Analysis | How Belarus is weaponizing migrants and exploiting E.U. migration policy

Kyilah Terry

Migrants gather at the Poland-Belarus border (Image: Polish Government/Kancelaria Premiera/Flickr)

Since October, E.U. and NATO members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia have experienced a surge in migrants attempting to cross into their countries from Belarus. According to the European Union, these crossings are “hybrid attacks” engineered by Minsk in response to human rights sanctions that followed last year’s disputed elections. Belarusian security jailed and tortured protesters after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko clung to power for a 6th term.

As the geopolitical storm worsens at the border, thousands of migrants are trapped in a no-man’s-land bisected by growing razor-wire barriers and without humanitarian assistance. However, the conditions that migrant families are experiencing, especially at Poland’s Kuznica crossing, are deplorable yet common byproducts of a broader phenomenon: countries seek to move their border policy outward, in a process known as externalization or “remote control.” As temperatures drop to below freezing levels, the increasingly heated dispute between Poland and Belarus demands a rethinking of remote-control policies and an E.U. strategy for constructive diplomatic engagement.

Governments often use externalization as a migration governance tool to prevent migrants from entering the legal jurisdiction of destination countries. Prominent European examples include third country agreements, pushbacks, and offshore processing centers. It also involves practices, physical structures, and institutions that aim to control the mobility of non-citizens, but usually target asylum seekers in particular. In the months after the Arab Spring uprisings, and following the 2015 migrant influx — where Europe saw an entry of over one million asylum seekers mainly from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq — the European Union augmented its border externalization policy with the 2016 E.U.-Turkey deal. However, Europe’s reliance on border externalization is allowing states to use asylum seekers as leverage to extract money, assistance, and political concessions from the European Union.

In the 2016 E.U.-Turkey deal, the European Union agreed that in exchange for Ankara hosting irregular migrants attempting to enter Greece, it would take numerous steps: resettle Syrian refugees, lessen visa restrictions for Turkish citizens, pay roughly EUR 6 billion in aid to Syrian migrant communities under Turkey’s Temporary Protection Scheme (TPS), update the customs union, and re-energize stalled Turkish E.U. accession talks. This deal has become a blueprint for Europe’s strategy of externalizing migration management to its neighbors. Versions of this deal most notably include the Spain-Morocco and Italy-Libya bilateral agreements. Despite the deals’ effectiveness in stemming irregular arrivals, the legacy of the E.U.-Turkey deal has revealed a migration policy of border externalization to be easily exploitable.

Two years later, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan temporarily reopened Turkey’s border into Europe, after claiming the bloc had not delivered EUR 3 billion in aid, signaling his government’s willingness to leverage its geopolitical position as a buffer between Syria and Europe. Similarly, in May 2021, Morocco escorted migrants to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in retaliation for Madrid allowing the leader of the Western Sahara independence movement, the Polisario Front, to enter Spain to receive COVID-19 treatment. Now, Belarus, whether in reprisal for sanctions, as retribution for the E.U. backing of Belarusian democratic opposition Sviatlana Tsikhouskaya, or under Russian influence, has provided migrants with Belarusian visas to enter Europe.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has referenced this weakness in E.U. migration policy when he suggested that the European Union could provide financial assistance to Belarus to encourage it to stop migrants from crossing into the bloc. Rather than pursue a strategy similar to the 2016 E.U.-Turkey agreement, on November 15th, the European Union agreed to its fifth sanctions package on Belarus and the E.U. is discussing a sixth sanctions package.

Meanwhile, the Polish government blocked more than 32,000 migrants attempting to cross the Belarusian-Polish border, displacing them for a second time. Lukashenko has declared that he can do nothing about this sevenfold increase in asylum seekers because he has “neither the money nor the energy due to sanctions.” He also threatened to cut off Europe’s supply of Russian gas — about 20 percent of which passes through the Yamal-Europe pipeline that traverses Belarus — unless Brussels recognizes Lukashenko as the legitimate head of state and terminates sanctions. NATO has also condemned “the continued instrumentalization of irregular migration artificially created by Belarus as part of hybrid actions targeted against Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia for political purposes.”

Further, the Baltic states and Poland have declared, for the first time, a state of emergency at their borders with Belarus and have begun constructing kilometers-long fences. Despite the European Union’s longstanding policy of not providing money for border barriers, last week, a proposal mentioned E.U. funding for “border infrastructure.” Ultimately, the European Unionis restricting movement, monitoring entry, and deploying tens of thousands of border guards, demonstrating a deeper destabilization of the principles that have defined the European project.

Intentionally or not, the European Union’s 2016 agreement with Turkey has formed a template for future border externalization agreements and revealed an exploitable flaw that Belarus and others are now manipulating. Yet, migrants are bearing the brunt of the standoff. Moving towards constructive migration diplomacy, Belarus and Poland need to first permit the entry of humanitarian organizations at the border so that adequate medical care, food, and shelter are provided to migrants. While the European Court of Human Rights has ordered as much for Poland and Lithuania, Belarus has yet to accept the aid.

In the short term, Poland should annul an October law that legalizes pushbacks of migrants and asylum seekers, forcing Belarus to refuse their readmittance. As for the long-term objective of ensuring that E.U. migration policy is no longer exploitable, the European Union needs to reduce its reliance on externalization policy. This requires comprehensive migration reform that prioritizes intra-E.U. cooperation between member states, is consistent with long-term E.U. interests, and sustainable within member states’ domestic context. The bloc can no longer meet irregular movement with a heavy-handed response. Brussels should view it as an opportunity for good faith actors to work together to uphold democratic practices, combat human rights transgressions, and strengthen cross-border solidarity.

Kyilah Terry graduated in May 2021 with an M.A. in German and European Studies from Georgetown University, with a focus on forced displacement, European migration policy, and U.S. refugee law. She also received a Certificate in Diplomatic Studies from ISD and a Certificate in Refugees and Humanitarian Emergencies. Currently, she serves as a Congressional research fellow, in the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety, and a U.S. Institute of Peace research analyst in the Africa Center. She writes here in a personal capacity.

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