Belarus plays on EU migration concerns
No dictator clings to power for a quarter of a century without being very cunning. Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has found a way to strike the EU in a sensitive spot, as part of his retaliation against the sanctions imposed by the bloc for its crackdown on the opposition after the disputed elections last year. Last week, EU ministers accused the Minsk strongman of “instrumentalizing human beings” and mounting a “direct attack” aimed at destabilizing the bloc – by deliberately channeling migrants from the Middle East to across its borders to the EU’s neighbors.
So far this year, more than 4,100 asylum seekers, mostly from Iraq, have crossed illegally from Belarus to Lithuania, 50 times more than in 2020. Neighbors accused Minsk of offering to migrants from Iraq, Syria or North African countries packages to Belarus, including border crossing; Lithuania released video footage showing Belarusian riot police pushing migrants across the border. When flows to Lithuania declined recently as it strengthened its borders, they increased in Poland. Warsaw says it detained more illegal migrants in August than it did from January to July.
Latvia, which also borders Belarus, declared a state of emergency at the border, allowing the military to support border guards, and Poland last week sent more than 900 troops to its border with the Belarus. The Latvian foreign minister warned of the risk of incidents, with Russian and Belarusian troops taking part in military exercises near NATO borders next month.
Lukashenko probes one of the most sensitive points in the EU. The 2015 wave of migrants from Syria and elsewhere opened deep rifts and stimulated nationalist parties. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic subsequently violated EU law by refusing to accept “quotas” of asylum seekers. The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has raised fears of a new wave of asylum seekers, who could support populists in elections in Germany, France and elsewhere.
The Belarusian leader said the country was responding to foreign pressures “within its capabilities”. He told an eight-hour press conference this month that Western sanctions will backfire, as the reality of today’s events at the borders shows.
Its actions pose a dilemma for European leaders. They have relied on sanctions against officials and businesses as the primary means of penalizing the Lukashenko regime for a crackdown since the post-election protests last year. Thousands of people have been arrested.
However, Brussels can react. One is to provide assistance to secure and monitor the EU’s borders with Belarus and to build reception centers where all migrants who manage to cross can be treated.
Second, the only realistic way for migrants to make their first entry into the EU from Belarus is by air. EU pressure has already persuaded Iraq to suspend flights to Belarus for the time being. Brussels will have to engage in the same way with countries from which, for example, Afghan migrants could be flown to Minsk. Officials as well as scheduled airlines, charter companies and aircraft rental companies should be warned that they will face penalties if they engage in such activities.
Lukashenko will surely have other assets in his bag. He has already threatened to allow drugs and nuclear material to enter the EU, although tighter border controls could help here as well. EU member states could once again struggle to preserve their unity if faced with an influx of migrants fleeing oppression in Afghanistan. But they must not allow themselves to be manipulated by a man who oppresses his own people in the heart of Europe.