence along its border with Serbia, now extending into Croatia and Romania.
Both Trump and Orban whip up public fear and then offer themselves as the protectors of their nations in return for votes. But building higher walls and digging deeper moats solves few problems while incurring serious human and financial costs.
    Ironically, fences seal in unauthorized immigrants once they manage to enter the country. In the U.S. case, a serious border buildup began in the mid-1990s. Academic research and independent assessments by the U.S. Government Accountability Office show that increased enforcement made unauthorized immigrants stay in the United States for longer periods -- to avoid the physical risks and high costs of repeatedly going back and forth in clandestine crossings. For at least the first 15 years, the federal government's own data reveal a dramatic increase in the number of unauthorized Mexicans living in the United States .

    Hungary wants Greece to seal borders

    In the EU, Hungarian Prime Minister Orban wants Greece to seal its borders as well. Most refugees at Hungary's doorstep travel through Greece. A glance at a map shows the folly of such a plan.
    Greece, with its many islands, has an 8,500-mile coastline -- more than four times the length of the U.S.-Mexican border. Greece did close its land border with Turkey by building a 6.5-mile fence in 2012. It relied on the rapid Maritsa/Evros River and 1,800 armed guards for the other 110 miles of border control.
    The flow of refugees did not stop. It grew. Refugees moved out to sea and entered Greece through the Aegean archipelago that in many places lies just a few miles from Turkey. The operation was a failure, which is precisely why there are all those refugees at the Hungarian border that Orban tries to push back.
    Walls are expensive to build, and even more expensive to maintain and police over time. The cost of Hungary's new fence is reaching $100 million.
    The United States spent $3.6 billion on the Border Patrol in 2014, much of it by nearly quadrupling its force to 21,000 agents. Other fences in Bulgaria, and in Melilla and Ceuta, the two Spanish outposts in Morocco, only run a few miles. They all require large numbers of personnel to patrol. Hundreds breach them each year still.
    Migrants pass through Croatia to Hungary
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    The collateral consequences of militarizing the border are deadly. The International Organization for Migration estimates that at least 22,400 people died trying to reach Europe from 2000 to 2014. Images of drowning asylum-seekers fill the newspapers and airways. Nearly 6,000 died trying to cross the U.S. border from 1998 to 2014. And fences everywhere nurture organized crime networks that smuggle desperate people across borders, slow commerce and tourism, damage the environment, and create suspicions among friendly countries.

    Controlling borders a complex affair

    Few would argue that countries don't need to control their borders at all, but controlling the border is a complex affair. Governments often try to control immigrants, tourists, terrorists, epidemics, drugs, and goods avoiding custom duties. Each requires its own set of tools of control. With the possible exception of tourists, none of these can be stopped by physical barriers.
    Effective tools involve work not at the border but on either side of it. For instance, if a country wants to control unauthorized immigration, it should take steps to reduce the outflow of people by contributing to development projects in the sending countries and by creating a sustainable legal process to filter those it wants to come. At home, the country must enforce laws that sanction not just immigrants who enter illegally, but also those who profit from their presence, like their employers.
    Individual EU countries like Hungary will never be able to effectively address the refugee crisis on their own. Rich countries, including EU countries, but also the United States, Japan, and Persian Gulf states should help Syria's neighbors accommodate their swelling refugee populations. There are less than half a million Syrian refugees in Europe and 1,500 in the United States, compared to 1.9 million in Turkey, 1.1 million in Lebanon, and more than 600,000 in Jordan. Countries with resources need to pull their weight. (The United States has said it will increase the number of Syrian refugees it plans to take in next year to 10,000.)
    Pulling their weight also means setting up offices in the Middle East to process asylum requests, rather than forcing people to risk their lives to get to Europe to present their cases. Requests would be submitted with a list of desired countries ranked by priority.
    If the decision is positive, a country would be offered based on the applicants' priorities and a quota system agreed by the member states. If they accept the country, they could enter the EU with a temporary residency and work permit valid only in the designated country to prevent them from circumventing the quota system.
    All government-provided benefits would be contingent on supplying proof of residence in the country where the refugee was officially settled. At the same time, the EU must have a working system of repatriating individuals who after a fair legal process, are found to lack a valid claim to asylum.
    A small country like Hungary may be able to fence off one small border at a very high financial and human cost. But Europe's borders stretch from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. The U.S.-Mexico wall is not a model to be emulated. European nations should learn from the U.S. example and find more nuanced and humane ways of protecting refugees' lives while exercising legitimate control over their sovereignty.