By Paul Mutter
European Union (EU) authorities believe that approximately 4,000 migrants have gathered on the Polish-Belarusian border since the summer of 2021. Belarus initiated this humanitarian crisis by providing transport, visas and accommodations to hopeful migrants.
Crisis on the Border as Winter Comes
President Alexander Lukashenko has explicitly stated that the goal is to force the EU to grant sanctions relief by threatening to open its borders to third-country arrivals. At least a dozen migrants have perished from the freezing temperatures over the past month. The migrants are blocked from entering Poland as well as from returning to the hotels they had been housed in upon arriving in Minsk.
The Belarusian security services have encouraged the migrants to charge the border, supplying them with wire cutters and chemical irritants to use on Polish border guards, and prevented them from leaving the frontier zone to apply for asylum through normal channels. Forcing the migrants to remain facing the Polish border guards increases their desperation while giving Belarusian media the opportunity to propagandize the EU response.
After several days of clashes along the closed border between Poland’s Podlaskie Voivodeship and Belarus’s Grodno region, the Belarusian authorities finally allowed migrants to seek shelter indoors at a customs facility rather than in flimsy tents and dugouts. With Middle Eastern governments pledging to begin repatriating their nationals, large crowds will likely thin, though some percentage of the migrants will continue to attempt to sneak over the border, as between 10,000 and 20,000 migrants in total are thought to be present in Belarus. Individuals and small groups will still have many opportunities to slip through cordons, though Belarusian police have now begun deportations as well. Similar efforts to breach the Latvian and Lithuanian borders have prompted those countries to impose states of emergency as well.
Provocations Using Refugee as Pawns
The Russian government attempted a similar gambit of using refugees to force political concessions back in 2016 on the Finnish border, securing customs and entry concessions in exchange for backing down. So too, did the Turks and Greeks engage in a series of cross-border provocations and pushback of refugees last year for political reasons at the expense of those left stranded along their shared border. [See “The weaponization of the Syrian refugee crisis” in Riskline Informer, 3 March 2020.]
So far, the Belarusian government has not scored the same level of success as Russia or Turkey has, largely due to the unity the EU has shown in support of Poland. The Polish government has reinforced their border with EU assistance and threatened to cut off rail links with Belarus unless the situation is stabilised. The sanctions, imposed in response to a year-long crackdown on pro-democracy activists after the 2020 presidential election, remain in place. But by pulling back, at least temporarily, Lukashenko succeeded in reopening direct dialogue with EU leaders, which he will use to demand the lifting of sanctions on the Belarusian national airline Belavia and other state enterprises implicated in human rights abuses.
Bowing to the grim reality that the Belarusian government refuses to take responsibility for the thousands of migrants it let into Belarus, the EU has also committed to spending up to one million euros in emergency relief funds through the Belarusian Red Cross. Belarus retains further leverage in the upcoming talks by withholding natural gas deliveries transiting the country by pipeline into the EU. The EU could defuse further such blackmail attempts by liberalising its migrant policies but this is unlikely as no leader wants to be blamed for an increase in asylum seekers by relaxing entry rules on humanitarian grounds; such a position is politically toxic across the federation. This will enable Belarus, tacitly backed by Russia, to continue its provocations for the foreseeable future.
The latest cynical use of migrants to spark a border crisis in the European Union (EU) was initiated by Belarus to try and force sanctions rollback after crushing pro-democracy protests at home. While the tactic has had only limited success so far, the anti-refugee climate in the EU today means that further provocations are likely without a change in EU refugee policy.
Paul Mutter is a US-based political and security risk analyst.