Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Don’t Blame Belarus. Blame Brussels.

The migrant crisis on the EU’s eastern border is the result of an incoherent and inhumane European migration policy ripe for exploitation by autocrats.

By , a journalist covering migration, politics, and human rights.
Migrant children pose for the camera in a tent camp on the Belarusian-Polish border on Nov. 11.
Migrant children pose for the camera in a tent camp on the Belarusian-Polish border on Nov. 11. Ramil Nasibulin/TASS via Getty Images

“This is a hybrid attack,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen asserted on Twitter on Nov. 10, referring to the thousands of migrants escorted to Poland’s border by the Belarusian regime. “Not a migration crisis.”

It is of course both. But European Union leaders’ refusal to recognize this reality is partly why the EU is facing such chaos.

Six years after the height of Europe’s last refugee crisis, adults and children from war zones and failed states are still squeezed between troops and razor wire asking to be let in. Their appearance on the bloc’s eastern border has been facilitated and coordinated by the security apparatus of Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, who is reeling from EU sanctions against him for gross human rights violations against his own people. But the EU’s panic-stricken, warlike approach to a manageable migration problem is precisely what makes its dysfunctional system so ripe for exploitation by hostile actors.

“This is a hybrid attack,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen asserted on Twitter on Nov. 10, referring to the thousands of migrants escorted to Poland’s border by the Belarusian regime. “Not a migration crisis.”

It is of course both. But European Union leaders’ refusal to recognize this reality is partly why the EU is facing such chaos.

Six years after the height of Europe’s last refugee crisis, adults and children from war zones and failed states are still squeezed between troops and razor wire asking to be let in. Their appearance on the bloc’s eastern border has been facilitated and coordinated by the security apparatus of Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, who is reeling from EU sanctions against him for gross human rights violations against his own people. But the EU’s panic-stricken, warlike approach to a manageable migration problem is precisely what makes its dysfunctional system so ripe for exploitation by hostile actors.

Lukashenko does not care about migrants’ protection or the roots of their displacement, but Europe should.

Although it is true that the Belarusian regime is in league with predatory smugglers who convince desperate Iraqi families to liquidate their assets and make the doomed journey to the forests of eastern Europe, the background of these people is seldom mentioned. Lukashenko does not care about their protection or the roots of their displacement, but Europe should. Instead, the EU’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.

This summer I spent time on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border and found people who objected to the government and media narrative that framed them as pawns or weapons. “We understand that Europe and Belarus are not on good terms,” one young Somali told me. “But I don’t know about Lukashenko. All I know is that Belarus opened the door, but they didn’t make us come here.”

One teenager fleeing military conscription from Eritrea told me: “Of course, we came illegally. There is no other way.”

In response to migrant pressure on their borders, Lithuania, Poland, and ten other EU states have called for Brussels to “adapt the existing legal framework to the new realities.” This is nothing more than a call to ignore the Geneva Refugee Convention and legitimize pushbacks of defenseless people into dangerous situations.

When I told the Lithuanian foreign minister that Belarus did not seem like a safe country to return asylum-seekers to given the torture of its own citizens, he asserted, “But they are not torturing Afghans.” One can only hope he is right, though, despite hosting thousands of stranded migrants, Belarus appears neither to be reaching for a humanitarian solution nor operating a functioning asylum system—nor caring about the desperate people who have frozen to death on its border in recent weeks.

Poland has a record of blocking people fleeing Russia’s oppressive Chechnya republic as well as Central Asian autocracies like Tajikistan and leaving them vulnerable in Belarus. At the same time, it has, along with Lithuania, rightly arranged humanitarian visas and even humanitarian corridors for fleeing Belarusian dissidents. The same treatment is rarely afforded to those fleeing Afghanistan’s Taliban, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, or Somalia’s al-Shabab. Why?


While plenty of justified opprobrium can be directed towards Lukashenko’s regime and his Kremlin backers, the EU’s dysfunctional asylum policies are also to blame. The first member state responsible for assessing an asylum-seeker’s claim is generally the one in which the seeker first sets foot.

This inevitably forces people to languish in countries they never intended to seek asylum in. This system is designed by the wealthier, northern countries to outsource the delicate process of asylum protection to the bloc’s weaker frontier states in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. It also allows those countries to maintain a liberal façade of insisting on human rights in public, while the dirty work of fortification and pushbacks is left to poorer governments on the fringes.

The EU’s dysfunctional asylum policies are also to blame.

“We are not Belarus,” Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson—responsible for migration and asylum affairs at the EU executive—said in October when discussing Lukashenko’s instrumentalization of migrants. “We are about humanity, not brutality.” And yet, several EU member states have been credibly accused of systemic brutality rivaling Lukashenko’s security forces.

Last month, journalists exposed how Greek coast guard units abduct migrants landing on Aegean islands and abandon them at sea, and filmed Croatian border guards beating migrants while deporting them over a river into Bosnia and Herzegovina. Asylum-seekers crossing the central Mediterranean are monitored by European aerial surveillance, which alerts EU-trained Libyan militias to drag them back into EU-financed detention centers in Libya, where torture, rape, and extortion is routine.

With reports that migrants pay vast sums to travel agencies, airlines, and hotels connected to the Belarusian state, Lukashenko’s operation is proving lucrative for his sanctioned regime. But it was only a few years ago that the EU was sending two million euros’ worth of surveillance and patrol equipment to Belarusian border guards to stamp down on irregular migration. Experts are concerned that the technology has been used to stamp out internal dissent too.

In 2020, EU countries granted protection to around 280,000 people— but they have to reach the territory first. Europe simply does not resettle nearly enough refugees. In 2020, it managed around 8,700; even in pre-COVID 2019 it resettled barely 21,000. If Europeans object to people arriving by boat and languishing behind barbed wire that number needs to increase tenfold.

Likewise, many people are not in need of international protection but need to work and study, so those legal opportunities should be expanded to avoid overloading asylum systems. Also, asylum-seekers must be allowed to work so they can pay their way and not rely on state support or exploitative black-market jobs—in the United Kingdom, for example, they are not allowed to work.

While it is grotesque to see Lukashenko collaborating with the Assad regime to fly people straight from Damascus, Syria, to Minsk, Belarus, it also highlights the hypocrisy of a world that doesn’t allow most asylum-seekers to fly anywhere. By consistently failing to offer meaningful opportunities or resettlement routes and denying asylum-seekers access to their territories, democracies give the monopoly of movement to sinister dictatorships and smuggling networks that they purport to oppose.

Today the pressure comes from Belarus; tomorrow it could come from within the EU.

Coercive human smuggling and trafficking are malignancies, but much of this business is a product of laws that criminalize asylum-seekers. If states don’t want to enrich criminal networks operating around their territories, perhaps they must examine their own role in creating and maintaining the market in which those networks flourish. In Cyprus, I recently met a young Syrian refugee who arrived by sea from Lebanon. Heavily pregnant, she was taken ashore. Shortly after giving birth in hospital, she was informed that her husband and two young children had been deported to Lebanon along with everyone else on the boat.

Cyprus grants hardly any asylum-seekers the right to bring their family across legally. The aim is to deter people from coming; the consequence is that people pay smugglers and risk death to come anyway.

Today the pressure comes from Belarus; tomorrow it could come from within the EU. A few days ago, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban warned Brussels that, if it doesn’t reimburse the billions his government claims to have spent on its anti-migrant border wall, he is “ready to open a corridor for migrants to march up to Austria, Germany, and Sweden.”

If more of European taxpayers’ money were used to finance dignified and efficient processing centers on key migration routes and allow people to safely reunite with family members across the continent, then those taxpayers might be spared chaotic scenes on their borders.

A dictator is flying migrants in for nefarious purposes—but why does Europe not fly in vetted and approved refugees, winning the humanitarian argument and subverting the smugglers’ business model? Plane tickets do not cost more than endless fences, surveillance systems, and troop movements. Irregular migration and smugglers will never magically disappear, and grown-up governments should tell their citizens as much.

In the meantime, the EU could present legal and humane solutions to address the phenomenon, rather than normalize the kind of violence and lawbreaking for which it condemns others.

Andrew Connelly is a journalist covering migration, politics, and human rights. Twitter: @connellyandrew

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