Since the beginning of 2021, thousands of migrants have tried to cross the border from Belarus into Lithuania, which is part of the European Union. European authorities say this isn’t an accident. They believe that Belarus is retaliating against E.U. sanctions by weaponizing migration.
Belarus’s strategy is neither novel nor unusual. In fact, given how well-off countries have been outsourcing the management of refugees and migrants to the global south, it’s likely to become more common.
Weaponized migration is popular
Governments’ strategic use of migrants and refugees for foreign policy purposes — or “migration diplomacy” — has become part and parcel of global power politics. Governments will frequently “weaponize” migration, making it easier or harder for migrants to cross their borders into a neighboring country — and linking those unwanted population movements to other issues on which they want concessions.
Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for 27 years, has a long list of grievances against the E.U. Most recently, in May, the E.U. levied sanctions against Belarus after the government forced a commercial airliner to land so that it could arrest a prominent critic of the regime; the E.U. had previously imposed sanctions after Lukashenko’s government declared him the winner of the disputed presidential election in August 2020. Lukashenko is probably also unhappy with Lithuania’s decision to issue more than 500 humanitarian visas to Belarusians since August 2020, including to numerous critics of the regime.
But Belarus is far less powerful than the E.U. Such comparative weakness is why governments use migration to achieve economic, military or political objectives. For instance, as recently as May 2021, Morocco engineered a mass cross-border movement of 6,000 people into Spain to retaliate against Spain’s decision to offer medical treatment to Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front (which claims independence for Western Sahara, now under Moroccan control). In February 2020, thousands of irregular migrants tried to cross the land border between Greece and Turkey after Turkey announced that it would no longer prevent them from leaving Turkish territory to reach the E.U.
Lukashenko warned in late June that Belarus would retaliate against E.U. measures by no longer preventing asylum seekers from crossing into Europe. As he put it, “You are waging a hybrid war against us and demand that we help you as we did before?”
Most of these irregular migrants are Iraqis who have flown into Minsk via regular Iraqi Airways flights (suspended since Aug. 10 after E.U. pressure on Iraq), although some others include people from Syria, Congo and Cameroon. Stories abound of young Iraqis booking flights to Belarus and then paying human traffickers thousands of euros to move them on to European soil. Belarus is also negotiating a visa-free agreement with Pakistan.
Coercive migration diplomacy allows governments to score easy points against countries that claim to be liberal. In an official state news release, Lukashenko is quoted as saying: “We will not hold anyone. We are not their final destination after all. They are headed to the enlightened, warm, cozy Europe.”
Europeans scrambled to respond coherently. One E.U. spokesman stated that the E.U. “does not finance fences or barriers,” even though Ylva Johansson, the E.U. commissioner in charge of migration, had promised to build a wall along the Belarus border.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has similarly exploited the disconnect between Western values and restrictive refugee policies. In 2016, he said, “Shame on those who in the West divert their sensitivity to the so-called freedoms, rights, and law shown in the debate over gay marriage away from Syrian women, children, and innocents in need of aid.”
Why coercive migration diplomacy often works
Here at TMC, Kelly M. Greenhill reported that her research on engineered migration finds that coercers achieved at least some of their objectives in three-quarters of the cases identified — and all or most of what they sought over half the time. My research on similar efforts by Libya in North Africa and other refugee host countries in the Eastern Mediterranean finds that using refugees as leverage is particularly effective. Threatening flows of refugees gained Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi significant concessions from the E.U. in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 — until he was overthrown in 2011. Turkey negotiated a 6 billion euro “deal” with the E.U. in March 2016 to keep refugees from crossing into Europe. And when Jordan and Lebanon raised the prospect of regional destabilization because of the Syrian refugee crisis, they also won significant economic concessions, primarily from Western governments.
Coercive migration diplomacy works because Western countries have adopted policies of outsourcing migration and refugee management to other countries to keep those migrants out of their own territory. Denmark, for instance, is accused of considering outsourcing asylum processing to Rwanda. Morocco, Turkey and now Belarus can easily target that approach. Other countries that host refugees across the global south — including Kenya, Iran, Pakistan and others — are developing similar strategies, linking their management of migration to demands for more income, mostly from Western nations. Even E.U. member states such as Greece are realizing that refugees can be used as leverage to extract European aid.
In fact, we are experiencing a global shift toward the “commodification” of refugee flows. Countries in the global south are burdened with hosting most of the world’s displaced populations, while the global north is increasingly willing to pay them to continue to do so. Governments are systematically withdrawing funding from international organizations tasked with caring for asylum seekers, which are already stretched to their limits; although wealthy countries profess to protect migrants’ human rights, they consistently close their borders in the name of security via an “out of sight, out of mind” approach.
Belarus may or may not get what it wants this time. Either way, migrants and refugees will continue to be used as geopolitical pawns in global power games.
Gerasimos Tsourapas (@gtsourapas) is associate professor of international relations at the University of Glasgow, United Kingdom.