Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 450, 28 October 2021

Belarus: Pushing migrants into Europe as a State sponsored strategy
Joeana Cera Matthews

In the news
On 22 October, attending an EU summit in Brussels, European Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen said: “The people used by Lukashenko are victims, we must help them.” Adding to von der Leyen’s refusal to fund barriers at the border, French President Emmanuel Macron said: “... we should protect ourselves. But we should never do so by abandoning our values.” 

Separately, the UNHCR’s Regional Director for Europe Pascale Moreau called for “urgent action” on the refugee crisis and said: “They are held hostage by a political stalemate which needs to be solved now... Pushbacks, that deny access to territory and asylum, violate human rights in breach of international law.” 

On 22 October, the BBC published an article where Syrian migrants trying to reach Germany were interviewed. Idris, one among them, stated: “We’re crossing the borders illegally. We don’t know what will happen. We can’t trust anyone, not even our smuggler... Pray for us.” 

Issues at large
First, the Belarusian regime’s strategy. Refugees from various parts of the Middle East are flown into Belarus, then pushed into the EU via Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Led by President Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus has been successfully exploiting the bloc’s commitment to refugee rights. The idea seems to be that if they keep pushing in migrants, the EU will reconsider its decision to sanction Belarus and stop choking their economy. The move has, however, raised concerns within the bloc regarding the ability of an unpopular country, such as Belarus, to create chaos in the bloc. Doubts also loom large whether Minsk’s is a retaliatory measure to the EU or individually to Poland, given the fact that Warsaw has and continues to harbour critics of the Belarusian regime. 

Second, the objective. In May 2020, Lukashenko promised to retaliate against the EU sanctions by flooding the EU with ‘migrants and drugs.’ Despite being termed as an effort at ‘hybrid warfare’ by the EU, such inhumane moves are not new when considering countries like Belarus and Russia. Turkey, too, engages in a similar instrumentalization of refugees. Allegations exist regarding Moscow and Minsk nationals entering the bloc, along with migrants, in an effort to spy, provoke, or simply create chaos. It is as though Putin’s ‘little green men’ have donned a different disguise.

Third, the EU’s apprehensions. Migration is a weak point in European policymaking. Despite the 2015 migrant crisis, the EU’s migrant policy remains unreformed. Acknowledging this, von der Leyen said: “as long as we do not find common ground on how to manage migration, our opponents will continue to target that.” The European Commission recently proposed tightening visa restrictions on members of the Belarusian government along with exploring additional sanctions against individuals and entities. Poles and Balts, after using barbed wire fences and declaring emergencies, are now considering the construction of a permanent wall at their borders. Despite its desperate attempts at reducing migrant inflow, the EU’s ‘vulnerability’ continues owing to its dependency on third nations, like Belarus and Turkey, to stem inflows. 

In perspective
First, a wake-up call for the EU. A small country like Belarus succeeded to create chaos in the EU by exploiting its very evident weakness. The EU’s present rule of law crisis with Poland will only worsen the bloc’s ability to unanimously decide on a migrant policy. The EU needs to keep its internal differences aside and unite as a bloc if it expects to see an end to the crisis at hand.

Second, the larger agenda. The EU needs to be wary of Belarus’ larger agenda; it does not seem to end with migrants. Along with Russia, energy manipulation has already begun. Soon enough, the duo might cash in on other weaknesses. 

Third, the humanitarian crisis. Lukashenko has instrumentalized some of the world’s most vulnerable people and left them in a no-man's-land. They now struggle to survive with the Belarusian troops pushing them into the bloc while Polish and Baltic forces fight to keep them out.  

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