At-Risk Migrants: Political Tools In The European Union

Several states from the European Union, including neighboring Poland, Estonia, and Lithuania, have accused Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko of illegally sending migrants into the E.U. The group claims that Lukashenko is acting in retaliation to the bloc’s sanctions over the disputed Belarusian presidential election of 2020, making migrants his political tools and risking the creation of broad anti-migrant sentiment in the E.U.

During a news conference last Tuesday, German chancellor Angela Merkel accused Lukashenko of “using refugees . . . from Iraq, in a hybrid way to undermine security.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (R.F.E./R.L.), a U.S. government-funded international radio organization broadcasting from information-restricted countries, also reports that Lukashenko “vowed to send drugs and migrants into [the EU] after the bloc imposed . . . sanctions [over a forced flight diversion to Minsk] to arrest an opposition blogger.”

This problematic approach to sanctions only worsens the existing crisis. Using migrants as a political tool risks creating greater far-right sentiment in the E.U. and invites pushback from migrants that are unwillingly being used for political purposes. Also, many of the migrants are truly in need and do not want to be involved in the political standoff between Belarus and the E.U.

Belarus’s greater role in the flow of migrants into the E.U. has seen far many more migrants crossing into European countries this year than in 2020. In Lithuania, for instance, Reuters reports that 4,124 people, many from Iraq, crossed into the country illegally in 2021. Lithuanian president Gitanas Nauseda signed a decree on August 13th calling for an army deployment to counter illegal crossings at the border, R.F.E./R.L. says. Poland has seen similar numbers and taken similar measures, deploying more than 900 troops to its border with Belarus as of last Wednesday.

The E.U. is concerned that the surge might signal a repeat of the 2015-16 migration crisis. During those years, Reuters writes, “the arrival of more than a million people from the Middle East stretched security and welfare systems and fueled support for far-right groups.” Without directly mentioning the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, interior ministers from the E.U. said there was “a need to strengthen the entire external border of the E.U. to prevent illegal crossings in the future.” This hardline approach leaves migrants who will be in danger if they return home with few alternatives.

E.U. leadership should not be quick to enact strict border measures. Rather, it should analyze solutions to alleviate the large number of migrants on the Polish and Baltic state borders.

One such solution may be establishing migrant admission quotas across the bloc. Ylva Johansson, who oversees migration and asylum manners in the E.U.’s executive Commission, called on member states on Wednesday to “ramp up admission quotas for Afghans in need of protection, particularly for women and girls.” European Parliament president David Sassoli has also proposed that the European Commission “should take charge of ‘equally’ relocating Afghan refugees following the Taliban takeover of their country.”

While an admission quota solution is unlikely to resolve the surge of migrants, it would alleviate the situation in the eastern part of the bloc. Those migrants who arrive to Poland or Lithuania could then go to other E.U. countries, which may put less strain on Polish and Lithuanian institutions. However, countries like Poland and Hungary are opposed to such plans. These countries are unlikely to approve if the E.U. proposes an admission quota solution.

Regardless of where in the E.U. migrants end up, E.U. officials and institutions must ensure those people access to basic resources (including food, water, and a place to sleep), healthy conditions in shelters, and a transparent process for asylum seekers.

E.U. leadership should also refrain from hardline rhetoric that may encourage far right groups. Much of the bloc’s attitude to migrants is influenced by officials’ comments, which can welcome new arrivals or fuel opposition. Earlier this week, Polish deputy prime minister Piotr Gliński said his country “defended itself against the wave of refugees in 2015 and now it will also defend itself.” Far-right groups are quick to seize on these comments to continue anti-migrant sentiment around the block. E.U. officials’ messages should be used to reach solutions, rather than creating new problems.

Open dialogue with E.U. leadership is more likely to produce an agreeable outcome for both migrants and European countries. E.U. officials must not rely only on hardline approaches, but instead collaborate as a bloc to overcome logistical issues with admission quotas, process asylum applications, and create solutions to ensure that migrants can seek asylum.