Heading into a wall: the EU response to the migration crisis at the Belarus border

For several months, refugees and migrants, mainly from Iraq, have been flying to Minsk, Belarus, to travel overland to the EUs external borders, initially towards Lithuania and Latvia, but lately mainly towards the Belarus-Poland border. Since July, thousands managed to cross into the EU. Poland reported nearly 30,000 illegal border crossings in 2021 already, with more 17,000 in October. Dozens of refugees and migrants got stuck in a no-man’s land between Belarus and EU countries and with lowering temperatures, at least 8 people have reportedly died so far.

While this tragic and deadly crisis has been building up for months, on November 8th it rapidly escalated. In one single move, Belarusian authorities escorted an estimated 1,000 refugees and migrants to the Polish border, with many seeking to enter Poland. Some sources estimated around 3,000-4,000 refugees and migrants were at the border. Images of a large group of refugees and migrants walking along the M6 highway in Belarus towards the border, were all over the internet and news media. Poland deployed additional border guards, police and military, with now around 12,000 soldiers in the region and the army’s reserve put on full alert in what the Guardian called a “show of force unknown in the country since the end of the cold war.”

Once again, Europe finds itself in the middle of a ‘migration crisis’, or better, a political and protection crisis. Once again, a perfectly manageable situation is evolving into a humanitarian crisis, with severe consequences, first and foremost for the thousands of people at the border. A lot has already been written and said about this situation, and much more will follow, but with this article we intend to offer some overarching reflections and observations on how Europe ended up in such a situation, again, what stands out, and what needs to happen.

How did we get there?

In May 2021, Belarus hijacked a Ryanair plane, forcing it to land in Minsk to arrest journalist and opposition activist Roman Protasevich. In response, the EU imposed further sanctions, including on President Lukashenko. Not long thereafter, Lukashenko, started to allow asylum seekers mainly Iraqis, but also Syrians and Afghans, to fly to the Belarusian capital Minsk on tourist visa to travel to the EUs external borders from there. Each of them reportedly pay around USD 3,500 for the flight, documents and accommodation, in hotels controlled by the Lukashenko administration, making it also a profitable business for the regime. From Minsk, they are often transported by the authorities towards the border.

By doing this, Belarus has been trying to provoke a new migration and refugee crisis in Europe and divide the EU, to take revenge for the EU sanctions and EU criticism of Lukashenko’s crackdown on opposition. While it is hard to predict whether there will be further mass attempts to enter the EU like on November 8th, the situation is far from over. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 asylum seekers are currently in Belarus, and there are over 50 flights per week from Baghdad, Istanbul, Dubai and Damascus scheduled for the coming winter.

But how did we really get there?

President Lukashenko’s skilful and appalling application of such cynical migration diplomacy to put pressure on the EU, is no isolated incident. Back in 2010, late Libyan leader Gaddafi threatened to “turn Europe black” with millions of African migrants and successfully attracted billions of euros in exchange for his cooperation to control migration towards Europe.

Morocco too, has been skilful in migration diplomacy. In 2020, after an increase of migrants crossing from Morocco to mainland Spain, the EU released an additional package of 15 million EUR  for migration cooperation with Morocco, after which arrivals to Spain dropped again. In May 2021, almost 10,000 Moroccan migrants managed to reach the Spanish enclave of Ceuta and analysts speculated that the apparent inaction of Moroccan security guards may have been a reprisal for Spain granting medical treatment to the Sahrawi leader of the Polisario Front, a political movement calling for the sovereignty of the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, the month before.

When the EU and Turkey agreed on the EU-Turkey deal in 2016, it was highlighted by many – comparing it to the deal with Gaddafi – that it could turn refugees and migrants into bargaining chips, an approach which would be harmful, ineffective and ultimately counter-productive. Turkish President Erdogan has been perfectly aware of all this; in 2016 when the multi-billion euro deal was agreed, he was reported to have said that “We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria anytime and put the refugees on buses”. In March 2020, he did exactly that, in an attempt to put pressure on the EU to release additional funds and get EU and NATO support for its operation in Idlib, Syria, after dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed. What followed was what commentators called a ‘weaponisation of refugees’, with authorities transporting people to the Turkish-Greek border, where refugees were teargassed and spend the night in freezing conditions.

In short, despite the lessons from the past, the EU continues to miss the opportunity to learn from these lessons. And it missed the opportunity, after the so-called migration crisis in 2015, to finally develop a comprehensive migration and asylum policy and to send a message to its citizens that it has regained control over difficult migration and refugee situations, while simultaneously showing leadership in upholding the highest standards of humanity and application of human rights law in its refugee and migration policies.

The EUs response to the Belarusian crisis

Fast forward to November 2021, we are witnessing once again a very similar situation, this time on the Polish-Belarusian border. Lukashenko has been watching and knows exactly how to hurt the EU.

And, once again, there is political panic, coupled with confused or dehumanising statements, showing lack of compassion with those people stuck at the border. EU President von der Leyen said in a statement that the Commission will explore with the UN and its specialised agencies how to prevent a humanitarian crisis from unfolding and to ensure that migrants can be safely returned to their country of origin, with the support of their national authorities. However, while speaking about the ’return of migrants’ the statement did not even mention the right to seek asylum and the need to process asylum claims of the thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, Yemenis, Iranians and others arriving at the border and the fact that pushing back people across the border is against European law.

Furthermore, it said the EU will explore how to sanction third country airlines that are active in human trafficking. The latter is an example of the usual, and usually deliberate, conflation of human smuggling and human trafficking, often done to justify ever more criminalised responses to migrant smuggling and, by harmful extension, to irregular migration itself. EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Johansson spoke of the “urgent priority to turn off the supply coming into Minsk airport”, where ‘supply’ unemphatically refers to men, women and children. She also said the EU will “continue to prioritise the protection of the integrity of our shared external borders”. The right to seek asylum is not mentioned, and protecting the border seems to be more of a priority than protecting the people at the border, in those forests, facing freezing temperatures and violent reception and pushbacks by Polish border guards, police and military.

There is almost a sad irony, or better, hypocrisy, in sanctioning Belarus for human rights violations, while the EU and its members are denying people to exercise their fundamental human right to seek asylum. Moreover, the current panic and response to several thousand migrants and refugees from the Middle East stands in sharp contrast with the possibly higher numbers of Belarussian citizens crossing the Polish borders every week, fleeing the Lukashenko regime and seeking better economic opportunities.

Narratives of war

What also stands out in the current situation is how common war narratives have become in such instances. German interior minister Horst Seehofer said the “EU needs to create a common front,” and described events as an “attack on the EU” by Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as well as Lukashenko. NATO described Belarus actions as a “a hybrid tactic”. The Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that “the Polish border is not just a line on a map, that the border is sacred and Polish blood has been spilled for it”. EU President Von der Leyen said, already in September, when the numbers were even smaller, “Let’s call it what it is: this is a hybrid attack to destabilize Europe.” Meanwhile, Poland deployed 12,000 soldiers, there’s barbed wire along the border, teargas is used and Poland declared a state of emergency.

While all this war language may be meant to sound tough and strong, those expressing it may not realise how weak it makes the EU look. Can an economic and military powerhouse with 450 million inhabitants, really be ‘at war’ or threatened by a few thousand refugees and migrants? Apparently, leaders in the EU and its member states feel it can, and in a way, it is exactly this insecurity and subsequent political paralysis that makes the likes of Lukashenko realise that indeed, the EU can be threatened by a few thousand migrants.

However, perhaps we – commentators, analysts, NGO workers – should also avoid using words or statements such as ‘bargaining chips’ and ‘weaponization of refugees’. While it is certainly the case that this is what Lukashenko is doing, there is a risk that even using such narratives with good intentions does strip away the agency from the people involved. Many of those who ended up in Belarus might not be among the most vulnerable and poorest in their countries of origin, as they could afford to spend thousands of euros on travel to Belarus. Many might not be fleeing an immediately life-threatening situation back home, yet faced a lack of opportunities or a generally desperate situation, and, notwithstanding how cynical it all is, saw an opportunity in Lukashenko’s approach to access the EU and deliberately made a voluntary decision to travel to Minsk.

Of course, the reason they are willing to take these risks and be used by the Belarusian regime in a cynical game of geopolitics, is the lack of any other safe and legal routes – whether through refugee resettlement or legal labour migration. Additionally, another common route for refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Asia into the EU, via Turkey to Greece, has been more or less successfully sealed off in the past year. While this may show to some that ‘Fortress Europe’ works and it is possible to close migration routes, it also shows that new routes will always open up. And while the approach could then be to completely seal off all of Europe’s external borders with walls, military presence and violent pushbacks, European leaders should really ask themselves if this is worth the moral and financial cost, and whether it would not be better to invest in more humane and economically smarter ways of managing migration and displacement.

Unfortunately, it is clear that the EU is under constant pressure from several of its member states to instead continue to harden the approach. For example, while financing the construction of a border wall has long been a non-starter in Brussels, in November 10th European Council President Michel, while visiting Poland, said that the EU could legally fund border barriers, in October a group of 12 countries signed an open letter declaring that a “physical barrier appears to be an effective border protection measure that serves the interest of whole EU” and in September several member states tabled a proposal to legalise pushbacks.

Poland’s troubled relation with the EU

Hundreds of people walking along a highway in or towards Europe, brings back vivid memories of the so-called ‘migration crisis’ in 2015, which is undoubtedly exactly what Lukashenko tries to achieve. Such images played an important role in the Brexit campaign. Poland currently has a troubled relation with the EU, which particularly escalated after Poland’s constitutional court ruled that some EU laws clash with Polish laws and that EU courts do not have supreme legal authority, one of the cornerstones of the European Union. This further fuelled speculation about a potential ‘Polexit’. It is most likely no coincidence, that after initially primarily sending refugees and migrants towards the Latvian and Lithuanian borders, Belarus changed course and directed the movements towards Poland, right at the time when the EU-Poland relationship reached a new low. In recent years, Poland has been a fierce opponent to EU relief to Italy and Greece in dealing with migration and any EU-wide agreements on burden sharing and relocation of new arrivals. As such, Poland – which ironically also hosts the headquarters of the EUs border agency Frontex – is now hesitant to ask for EU support, even more so amidst the current troubled relation with Brussels. Instead, in line with the highly militarised approach, Poland turns to NATO, which is further adding to the toxic ‘war narratives’ discussed above.

What could a more level-headed response look like?

There are many things that need to happen and change. First of all, all involved on the European side should refrain from the use of war narratives. It actually makes the EU look weak and it shows to leaders of third countries that indeed you can attack and hit a powerful bloc like the EU where it hurts most, by sending a few thousand refugees and migrants. It is important, instead, that European leaders signal to their population they are in control over a difficult situation.

Secondly, EU countries should refrain from any use of migration as a bargaining chip. Past and ongoing practices have made the EU and its member states highly vulnerable to blackmail by origin and transit countries instrumentalising the migration file in exchange for funds or other promises. However, EU countries continue to play this game themselves as well. In October 2021, Denmark reportedly – though unconfirmed – offered Covid-19 vaccines to Rwanda as part their plans to outsource asylum processing to African countries. As long as such practices continue, third countries will know that it is possible to pressure the EU through migration.

Third, by sending more and more border guards, threatening with more sanctions on Belarus, compromising on ethical values, violating European and international law, going into crisis response and letting a humanitarian crisis develop on the border, the EU is responding exactly in the way Lukashenko and his potential supporters, had hoped for. It shows that such cynical migration diplomacy works. Instead, the EU should continue the discussion with Poland and other concerned member states to stop violent pushbacks and instead work together with the relevant United Nations organisations such as UNHCR, IOM and UNICEF and international NGOs, set up reception facilities along the border where much needed humanitarian assistance is provided and people’s asylum claims are processed in a fair and fast way, to end human suffering and avoid further deaths.

It could be argued that such a response would be giving in to the instrumentalization of refugees by Lukashenko. However, he is doing it anyway, whether or not the EU responds in a humane way or not. A proper reception of new arrivals would actually show that the EU is perfectly capable of receiving thousands of people, in a humane and orderly manner and is not panicking when this happens, but is simply capable to scale up when needed.

Fourth, cooperation with countries of origin is key. As often in such a situation, the roles and responsibilities of some of the countries of origin is not getting sufficient attention. Why does a country like Iraq enable such an increase in the number of flights to Minsk and let its citizens use this new migration route, knowing the situation they will end up in. As such, it is reasonable and the right approach that the EU has been seeking a dialogue with countries of origin like Iraq. However, they could have done so much sooner, at the earliest signs that this new migration and smuggling route was developing to avoid it from escalating in such a way. Cooperation with countries of origin will also be crucial to ensure fast and dignified returns of those whose asylum claims are rejected. In that regard, it will be crucial to engage in a comprehensive dialogue with countries of origin, also discussing resettlement of refugees and a significant expansion of legal pathways for (temporary) labour migration into the EU, in exchange for better cooperation on the topic of returns.

Fifth, it is crucial that journalists, humanitarian workers, researchers and volunteers get access to the people stuck at the border, so that we are able to better understand their motivations, when and where they started their journeys and the extent to which they were aware of what awaited them. However, there is currently no access due to the state of emergency and the no-go area Poland created along the border. Highly problematic, this also means there is very limited to no oversight on the extent to which people are pushed back across the borders into Belarus, which reportedly happens when Polish border guards come across people who crossed the border.

What next?

With the crisis at the border still escalating, the next moves will send a crucial message. NATO members could accept Poland’s request to deploy troops at the border with Belarus, adding more fuel to the war narratives but also bringing the confrontation to a new level, risking incidents at the border and severe consequences. The dispatch of two Russian bomber planes to patrol the Belarusian airspace close to the border, signals the potential for dangerous escalation. It would also create the historic precedent of NATO deploying its troops to protect Europe against a few thousand stranded, cold and tired refugees and migrants. A new low.

Another approach, already provocatively suggested by Russia, with the argument that “EU had to be consistent in the way it treated third countries used by migrants to cross into the bloc”, would be to use the “Turkey deal” model, and basically pay Belarus to stop migrant flows. It may seem an option off the table at the moment, as the EU does not want to give in and show toughness and resolution through further sanctions. But it may become a temptation increasingly difficult to resist as the crisis lingers, and the EU fails to find consensus with Poland and other members states for more level-headed responses and solutions as described above. It would signal a further entrenchment into the “Fortress Europe” trap, make Europe even more vulnerable to the next crisis, and would be yet another example of the failure of the EU and its member states to learn from previous mistakes.

A third way would be for the EU to show long-term vision by de-escalating the crisis and refusing to continue a tit for tat game with Lukashenko and his allies at the expense of refugees and migrants. This can only be achieved by upholding human rights, reaffirming the importance of respecting international conventions and showing compassion and humanity, values at the core of the European project, and its real strength.