Thousands of refugees are on the move. Wars, failing states and brutal regimes, as well as climate change, have consequences. The refugees will, as ever, find the path of least resistance to the richer nations of the world, not least the EU. Where once the entry points were via the Aegean and Mediterranean, a new route has opened up to the east across Belarus’ borders with Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.
Once again, as in 2015, refugees are being deployed as unwilling pawns in political power games, with the EU again firmly in the crosshairs.
This round started in July. Additional flights and easily obtainable visas attracted refugees from Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere to Belarus. The refugees and migrants are effectively being deployed as a human battering ram to pierce the borders of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Belarusian border guards help them, even cutting the wire fences on their behalf. They have also supplied tear gas to use against Polish guards.
How and why did they do this?
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has suggested that the EU pay Belarus to handle the migrants and refugees. Germany is one of the favored destinations for refugees, with about 9,000 having reached there so far. But it could even have an impact as far away as the UK, another preferred destination for refugees.
It is blackmail. Blatant and overt. Lift the EU sanctions imposed on Belarus after the theft of the August 2020 presidential election and cough up millions of euros and the problem will go away. It is also human trafficking. Each refugee forks out thousands, funding the people smugglers as well as the Belarusian dictatorship.
Imagine being a refugee. The desperation to get to these supposed paradises leads many to risk all in unsafe dinghies or on crowded lorries, and even to cross reinforced borders. They are fed a pipe dream — the social media sirens promising them this lovely, easy route to a European utopia via Belarus, only to be trapped in a no man’s land in freezing conditions.
Belarusian soldiers have beaten the refugees and migrants. Some claim shots have been fired. At least nine refugees and migrants have died on the border, including some from hypothermia. They are given a choice: Cross into Poland or get stuck on the frontier, because returning to Minsk is not an option.
Turkey, which is already hosting 3.8 million Syrian refugees, has its own agenda. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is looking for any way to reduce that number. Diverting them up to Minsk is a way of offloading the problem, while at the same time sending a reminder that Turkey must not be forgotten. He expects the EU to continue paying his country to ensure there is no repeat of 2015.
Refugees are promised an easy route to a European utopia via Belarus, only to be trapped in a no-man’s land in freezing conditions.
What is not so clear is how much the Syrian regime itself is encouraging the process. Cham Wings Airlines, the Syrian carrier, was busy with flights from Damascus to Minsk, but halted this service on Saturday. No doubt the regime was happy to allow Syrians enduring mind-numbing poverty to leave.
Poland has accused Belarus of “terrorism.” Warsaw’s positions are also questionable, with its leaders having deployed grotesque xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric, seeing it as a useful distraction from domestic difficulties. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chairman of Poland’s ruling party and the country’s de facto leader, in 2015 described Syrian refugees as “parasites and protozoa.” He even accused them of bringing disease to Europe.
Poland is looking to seal its border, with British military experts sent to assist. It has deployed 20,000 border police. Although Warsaw has its own crisis with the EU, it will seek support from Brussels, but more importantly may bring NATO into the equation with a demand for emergency talks.
What are the options for the EU? Brussels is determined not to be held hostage, but its options are limited. Most EU states now seem to back the “Fortress Europe” approach Hungary adopted in 2015, but the bloc’s border with Belarus is long.
The EU looks increasingly united around toughening the sanctions package on Belarus. But sanctions do not have an outstanding record of success. All they might do is to encourage Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to open the refugee-migrant tap a little more. He has also threatened to cut off the transit of gas, which passes through Belarus on its way from Russia to the EU.
One option is to stem the flow at source. The EU has applied pressure on airlines to stop bringing people from the Middle East to Minsk. Turkey last Friday halted airline ticket sales for Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni citizens wanting to travel to Belarus. The EU said it also received confirmation that Iraqi Airways, which halted flights to Minsk in the summer, will not resume this service.
Yet the EU cannot bring immediate peace and security to these war and crisis-torn countries. The drivers of migration and exile remain powerful. For the moment, it looks like the barricade and sanctions option will remain, however limited. Will Eastern Europe be divided, with a new curtain of barbed wire and concrete? How many watchtowers will be required? How many dinghies will be turned back? The risks are real.
* Chris Doyle