E.U.-Belarus Border Wall Tensions Obscure Discussions Of Migrant Mistreatment

As of last Wednesday, representatives of the European Union have stated their support for plans made by their westernmost border countries, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, to erect a wall along their border with Belarus. Belarus has supposedly been sending refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan to the E.U. border and encouraging them to seek asylum in those countries, often resulting in illegal border crossings due to strict immigration laws, and then prohibiting them from returning to Belarus. Right-leaning Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania have protested these migrants, claiming that Belarus is purposefully trying to stress the E.U.’s immigration systems as payback for the slew of economic sanctions the bloc placed on Belarus over the last year in response to the country’s corruption and human rights abuses. Meanwhile, as the E.U. flounders over fears of another migrant crisis, the immigrants involved are suffering, trapped in a “no man’s land” at the E.U.-Belarus border.

Immigration issues have historically been contentious in Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland, and this situation seems to be no exception. According to German public news broadcaster Deutsche Welle, the countries released a joint statement to the E.U. stating that “weaponizing refugees and immigrants threatens the regional security of the European Union.” Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki claimed that migrants were being “exploited” by Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko, characterizing the influx of immigrants as Belarusian “blackmail.” Certain E.U. representatives seem to agree with this characterization. According to EuroNews, European commissioner for home affairs Ylva Johansson believes that countries like Lithuania and Poland have the right to build border fences, as it’s their job to protect their borders. “If they assess that they need a fence and police action towards migrants from an aggressive neighbour like Lukashenko, I can understand that,” she said.

However, this approach to immigration has left dozens of migrants stranded at the border, with no way forward and no way back. According to Radio Free Europe, many other human rights and foreign policy organizations, like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, have spoken out against the situation. “While we acknowledge the challenges posed by recent arrivals to Poland,” Christine Goyer, the UN refugee agency’s representative in Poland, said, “we call on the Polish authorities to provide access to territory, immediate medical assistance, legal advice, and psychosocial support to these people.” The European Commission, the E.U.’s executive body, said that it was closely monitoring developments at the border, stressing the need for “orderly border management” and “full respect for migrants’ fundamental rights.”

Trying to detain or deter the incoming migrants has only put their safety and wellbeing at risk. In addition to monitoring the situation as it develops, the E.U. must also unequivocally denounce the border walls and inhumane treatment of migrants at the border, as well as diverting attention and funding towards preparing for any potential future immigrants.

Concerns have been raised within the E.U. about whether the flood of refugees is signaling another migrant crisis similar to the one that destabilized member states in 2015. However, making preparations now, as the situation is developing, could avoid a future crisis. The current approach is similar to that of the 2015 crisis: letting each E.U. country deal with the situation individually. However, that response led to disjointed and ineffective results in 2015. Now, it’s resulting in the abuse of military and police forces at the Belarussian border. The European Parliament News suggests that if the E.U. wants to address the issues that arose during the 2015 migrant crisis, the bloc should “open up more channels for legal migration, facilitate cooperation with non-E.U. countries, and ensure a faster asylum process at the borders, including swift returns for rejected asylum seekers … [as well as] ensure fair and equal treatment of asylum-seekers.” To do this, “the Parliament and member states (Council) will have to work together to find agreement on those new proposals as co-legislators.”

Additionally, because of the extent of Belarus’s sanctions from both the E.U. and the U.S. over the past year, the country has become almost entirely dependent on Russia for financial and political support. In order to put up a united front to, as European Parliament News said, “facilitate cooperation with non-E.U. countries,” the bloc will have to negotiate financial deals with Russia and present clear goals for the immigration situation with Belarus. German chancellor Angela Merkel has already said that she plans to make a diplomatic visit to Russian president Vladimir Putin to discuss sanctions on Belarus. This situation would not be difficult to tack onto the list of items for negotiation.

Overall, neither the E.U. or Belarus are completely innocent of weaponizing immigrants. As the situation on the Belarusian border progresses, we must put continuous attention on the current and future wellbeing of the refugees who are trapped there.