Since the middle of this year, the European Union has been confronted with a brutal and new type of challenge, a form of hybrid warfare in which migrants are used as weapons. In fact, the EU does not know what to do with the new situation. Alarming messages keep coming from the ‘front’. This week it was images of columns of refugees that attracted attention. Earlier, the EU was shocked because migrants had died at the Polish border – ten are said to have been killed in the meantime.
Poland has declared a state of emergency at the border, Lithuania would follow the Polish example in the night from Tuesday to Wednesday. In the meantime, Poland has gathered 12,000 soldiers at the border, giving the conflict the appearance of a conventional border conflict. There were already shadowy armed skirmishes that immediately caught the attention of NATO. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg telephoned Polish President Duda on Tuesday to show solidarity.
Also read:Soldiers and tear gas at the border
There are now 2,000 migrants who want to go to Europe on the border between Belarus and the EU. They ended up there because Belarus uses them as pawns in a power struggle with the EU. Minsk lures migrants from Africa and the Middle East and puts them on the doorstep of the EU – for a fee. Belarus has taken over the role of people smugglers in the migration routes.
President Lukashenko wants to take back the EU for sanctions imposed by Brussels because Minsk had hijacked a European plane in order to arrest a Belarusian opposition leader. Relations were already bad before the hijacking because the EU did not recognize the results of the presidential elections because they were not democratic. Poland and Lithuania also expressly support the Belarusian opposition.
The EU Member States at the EU’s external border do not see the migrants as real refugees and do not really want to let them in. According to EU figures, 7,935 migrants from Belarus have entered the EU since the summer: 4,216 in Lithuania, 414 in Latvia and 3,305 in Poland. The migrants try to travel on from there.
The EU has tried a number of strategies to get to grips with the situation. Work is underway on new sanctions against members of the Lukashenko clan. That could come around later this week. Asked whether sanctions are working, a Commission spokesperson said: “Yes, we see that they are working, because we see that Lukashenko is starting to behave like a gangster regime.”
The migrants are often flown to Minsk with aircraft leased by Belarusian airline Belavia. Brussels also wants to use sanctions to hit Belavia as well as companies that rent out devices to Belavia. In addition, the EU has tried through diplomatic channels to induce countries of origin or transit to oppose Lukashenko. Turkey was asked to reduce the number of flights from Istanbul to Minsk. Talks have also been held with Iraq. The Commission is also investigating flights from Morocco, Syria, Libya, Azerbaijan and Qatar.
Given the numbers of migrants, the new migration crisis cannot be compared with the crisis of 2015 when hundreds of thousands set out. Nevertheless, the new crisis is having an impact on the political conversation in Brussels.
Border control is primarily the responsibility of Member States at the EU’s external border, who can be assisted in this by the European border guard Frontex. The Commission has repeatedly offered support to Poland to manage the situation at the border.
Twelve countries asked the EU in a letter last month to build a wall at the EU’s external border with European money. Not so long ago, US President Donald Trump was criticized in Europe for his wall on the border with Mexico and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was criticized for his border fence. The chance that the EU will really fund a ‘wall’ does not seem great yet. The Commission is firmly against, as it was in 2015.
Whether the debate moves further towards building physical barriers with EU money remains to be seen. In words, the EU stands squarely behind the border states. EU Council President Charles Michel in Berlin on Tuesday: “The Polish and Baltic borders are the borders of the European Union: one for all, all for one.”
With the cooperation of Clara van de Wiel.
Also read: Migrants ‘were bounced back and forth like a ball’
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 10, 2021