Tensions Rise Between EU And Belarus Over Illegal Migrants

New economic sanctions against Belarus are being discussed by European Union (EU) leaders following a rapid increase in illegal border crossings by migrants. The goal of these sanctions is to pressure Belarus’s ruler Alexander Lukashenko to address this growing issue and cease the weaponization of migration.

The EU already imposed measures against Belarus following Lukashenko’s re-election in August 2020. He was accused of “stealing his country’s election,” in addition to “ordering violent crackdowns and other rights abuses of citizens,” according to NPR. More recently, nations bordering Belarus such as Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland are reporting that the Belarusian government is flying illegal migrants into Minsk and sending them across the border into the EU. According to Reuters, the EU states are claiming that Lukashenko is doing this to “destabilize the bloc,” in retaliation to the sanctions the EU placed earlier in 2020.

Because of the thousands of migrants who have crossed the border of Belarus, Lithuania and Poland have both declared a state of emergency and reinforced their borders. According to Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, Belarus is “employing new flights from several countries from the Middle East and North Africa to deceive people with the hopes of easy entry to the European Union.” Instead of taking the more dangerous Mediterranean route, migrants are simply able to fly to Minsk under a seven-day tourist visa, drive to the border, and cross on foot into one of the neighboring EU countries.

Many of the migrants are coming from Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Africa, fleeing political instability and persecution. According to interviews by BBC, some migrants may not have even attempted to leave had “[B]elarus’s autocratic leader, Alexander Lukashenko, not offered a new, apparently safer route.” In practice, however, this border crossing is anything but simple or safe. BBC also reports that migrants are facing long treks through forests and “foul-smelling swamps,” risking hypothermia, death, and the possibility of ending up in detention facilities. Others are caught by patrols and sent back to Belarus, where they face violence from the very soldiers who sent them across the border.

The EU must find a solution to this emerging humanitarian crisis. Economic sanctions are a good start; however, they do nothing to aid the people who are being used as pawns in this growing power struggle. Member states of the EU have a responsibility under both EU law and the UN’s convention on refugees to process migrants’ requests for asylum. Understandably, the increasing number of refugees and migrants can strain a nation’s resources. Nevertheless, the current measures are insufficient. Belarus and the EU must find a resolution to their current issue that does not include using human lives as bargaining chips.