The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Belarus is the latest country to use migrants as pawns. The West is guilty, too.


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When throngs of Syrians fleeing civil war surged through Turkey toward the European Union in 2015, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held the bloc ransom. During a tense meeting with E.U. leaders that year, he threatened to put refugees “on buses” and flood Europe with migrants if the bloc didn’t pay billions of euros in financial aid.

Desperate to end a crisis that saw 1.3 million people apply for asylum in Europe in 2015, Europe opted to pay up, effectively outsourcing refugee management to an autocratic leader with a less-than-stellar record on human rights. Erdogan would repeat the threat periodically — in 2019 and in 2020 — fashioning migration as a cudgel against Brussels.

Further north, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is a fast learner. In an apparent search for ways to push back against Western sanctions tied to rigged 2020 elections that saw the Moscow-backed leader cling to power and crack down on dissent, he has located Europe’s weak spot: migration. Unlike Erdogan — who was faced with millions of Syrians escaping into Turkey — Lukashenko, the E.U. and U.S. say, is manufacturing an artificial migrant crisis by granting tourist visas for asylum seekers from the Middle East, then pointing them toward E.U. borders.

Belarus and its backers in Moscow have denied hatching a plot to destabilize Europe. But as evidence mounts that Lukashenko is indeed weaponizing migrants — Belarusian guards are pulling and cutting down Polish border fences for asylum seekers, my colleagues reported — the Belarus play seems to mark a next-level evolution in the use of migrants as pawns in diplomatic blackmail.

Albeit in a very different way, it’s a game the West is guilty of playing to thwart asylum seekers from coming in the first place.

In the wake of the 2015 migrant crisis, the European Union launched an effort that tied development aid in key transit countries in Africa to cooperation on migration control. Individual European nations took it upon themselves to go even further, funding controversial efforts to halt migration, with the stated humanitarian goal of sparing migrants from treacherous trips across the Mediterranean.

Often, however, those moves deepened domestic problems in transit and origin countries, as some migrants traded rafts for squalid foreign jails. An Associated Press investigation in 2019 found huge sums of European money had been “diverted to intertwined networks of militiamen, traffickers and coast guard members who exploit migrants.” In some cases, the report said, U.N. officials knew that militia networks — which have been accused of torture, extortion and abuse in detention centers that some have likened to concentration camps — were getting the money. Last year, Italy threatened to withhold development aid from Tunisia if it did not agree on a plan to stem migration. In Niger, France allegedly financed a former rebel leader to control migrant flows, “prioritizing its desire to stop migration over Niger’s national security interest.”

“When smugglers learn the military is in the area, they often abandon migrants in the desert to escape arrest,” the Times reported.

In 2019, the Trump administration cut off aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, restoring it only after the countries had agreed to deals allowing the United States to send migrants traveling north through Central America back to those countries.

The West and Belarus have no monopoly on wielding migration as a blunt instrument. Earlier this year, Morocco allegedly “engineered” a surge of 6,000 migrants into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. The move came in alleged retribution for Madrid’s decision to grant a foe of Morocco — a separatist leader in Western Sahara — entry to Spain for medical treatment, Kelly M. Greenhill, a Tufts University professor, wrote in The Post. In 1980, Fidel Castro opened Cuban prisons in a successful attempt to plant criminals within the far greater ranks of real refugees who flocked to the United States during the Mariel boatlift.

Yet the Belarusian play feels fundamentally different and more dangerous, heralding open season on the use of migrants in hybrid warfare. In sharp contrast to its willingness to deal with Turkey, Europe is drawing a line in the sand with Belarus. The E.U. is drafting a new round of sanctions. Poland has rushed thousands of troops to the Belarusian border. The risk now, as Lukasz Olejnik noted in Foreign Policy, is that the crisis spirals into clashes between NATO-backed Poland and Russian-backed Belarus.

Lukashenko threatened to choke off gas supplies to Europeearning him a public reprimand from Russian President Vladimir Putin — if the E.U. imposes more sanctions, a lever the bloc is expected to pull as soon as Monday. Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, is citing the Belarus crisis as further evidence of the need for more and faster defense integration within the bloc.

“Europe is in danger and Europeans do not realize it,” he told Politico Europe. “Today’s world … is no longer governed by the desire for peace and benevolence. We still have power conflicts between carnivores where herbivores are unlikely to survive.”

Poland and other E.U. member states are reaching for a Trumpian solution: A border wall with Belarus. Yet as the standoff escalates, there are thousands of clear losers in this game of blackmail — the estimated 4,000 migrants stranded in the freezing woods between Belarus and Poland, and the 10,000 more that Polish officials said last week were en route. The migrants are at grave risk of hypothermia. At least eight — almost surely an undercount — have already died.

The E.U.’s lack of progress in overhauling its asylum management system — coupled with its delegation of refugee policy to third countries with a track record of treating migrants harshly — has created a weakness for Lukashenko to exploit. The bloc, meanwhile, has answered his weaponization of asylum seekers with a callous call to push back “defenseless people into dangerous situations,” journalist Andrew Connelly argued in Foreign Policy.

“The E.U.’s obsessive focus on militarizing a humanitarian issue and eroding the concept of asylum is squandering the principles that are supposed to differentiate it from the bad guys,” Connelly wrote.

The Polish government of right-wing nationalists has staunchly vowed the migrants “will not come in.” But as images of freezing migrants at the border spread across the globe, even the Roman Catholic church with which Polish leaders claim to align — at least when it comes to abortion policy and a rejection of same-sex marriage — has appeared to chide Polish leaders as well as those in Belarus for their lack of Christian spirit.

“It’s important to have personal openness to our brothers and sisters in need,” Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, President of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, told Vatican Radio. He added: “The Pope spoke about the Mediterranean becoming a huge cemetery. Now with this you have E.U. borders becoming a huge cemetery. I do not feel well living in a European Union surrounded by cemeteries of people who wished to share our way of life.”

“We cannot forget our principles when we see people in need,” he said.

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