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NIAS Europe Monitor
Belarus: Weaponization of the Migrant Crisis

  Harini Madhusudan

The death of four people at the borders is an indicator that- human safety has taken a backseat over all the states trying to make political gains through the situation, given that all of them have responded in line with their strategic and legal commitments. 

On 21 September, one day before the Polish president’s address at the UNGA, it was reported that four people had died of hypothermia and exhaustion on the borders of Belarus-Poland. The news came amid accusations that the Belarusian government had been funneling migrants from various regions across its borders into Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. With the help of Moscow, it is said that Minsk is aiding Iraqis and Afghans; with the aim to spread chaos and sow domestic discord among Eastern European countries. Are the migrants a tool for the Lukashenko regime? What are the roots of the migrant issue in Belarus? 

Weaponisation of the migrant crisis

On the outset, the actions by Belarus are a defensive response to the consistent sanctions being placed on the regime by the European Union since the elections. As a counter-strategy, using the migrants for political leverage is a low blow. However, the regional responses to the migrant situation have been weak too. The immediate response/priority had to be to secure the safety of the individuals. The death of four people at the borders is an indicator that- human safety has taken a backseat over all the states trying to make political gains through the situation, given that all of them have responded in line with their strategic and legal commitments. Belarus has indeed weaponized the migrant situation in Eastern Europe and has triggered a very sensitive battle of consciences in the region by fostering the crisis. 

People were reported to be  illegally crossing across the borders, and on 23 August the Prime Ministers of Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Estonia, called on the United Nations to take action against Belarus claiming that the latter was “using immigrants to destabilize neighboring countries.” Poland and the Baltic countries have observed a surge of thousands of migrants, who are mostly from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan crossing into their borders. The Prime Ministers allege the ongoing crisis to be “planned and systemically organized,” and revealed in a joint statement that it constitutes a breach of international law qualifying as a hybrid attack on the bloc. "We urge the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to take active steps to facilitate the solution of this situation and to require Belarus to comply with its international obligations," the statement said. 

Previous concerns 

In May 2021, Latvia and Lithuania had raised their concerns over Belarus giving free passage to immigrants. Since then, several stand-offs have been observed on the borders. Warsaw, Vilnius, and Riga believe that these migrants, who are mainly from Iraq, are being used by Lukashenko for political leverage against the sanctions imposed on his regime. In response, Latvia and Poland have declared a state of emergency. Lithuania has begun installing a razor-wire fence across their 670-kilometer border with Belarus. Poland has begun to construct barbed-wired fences across the Polish Belarusian border to contain the record numbers of migrants crossing from Belarus. In May 2021, following the hijack of the Ryanair plane and the arrest of the young opposition activist, the European Union imposed sanctions on the Lukashenko government. As a response, Lukashenko announced that Belarus would no longer prevent drug smuggling and illegal immigration across the borders. 

Regional tensions

The tensions between Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania have been high since Belarus’ disputed elections. Lithuania hosts many of the pro-democratic rivals of Lukashenko, and Poland in recent weeks gave refuge to the Belarusian Olympic Athlete Krystina Tsimanouskaya. Early August, direct daily routes from Sulaymaniyah and Erbil of Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as Basra to Belarus, were paused after the EU’s persuasion of Iraq. This saw a sharp reduction in the number of migrants arriving in Lithuania. However, the fall in Lithuanian arrivals saw an exponential increase in the migrants crossing into Latvia and Poland.

Sufficient evidence, both verbal and visual, has shown the involvement of Belarusian forces funneling, escorting, and directing the migrants, mostly from Iraq, to reach across the Belarusian borders. There is suspicion that Belarus would attempt to bring refugees from Afghanistan for the same reason. Lukashenko is said to have instructed his officials to also tighten Belarus’ border which has effectively trapped many migrants in a no man’s land after they were turned back by the EU. 

According to Lithuanian border authorities, 4,115 illegal immigrants have been detained so far in 2021. The numbers are alarmingly high compared to 81 interceptions in 2020, 46 in 2019, and 104 in 2018. A majority of these migrants were from Syria and Iraq but reports also show migrants from Russia and a few African countries. In 2021, Latvia has detained 343 individuals for illegally crossing, and Poland has recorded 891 individuals crossing their borders illegally. The EU home affairs minister, who visited the Belarusian-Lithuanian border in early August, has accused the current situation as “a very severe aggressive act” which shows an intention to provoke. The border guard chief of Latvia stated that these individuals were seen arriving in an organized flow and in large groups. 

Legal Grounds 

The 2009 Lisbon Treaty emphasizes that the EU would share competence in regards to the number of migrants allowed to enter a member state to seek work, legislative procedures for regular and irregular immigration, and handed the jurisdiction of the field of immigration and asylum to the Court of Justice. In 2011, the Global Approach to Migration and Mobility established a general framework for the EU relations with third countries related to immigration. In 2015, the commission published the European Agenda on Migration which enhanced the management of all aspects of immigration more effectively, by revising the Blue Card directive, re-assessing the existing frameworks, and strengthening cooperation with key countries of origin for legal ease of immigration and improved returns. In 2020, the commission also published a New Pact which aims to also integrate the individuals for resettlement, offer community scholarships, pathways to education, and work. The common approach has made checking irregular migration, returns directives, and integration easy. 

Problems on the ground 

However, different nations have different approaches to the same. In the case of the small Baltic states, one of the major complaints is that of alienation and poverty. For example, Latvia gives 139 Euros a month, but in Germany, the allowance is 400 Euros and they are given an apartment. The government of Latvia can not afford to pay the same price, and the allowances are insufficient to meet the cost of living in Latvia. Additionally, by law, there is a need to know the local language to get a fairly-paying job. Hence, these conditions make the people leave Latvia as soon as their official papers are given to them. This is the case with all three Baltic states. Allowances in Lithuania vary between 102 and 204 Euros, and Estonia, 130 Euros a month. In Poland, the benefits are 149 Euros a month. Many in the Baltics, the nationalists, are in support of the refusal of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to house refugees. 

Conclusion 

The present crisis in the region brings to the fore two realities. The migrating individuals are the only ones losing amid political greed, while countries are using the complexities of the EU legal structures to their advantage. First is the timing of the crisis which is very close to the joint Belarus Russia military exercise in the background. This could serve as an intimidation factor used by Lukashenko in response to the sanctions placed on his regime. As a double-edged sword, the Russian side could also be using the situation in Belarus to trigger a provocation against the Western Allies, considering there is a strong backing by Russia to the administration in Belarus. Second, the situation has given an advantage to the far right in all the three states to take measures and effectively restrict the movement into their borders. With the announcement of plans to install fences and other barriers, the restrictions of movement across borders could remain for longer than the situation at hand. It is essential to uphold the dignity of these individuals, and respect their human rights, and ensure all procedures are dealt with in accordance with the existing EU legal framework. Evidently, sanctions against Belarus would not prove beneficial as a response to the same.

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