Migrant Pressure-Cooker Buildup in Balkans Holds Key Lessons for U.S.-Mexico Border Control Policy

By Todd Bensman on February 25, 2020
Hungary's steel border fence with Serbia in 2019
Hungary's steel border fence with Serbia in 2019. Photo by Todd Bensman.

A buildup of more than 50,000 migrants is pooling up in Bosnia behind a Central European dam of border fences and "push-back" policies. The U.S. and Mexican governments, which have recently built their own dams to halt mass illegal population transfers from Central America, should carefully watch how this pressure cooker situation ends for lessons that can and must be learned. The parallels between what is happening over there and at both the U.S. and Mexican southern borders are too striking to let pass without close observation.

In 2015 and 2016, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Austria closed their borders to mass migration with fencing and "push-back" migrant-return policies that largely shut down the so-called "Western Balkan Route" that nearly a million migrants, including multitudes of Islamic terrorists, used to reach richer Western European countries like Germany and France. Blocked on that line, the mass migrant hot potato then landed backward.

Serbia and Croatia, which had been content to let them all transit through so long as the migrants did not stay, ended up with the hot potato and, in turn, hardened their own borders and passed the offending spud backward to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Now, the frustrated, growing migrant throng that ended up collecting in hapless Bosnia is attacking forward in greater force with seemingly organized tactics, their strongest military-aged men physically probing, testing, and aggressively pushing up against the line. Their aim would be to break the will of countries like Croatia, Serbia, and especially of Hungary, which started the whole hot-potato-backward-passing game by building an infamously effective steel fence along its southern border with Serbia and Croatia in 2015.

Migration-friendly governments and groups are mounting political pressure campaigns against the harder-line countries, with sympathetic media coverage of cold, stranded migrants and by litigation in international courts.

So far, Hungary's conservative President Viktor Orban is holding fast under the withering physical, media, and court litigation campaigns for mass migration to resume. But he has done so by using some politically risky tactics, such as having his security forces fire warning shots over the heads of aggressive migrant brigades. These tactics can erode and break down government willpower.

Whether the Central Europeans stay the course and hold the lines under these multi-front ground and propaganda campaigns will determine whether the next great migration crisis of millions of people restarts toward Western Europe's richer countries.

And also to the U.S. southern border. Because many of the same circumstances and stakes exist for President Donald Trump's policies, which as I reported, have tenuously ended the 2018-2019 mass migration of Central Americans.

Parallels to United States and Mexico Mass Migration

 Mexican National Guard in Chiapas state, January 2020
Mexican national guard in Chiapas state, January 2020. Photo by Todd Bensman.

Reporting from southern Mexico showed the president's own unique push-back policies, such returning migrants southward under the "Wait in Mexico" policy and safe third-country agreements, put the hot potato right in Mexico's lap (much as Hungary put it in Serbia and Croatia's laps). They all moved to get rid of it.

Once also happy to be a transit country northward like Serbia and Croatia, Mexico hardened its southern border with national guard roadblocks and began sending tens of thousands of trapped migrants southward back to Central America, by bus and plane, or forcing them to stay in Mexico's south to apply for Mexican asylum. Untold thousands are still pooled up in Mexico and in Central America, like the migrants in Bosnia. Many are gambling on President Donald Trump's defeat this November and that American policies will change once Democrats take charge. But also just like in Central Europe, aggressive Central American caravans formed in October and again in January and charged at Mexican willpower, hoping to break it down and allow all behind them to restart the mass migration to the richest country north.

So far, like Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary, Mexico has held the line and returned almost all of them to the next most southern countries.

But observers on any side of the question of whether mass migration is a good thing should know that the will of these governments is fragile crystal, prone to easy chipping and total shattering under public opinion.

All About Tactics and Willpower as Fragile as Crystal

What almost everything ultimately comes down to in Bosnia and in Mexico are the tactics that seem necessary to stop the physical caravan charges. They are politically risky. Hungarian security forces have fired their weapons toward migrants. They've put up cargo containers for migrants to weather the cold outside their borders. Croatian police are constantly accused of abusing migrants. The mass migration advocates eagerly broadcast allegations, true or not.

In Mexico, meanwhile, heavily armed national guard troops engaged in hand-to-hand combat with young male migrants, forcing them onto deportation buses back to Honduras and elsewhere. The optics were not great, though the job got done.

The organizers of the challenges, whoever they are here or in Central Europe, no doubt understand those defensive government tactics can be manipulated to eventually play to their cause. Cynically, they'll know the media will zero in on bloodied, crying migrants, especially cold and hungry children — and help it do so — and that these images (often with protest signs written in English) can and often do break the political will of governments.

Among those watching for Central Europe's victor in this contest of wills are millions of migrants far back downstream in Turkish refugee camps waiting for any cue to go next, a global migrant resettlement/assistance industry that stands to financially gain from resumption, their illicit smuggling organization cousins, and pro-illegal-migration advocates everywhere who like the one-world ideal.

Why the Trump Administration Should Watch and Whisper Sweet Tariffs

The United States and Mexico also should pay attention to what policies and tactics Central European governments like Hungary use in their defensive responses as the crisis there escalates and then — especially — how mass-migration advocates exploit those tactics to pressure for its profitable resumption.

While they pay closer attention, the United States and Mexico should be having talks about using alternative, less politically exploitable defensive tactics on Mexico's southern border for the day when more migrant caravans come in. Messaging campaigns should be planned to counter the inevitable propaganda of the sort ushering forth now from the European situation.

Lastly, in addition to discussing alternative tactics and messaging for Mexico, the Trump administration should be whispering in Mexico's ear words of encouragement, expectations, and, perhaps, reminders that devastating trade tariffs are still on the table.