The appearance of an estimated 2,000 or more migrants on the Belarus side of its border with Poland and Lithuania in recent days, huddled in the freezing forests without food, is a sign of reckless depravity. They were brought there in a choreographed and cynical attempt to provoke a crisis by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. The European Union is right to stand firm against this dangerous behavior.
The migrants, who are mostly from the Middle East, were lured into thinking Belarus would provide a gateway to Europe. They have been given Belarusian visas and flown on Belarus’s state-owned airline to Minsk. They have been bused to the Belarusian border, along with their children and belongings, and in many cases pushed to cross it by Belarusian security forces, even though Poland and Lithuania have stepped up patrols and built fencing to stop the tide. A European Commission spokesperson said, accurately: “This is part of the inhuman and really gangster-style approach of the Lukashenko regime that he is lying to people, he is misusing people . . . and bringing them to Belarus under the false promise of having easy entry into the E.U.”
The use of migrants in this way has been ongoing for months but dramatically escalated in recent days. The gambit is right out of the playbook of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has approved if not instigated it. Mr. Lukashenko may be hoping to create such a nasty fuss that European countries would beg or pay him to stop the flow of migrants — remembering the flood from Syria a few years ago — and hold off on further sanctions.
Fortunately, the European Union shows no sign of rewarding this cruel ploy. Mr. Lukashenko is engaging in state-sponsored human trafficking. With desperate migrants attempting daily to breach the border — using shovels and logs against the barbed-wire fences — the confrontation could easily escalate to violence. It is already a serious humanitarian predicament. Many migrants in the current group are Iraqi Kurds.
Defeated in last year’s presidential election, Mr. Lukashenko forced the winner, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, to flee. He has locked up hundreds of peaceful protesters, journalists, artists and activists; engaged in air piracy to seize an opposition journalist; and attempted to punish an Olympic athlete for speaking out.
The European Union has imposed four rounds of sanctions on Mr. Lukashenko and his cronies for their actions to steal the 2020 election; a fifth round being discussed would target officials and entities who aid and abet the migrant crisis. Airlines also are being warned that if they facilitate human trafficking, they could be barred from European airspace.
The sanctions should come hard and swift. The United States ought to press Iraq and other nations in the Middle East to cut off flights to Minsk. Poland and Lithuania should allow humanitarian relief as needed for the unfortunate victims huddled along the border fence, but these countries must remain steadfast against Mr. Lukashenko’s thuggery. His departure from office and free and fair elections are the only hope for a new start in Belarus.
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