by Rohan Sinha (’23) | February 14, 2022
Last July, a crisis emerged at the border between Belarus and the European Union (EU), when thousands of migrants, many from the Middle East, sought to arrive in the EU by crossing from Belarus into three EU member states—Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. Polish border guards used tear gas and water cannons to prevent migrants from entering the country. When these migrants returned to Belarus, however, they were pushed back by Belarusian soldiers who coerced them to cross again into Poland. Consequently, migrants were trapped on the border between Belarus and Poland.
This was the doing of Europe’s last dictator: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. After Lukashenko faced allegations of election fraud, Belarus became the target of sanctions from both the European Union and the United States. In response, Lukashenko sought to coerce the EU to lift its sanctions by threatening to flood migrants from the Middle East into EU member states. Belarus’s state-owned airline—Belavia—even operated flights from the Middle East to its own capital, Minsk, to fly migrants into Europe. In other words, Lukashenko has used migrants as pawns in his conflict with the EU. Western countries have blamed Lukashenko for this emergency at the border, but it is undeniable that EU policy has played just as much of a role in fueling this border crisis.
In EU immigration policy, this is nothing new. During the Syrian Civil War in 2016, refugees sought to arrive in the EU via Turkey. Just like Lukashenko, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to flood Europe with these refugees if the EU did not provide financial aid to Turkey. Erdogan was successful in his ploy: the EU paid billions of euros to Turkey in exchange for heightened border security to stop migrants. The EU outsourced border control to a foreign country, Turkey, abdicating its responsibility to protect its own borders and giving up a significant amount of leverage over the continent.
In a September 2020 press release, the EU admitted that its migration system is not effective. As a result, Europe is now vulnerable to being “blackmailed” by countries who may use migrants as pawns, just as Turkey did in 2016. Lukashenko seeks to replicate the Turkish playbook to convince the EU to lift sanctions on Belarus. Ultimately, he failed in his objective—the EU only increased sanctions. Still, the EU’s policy of outsourcing border security incentivized Lukashenko to use migrants to blackmail the union in the first place. Poland’s use of tear gas and water cannons, in response to migrants crossing the border, illustrate the EU’s callous response. EU policy has not only incentivized Belarus to exploit migrants, but also has impeded on the human rights of migrants.
Lukashenko is certainly at fault for exploiting migrants’ vulnerability for his own political gain. But the EU is to blame for allowing Belarus, and other nearby countries, to take advantage of migrants in the first place, and for failing to respect the basic human rights of migrants as they approach the border. The EU must take responsibility for migration policy, rather than outsourcing border security. Furthermore, it must adopt a more compassionate attitude toward migrants, who simply seek to protect their families, to prevent the continued exploitation of refugees.