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CWA # 595, 31 October 2021

NIAS Europe Monitor
Belarus's strategy to push migrants:  Europe will find it difficult to respond. Four reasons why

  Joeana Cera Matthews 

EU's weak position in dealing with the issue is another factor, that strengthens Belarus's strategy in pushing the migrants into Europe.

Refugees from various parts of the Middle East are flown into Belarus, then pushed into the EU via Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Left to fend for themselves in a no-man's land, these migrants struggle to survive with the Belarusian troops pushing them into the bloc while Polish and the Baltic forces fight to keep them out. 

The following four points encompass the Belarusian agenda and why the EU cannot stabilize the situation. 

1. Belarus's attempts to push migrants into Europe is state-sponsored for multiple reasons
In May 2020, the EU imposed sanctions on Belarus over its disputed presidential election. In 2021, additional sanctions were imposed post the Ryanair-landing incident, which further aggravated Minsk. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko promised to retaliate against the EU's imposition of sanctions on them. Led by Lukashenko, Belarus has been successfully exploiting the bloc's commitment to refugee rights, ever since.  

For Belarus, it is also a strategy to force the EU to reconsider the sanctions. The idea seems to be that if they establish themselves as a threat and keep pushing in migrants, the EU will eventually budge and reconsider its decision to impose sanctions.   Apart from the EU sanctions, there is a Poland angle to the Belarusian agenda. Poland has been harbouring critics of Lukashenko since the 2020 controversial presidential elections. 

It is not only Belarus but also Turkey, that engages in a similar instrumentalization of refugees. The EU needs to be wary of Belarus' larger agenda; it does not seem to end with migrants. Soon enough, it shall begin cashing in on other weaknesses. 

In this context, Belarus's size does not matter. Minsk seems to have proved Mark Twain's "it's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog" right. Lukashenko in May 2020, did vow to retaliate against the EU sanctions by flooding the EU with 'migrants and drugs'. The EU took this threat lightly. 
However, Belarus' strategy has raised substantial concerns regarding the terrible conditions faced by migrants on its borders. It also raises the question of whether illiberal regimes with their state-sponsored warfare techniques are what lies in store for the future. 

2. Russia's guiding hand against Europe
Rumors exist on Russia's backing to Belarus and being an accomplice to the numerous human rights violations being committed at the Belarusian borders. Reports claim that during the 2015 migrant crisis, Russia's FSB helped smuggle hundreds of migrants into Norway every week. Similar allegations were made by the government of Finland, as well. 

This time, 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. 

Another risk that a Belarus-aiding Russia poses is the more extensive manipulation of resources and exploitation of weaknesses. The European energy crisis is proof of this. Enabling migration into the Schengen Area creates social unrest in Europe. Such an exploitation of the EU's 'weak' border systems enables the Kremlin to push in Russian-backed criminal networks to Europe, creating challenges to the enforcement of the law. 

3. A helpless EU
EU's weak position in dealing with the issue is another factor, that strengthens Belarus's strategy in pushing the migrants into Europe. The EU, on identifying human rights violations within Belarus, imposed sanctions on them. Evidently, the EU's plan has backfired. The European Commission recently proposed tightening visa restrictions on members of the Belarusian government along with exploring additional sanctions against individuals and entities. The EU fails to recognize that the sanctions created the crisis in the first place; going down the same road will prove costly for the EU. 

Second, there is an evident weakness in the EU's migration policy. It is no secret that the EU is apprehensive of migrants. 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." 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. 

Third, issues over fencing. Poles and Balts, after using barbed wire fences and declaring emergencies, are now considering the construction of a permanent wall at their borders, quite similar to Trump's ambitions at the US-Mexico border. However, the EU does not intend to physically limit access to Belarus claiming it goes against the EU ideals and beliefs. Adding to the European Commission President Ursula 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." 

As a result, Belarus now tears the acclaimed EU unity from within. The EU's ongoing rule of law conflict with Poland will only worsen the bloc's ability to unanimously decide on a migrant policy. 

4. Migrants who want to reach Europe
For Belarus, the readiness of the migrants wanting to reach Europe is an advantage. Lukashenko has instrumentalized some of the world's most vulnerable people – those that escape war and persecution. On 22 October, the BBC published an article where Syrian migrants trying to reach Germany were interviewed. Idris, one among them, stated: "The route is a lot easier than going through Turkey and North Africa... 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." As Bloomberg Quint stated: "running an international logistics racket that brings people from warzones to European forests is a new low." 

Most of these refugees' preferred destination is Germany. However, by the time they get through Poland, some of them travel with no food and water, while others end up in detention or simply die. This creates a humanitarian crisis for Europe. 


About the author
Joeana Cera Matthews is a Visiting Research Scholar with the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS. She pursues her postgraduate studies at the Department of International Relations at the University of Mysore.

 

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