The European Union (EU) is seeking suspension of its 2020 Visa Facilitation Agreement with Belarus as it applies to government officials, citing Minsk’s increased migrant human rights abuses and lack of compliance. This announcement is a response to a recent spike in irregular migration patterns at Belarus’ borders with nearby EU states, widely considered to be instigated by President Lukashenko. Although EU members have yet to approve this action, the push for greater restrictions on Belarus’ powers demonstrates the growing conflict between Belarus, its neighbour states of Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, and the greater EU.
In October 2020, the European Union imposed economic sanctions on Belarus. The initial motivation behind these was the reelection of the Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko, which extended his 26-year rule. The election is suspected to have been a fraudulent attempt to continue Lukashenko’s regime, a belief supported by the fact that activists and peaceful protesters were further silenced following this decision. Since the election, relations have not improved. The EU imposed harsher sanctions in May after Belarusian officials force-landed a plane in order to arrest journalist, Raman Pratasevich. Now, the EU suspects Belarus is utilizing foreign migrants as an act of “hybrid warfare,” according to The Guardian.
The EU and Belarus created the Visa Facilitation Agreement in July of 2020, hoping to protect those trying to move between the two areas and to safely return those that were illegally in the countries. The agreement offers cheaper visa prices, fewer required documents, and extends the period of validity for student or journalist visas. Since its inception, however, Belarus has taken advantage of the agreement by facilitating the movement of groups from the Middle East and North Africa into Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, potentially in order to destabilize the bloc. Ylva Johansson, the EU Home Affairs and Migration Commissioner, expressed her concerns in a press conference, stating that “Lukashenko is importing or welcoming migrants, incentivizing migrants to come to Minsk and then they are being facilitated not only to EU external borders, but actually pushed into the European Union. And this is of course totally unacceptable. It’s a way to instrumentalise human beings and put their lives at risk.” The European Commission clearly states that, “the Visa Facilitation Agreement was concluded on the premise that respect for human rights and democracy are fundamental principles governing the cooperation between the Union and Belarus.” Now that Belarus is clearly violating human rights, the EU no longer feels the agreement applies for government officials, although it will continue to approve visas for Belarusian citizens.
Aside from the despicable use of humans as weapons, this forced migration is putting pressure on the EU and its individual members. In a BBC interview, Nigerian migrants recount that “the Belarusians beat us, push us back to Poland; the Poles catch us, beat us, push us back to Belarus.” Poland recently restricted its border zone to all journalists, NGOs, or EU aid efforts following five migrant deaths, Reuters reports. Johansson plans to meet with the Polish Interior Minister on Thursday, reinforcing that the EU will “support Poland in protecting [its] external borders but it’s important that must be in line with fundamental rights and in line with transparency.” Outside of Poland, Latvia and Lithuania have also declared states of emergency. If the situation is not promptly rectified, the lack of regional stability will further risk innocent individuals’ lives.
The EU needs to prioritize the protection of the unwilling migrants serving as Belarusian pawns over the punishment of government figures who are already banned from the region. Clearly, previous restrictions have not been effective. Instead of investing resources into increasing sanctions, the EU should focus on aiding migrants, whether through a continued streamlined visa process or an assisted return to their home country. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees should also get involved, upholding the practice of non-refoulment which the Visa Agreement protects and aiding in migrants’ resettlement. Finally, although coercion seems obvious, further research is needed to confirm the exact nature of this type of migration. Even if this crisis is essentially “man-made,” its effects are real, and the humanitarian emergency will have a lasting negative impact on EU countries and displaced individuals alike.
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