Updated: Jan 27, 2022
Within the last few months, a humanitarian crisis has emerged along the borders of Belarus and the European Union. The number of refugees trespassing from Belarus to Lithuania and through to Poland has increased significantly. As a result, police and border guard forces have been strengthened (Euronews 2021c). By mid-November, around 2000 refugees were huddled in makeshift camps (Euronews 2021b), with Poland claiming that an additional 7000 migrants were preparing to cross the border (Deutsche Welle 2021). Due to the harsh conditions and cold weather, at least 10 refugees have died during the crisis so far, while humanitarian agencies forecast that this number could increase to dozens (Dahlkamp et al 2021). Such figures clearly demonstrate the humanitarian issues at hand.
Compared to the 2015/2016 migration crisis, the European Union is relatively united on preventing migration from Belarus (Pérez-Pena 2021). Instead of debating whether Member States should accept refugees, discussions are centered around methods to strengthen borders, such as financing border walls (Barigazzi 2021a). Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, as countries directly affected by the migration from Belarus, particularly favour such initiatives. For example, Lithuania requested that the EU finance its 152 million euro border barrier, which was eventually denied by the Party of European Socialists and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (ibid). But this focus on prevention shows that the EU is approaching this issue differently than past migration crises.
The number of refugees involved in former migration crises the EU has faced are also different: In 2015-2016, 2.5 million refugees applied for asylum in Europe, and Turkey currently hosts 3.7 million refugees (Braw 2021). Compared to these figures, the 7000 migrants in Belarus still waiting to cross the border are not significant enough to make it a large-scale migration crisis (ibid). So why is the EU reacting so strongly? The importance of the crisis lies in its geopolitical implications and its impact on the already-strained Belarus-EU relations.
The conflict goes back to the 2020 elections, when the EU did not recognise Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of Belarus. Since then, the EU has sanctioned Belarus for multiple actions, such as detaining journalists critical of the government (Braw 2021). The increased migration to the EU from Belarus is likely Lukashenka’s response to the sanctions. His idea is to demonstrate that the European Union is vulnerable to external threats and cannot adequately defend its borders and thus damage citizens' faith in the strength of the bloc (ibid).
Lukashenka’s retaliation can be seen by the system for migrant routes that the EU believes Belarus has created. It is made up of offices in multiple Middle Eastern cities, disguised as legitimate travel agencies, that provide one-way tourist visas to enter Belarus. These offices handle their business locally and are connected to Belarus through airways (Dahlkamp et al 2021). At the border, Belarussian authorities have often forced refugees to enter Poland or have provided them with tools to cut through the fences to do so (Pérez-Pena 2021).
EU leaders have thus accused Belarus of waging a “hybrid war” where migrants are used as “pawns” for his own political gain (Barigazzi 2021a). This argument has been stressed by von der Leyen and by multiple national leaders of the bloc, including the Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki (ibid). Outside Europe, the United States and Canada have also denounced the actions of Belarus (Charlish and Strauss 2021).
However, it is likely that other states are involved in sustaining this system, making the conflict go beyond Belarus-EU relations. There are twenty third-party nations whose potential cooperation with Belarus is being assessed by the EU, with Russia being a major suspect (Euronews 2021a). The Polish government even outright claimed Russia to be the one controlling Belarus to destabilise Europe (Barigazzi 2021b). Moscow has admitted that the leaders of the two countries have been talking about the situation, and that it supports Belarus on the issue politically (ibid). Lukashenka has denied any sort of cooperation, shifting the blame onto Poland instead (Euronews 2021a).
EU leaders are further alarmed by Russia having deployed 250 paratroopers at the Polish-Belarussian border, which they interpret as a sign of a potential annexation of Belarus, like they did to Ukraine in 2014 (Barigazzi 2021b). Eastern European countries are especially concerned about this possibility, because it would lead to a more extensive shared border with Russia. For this reason, EU leaders are already considering new sanctions both on Belarus and on Russian private military contractor “Wagner” (ibid).
Another country potentially involved in the conflict is Turkey. Istanbul is one of the main cities in the migrant route system through which refugees arrive in Minsk (BBC 2021). Turkey has been accused of cooperating with Belarus by sending migrants there via aircraft. Its government has denied such accusations, and has even invited a team of journalists to investigate its potential role in the conflict (Buyuk 2021). However, migrant smugglers in Turkey have claimed that their work is tolerated by the authorities, on both local and national levels (Dahlkamp et al 2021). Turkey’s potential cooperation with Belarus would fit in the context of earlier events, as Turkish President Erdogan has previously threatened to flood the EU with refugees in order to use them as political leverage in the same way as Lukashenka (ibid).
Written by Zsigmond Tar, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons
Photograph: Leonid Scheglov/EPA
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