Belarus vs Europe: the Migrant Crisis
In the last months, thousands of migrants, mainly from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen have gathered at Belarus’ border with Poland in an attempt to escape countries crippled by the war or find better living conditions. After striving to cross the border, the refugees have been pushed back to Belarus and blocked by the Polish security forces. However, Belarus too is preventing them to go back into the state. As a result, thousands of immigrants have been trapped between frontiers, cornered in a geopolitical dispute between Europe and president Alexander Lukashenko. He has been accused of exploiting the migrant crisis to pressure the European Union as retaliation against the sanctions imposed in 2020. In this political quagmire, both factions are backed by their allies. On one side, the European Union is supported by the United States and, on the other side, Belarus is relying upon Russia’s assistance. Analysts believe the migrant emergency is only an element of a far-reaching Russian strategy aimed at disrupting the European borders in order to invade Ukraine.
The Polish government believes that around 3000-4000 migrants hoping to cross to Western Europe are stranded at its border with Belarus. Poland's security forces are preventing them from passing over the frontier thus, forcing them to live in harsh conditions by sleeping outside in tents and makeshift shelters. To face this humanitarian disaster, the Iraqi authorities have announced that they would organize repatriation flights to return citizens blocked at Belarus' borderline. The Iraqi foreign affairs ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf has declared that "Iraq will operate a first flight for those who wish to return home voluntarily on the 18th of this month". On the 18th of November, Iraqi officials have confirmed that more than 400 nationals were being brought back to their homeland. However, many stranded Iraqis, estimated to be around 8.000, are still in Eastern Europe hoping to cross over the border.
After the Iraqi administration's repatriation declaration, the Belarus president has commented the decision affirming that most of the migrants would be unwilling to return to their countries even if offered the opportunity. Lukashenko said that "We’re ready … to put them on planes that will carry them back home" but " these are people who, it must be said, are very stubborn: Nobody wants to go back. And it’s clear why: they have nowhere to go back to". Moreover, in a controversial statement, Belarus' leader has asserted that they would be ready to transfer the emigrants directly to Germany by claiming that "(I)f the Poles don’t give us a humanitarian corridor, then we can take them to Munich on Belavia".
The humanitarian disaster is only the last falling out in the relationship between the European Union and Belarus. In particular, the political connections between the two deteriorated after Lukashenko's disputed presidential election in August 2020. To oppose the presidential elections' results, the population protested in the streets. However, the peaceful demonstrations were brutally repressed by the newly chosen leader. To face the violence surge, the European Union imposed a round of sanctions on Belarus' authorities and public officials.
The two political entities have once more clashed, with the old continent accusing Lukashenko of deliberately waging a “hybrid attack” by assisting the migrants in crossing the border. When commenting on the events, the British foreign secretary Liz Truss said that Lukashenko "is using desperate migrants as pawns in his bid to create instability and cling on to power, regardless of the human cost". As a result, the European Union has decided to impose a new round of penalties on Belarus. Alongside asset freezes and travel bans, Joseph Borrell - the European foreign policy chief - said the restrictions will likely also include "people, airlines, travel agencies and everyone involved in this illegal push of migrants against our borders".
Moreover, the European Union and the United States have also blamed Russia for the current humanitarian emergency. The Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis has accused Putin of politically "driving this crisis, together with [Belarusian president] Alexander Lukashenko". According to analysts, Russia is assisting Belarus in disrupting the European Union's stability as part of a wider geopolitical strategy. According to Mr Landsbergis, "Russia is using this crisis to destabilise the EU" and "if we are unable to make a decision, then you can probably say, ‘look, the EU is ineffective’ and that builds up new fires inside the EU". The support to Lukashenko is thought to be a means to create confusion within the Euro block in order to attack Ukraine. Indeed, recently the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that he was "concerned by reports of unusual Russian military activity" and believes that Russia might be "attempting to rehash" the invasion of Ukraine in 2014. When responding to these accusations, the Russian administration has denied any responsibility. Moreover, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has affirmed that the blame rests on Western countries and that the causes that led to Belarus' immigration crisis "were created by the Western countries, including European countries".
As the winter on the Belarus frontiers grows colder, the fate of the migrants still remains uncertain. The unpredictability of the situation is also reinforced by the uncertain leadership of Lukashenko and on how far is the president willing to challenge the Eurozone. Nonetheless, according to experts, the premier is not afraid to anger the European Union. Indeed, according to them, "Lukashenko has nothing to lose" and “(H)e’s no longer worried about his reputation".
Written by Cinzia Saro
Cinzia Saro is a columnist at DecipherGrey.