Belarus becoming a passage for Migrants to Europe

Photo source: New York Times

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

When Alexander Lukashenko crushed a nationwide revolt against his fraudulent presidential victory, he had been hampered by sanctions since the summer of 2020 by the United States, and the European Union which were biting hard. In response, Lukashenko began offering a safe passage for Middle Easterners to Europe, first to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and then, often by government bus, to Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. The motive behind his act was to force EU to ease its sanctions against Belarus, by directly threatening an immigration flood tide. In some cases, migrants had even paid five to ten thousand dollars to come to Belarus, reflecting money profiteering by Lukashenko’s regime. However, there were also others, mostly economic migrants, who had come with some minimal expense.

The desperation was summed up right by Dexter Fillins in his The New Yorker essay, who wrote: ‘Whatever else Lukashenka’s scheme is, it’s ingenious: the broken countries of the Middle East and Central Asia are filled with young men and women looking for better lives, and the doors to Europe are otherwise locked tight.’

Lukashenko had publicly denied that he was enabling immigrants to flow into Europe, but his denials are not creditworthy, especially when Iraqi migrants in Poland have been testifying to the fact that they had been given wire cutters by Belarusian security forces.

Lukashenko is not the first national leader to use the threat of unrestrained immigration for political purposes. Just like Lukashenko, Erdogan has also threatened to allow free passage for the Syrian refugees inside his country, who number 3.6 million. The EU had responded to his move with large tranches of financial aid to help him pay for the immigrants, showing that Erdogan is making Europe to dance on his tunes.

Artyom Shraibman, a political analyst based in Minsk and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moscow Center believes that Lukashenko has threatened to open up his borders, long ago, before the political crises of 2020, but his threats increased since 2021.

To stop the migrants, the governments of Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland have deployed troops to their borders with Belarus, and they have deported most of those who have made it across. Other measures, such as the construction of migrant camps, are expensive, and they remain a matter at hand.

Under pressure from the European Union, Belavia in November 2021 had stopped allowing Iraqis, Syrians, and Yemenis, to board flights in Turkey, and the Turkish government, in retaliation, said that it would stop selling tickets to Belarus. But, Belavia flies throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. These regions have droves of eager young people who want to go to Europe. And, according to Landsbergis, Lithuanian foreign minister, thousands of Iraqis, Afghans and Kurds have already arrived in Belarus, waiting to cross. When the migrants approach the border of any one of the E.U. states, they are pushed back. At the same time, the government of Belarus doesn’t want them, either. That’s why, thousands of migrants appear to be stuck in what is literally a no man’s land, a hell hole. They are living in freezing camps, in forests with no humanitarian aid. Many of them have died. Migrants who were dead left traces such as food wrappers, former makeshift campsites, paperwork in Arabic, and even boarding passes from their home countries.

Belarus was later accused of employing migrants as a form of hybrid warfare against the European Union after Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland declared a state of emergency. Some of these countries also institutionalised riot policing, and other measures to bolster the border guards.

The right-wing governing party in Poland has long called non-European migrants a threat to Polish culture and sovereignty, and its response to the current situation has been predictably heated. This stance is something similar that buoyed the right-wing nationalists across the continent.

Under pressure from the European Union, which doesn’t want an encore of the 2015 migrant crises only some migrants from the border were shifted to some warehouses and some to government-run hotels by Belarus, where they were provided with some basic assistance. The other point to note is that as most of them are economic migrants, they don’t qualify for asylum, heightening their fears of survival. People who tried to help the migrants have had their cars smashed.

Also, the key to this migrant crisis has been Putin. He has been Lukashenko’s benefactor and guarantor. For years, the Russian government has provided Lukashenko with billions of dollars worth of subsidised gas and oil, which it can sell at market prices elsewhere. These subsidised fuels are pivotal in sustaining Moscow’s satrapy in Minsk. In 2020, during the popular uprising against Lukashenko, Putin made it clear that he would, if necessary, use force to keep Belarus from slipping out of Russian hands. In this view, the immigration crisis unfolding in Europe is a battle between Russia and the West, which puts Belarus at its very centre. And, in this battle, it is not just Belarus. Actually, there are other former states of the Soviet Union that have become hotbeds of East-West competition. Add to that, in Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, there are overwhelming popular aspirations to move closer to Europe, making these stances palpable against the hard calculations of Russian power.

Lukashenka won’t hold on to Belarus forever, but, as the events mainly on the Polish and Lithuanian borders continue to unfold, he may have invented a weapon that will tow with us for a long time to come.


Popular Posts