In retaliation for ongoing sanctions imposed by the European Union on Belarus after its disputed presidential election in 2020, President Lukashenko vowed earlier this year to allow migrants to cross Belarus’ borders into EU member states. In a widely publicized move, Belarus is granting easily accessible tourist visas to migrants, many of whom are Syrian refugees residing in Iraq. Supposed travel agents operating in Iraq organize these special tourist visas and flights to Belarus, promoted by the Belarusian government, for desperate refugees. This loophole enables refugees to bypass treacherous boat trips across the Mediterranean and instead travel to Belarus, drive to its border, and walk into one of its three EU neighbour states: Poland, Lithuania or Latvia. Belarusian soldiers are even enabling refugees to cross their border. Consequently, the EU has accused Belarus of purposefully trafficking in migrants hoping to enter the EU in order to destabilize the region as part of a coordinated attack.
However, while this process may appear to be a loophole for refugees to obtain asylum in the EU, it remains dangerous and disappointing for many. Eight deaths have now been reported in the border region between Belarus and the EU, as refugees attempt to escape through hazardous wilderness into Europe. Moreover, the border between Poland and Belarus has become militarized, as 20,000 border police using water cannons, stun grenades, and tear gas have been deployed by Poland in their standoff with migrants. As a result, many groups of refugees are stranded in life-threatening conditions, which are only worsening with the onset of winter. Arrival into the EU also does not guarantee asylum for the refugees that risked their lives and spent their savings to flee through Belarus, many of whom end up in detention in Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia while others are rejected or die along the way. Consequently, the UNHCR has called on Belarus and the EU to come to an agreement. In response to the crisis, however, the EU has only heightened the conflict by intensifying sanctions on Belarus to potentially target officials close to President Lukashenko, in addition to the airlines bringing refugees to Minsk. Accordingly, Belarus is continuing to facilitate the pileup of refugees at its borders with the EU.
Belarus’ ability to manipulate the EU at the expense of vulnerable individuals demonstrates the extent of the EU’s failure to adequately address the refugee crisis, as well as exposes its weakness stemming from having exacerbated the issue. Similarly, in 2015, the EU first revealed its willingness to exploit refugees as a political tool by paying Turkish President Erdogan five billion pounds to keep refugees out of Europe and help alleviate the subsequent burden on Turkey. Rather than focusing on addressing the impending humanitarian disaster unfolding on the Belarusian border, the EU is imposing new sanctions, which will only aggravate the issue, as President Lukashenko has already vowed to rebel against them. Therefore, EU states have accused President Lukashenko of deliberately trafficking in refugees to destabilize Europe.
This catastrophe highlights the EU’s failure to prioritise human life by allowing the refugee crisis to continue as migrants die in their attempt to gain asylum within Europe. The EU’s gross inaction rendered it susceptible to the weaponisation of refugees by ruthless regimes with no qualms about treating migrants as pawns in a political game.
By Catherine Burke
Catherine is a second-year History and International Relations student. She is interested in international law, human rights, immigration, decolonization, and refugee rights and in particular, how these issues are addressed in Europe.
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Chance, Matthew, Zahra Ullah, Antonia Mortensen. ‘Violence erupts on Poland-Belarus border as Polish guards fire water cannon on migrants throwing rocks.’ CNN, November 16, 2021.
Emmott, Robin and Philip Blenkinsop. “EU weighs further sanctions on Belarus over illegal migrants.” Reuters, October 18, 2021.
Rosenberg, Steve. “Poland border crisis: EU to widen Belarus sanctions as row intensifies.” BBC, November 15, 2021.
UNHCR. “UNHCR urges States to end stalemate at Belarus-EU border and avoid further loss of life.” October 22, 2021.