Why only the E.U. Can End the Standoff at the Poland-Belarus Border

Neither country has much incentive to end the crisis

For the last several months, the Belarusian government led by Alexander Lukashenka has been facilitating flights, visas, and hotel stays for Middle Eastern migrants. In the past few weeks, the government has bussed migrants to the border and given them wire cutters to break through the Polish border. Under international pressure, on November 18, Belarusian authorities cleared a migrant encampment, placing some in a shelter. Some 430 Iraqis have been able to fly home from Belarus. Still, Several thousand migrants remain stuck in Belarus, with no real hopes of entering the European Union. At least 11 people have died in freezing temperatures, and many lack food and adequate clothing. 

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The crisis has not abated. According to journalist Tadeusz Giczan, on November 20, hundreds of migrants attempted to cross from Belarus into neighboring Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Lukashenka told the BBC that he would not stop migrants from coming into the European Union. Neither Poland (the entry point for most of the migrants) nor Belarus has much incentive to back down, and, lacking other options, migrants will try to continue crossing into Europe. Here's why:

Lukashenka hasn't gotten what he wanted from instigating the crisis. According to Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets, Lukashenka, who stole an election in 2020, wanted a removal of sanctions and recognition that he was the legally elected president of Belarus. In fact, European leaders expanded sanctions, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel referred to him as "Mr. Lukashenka" in two phone calls -- not the president.

Still, provoking a migrant crisis did succeed in putting him at the center of the E.U. agenda. Other authoritarian leaders from Turkey and Libya have succeeded in forcing the E.U. to give them money to stop migrant flows, and Lukashenka is trying to play the same game.

The right-wing Eurosceptic Polish government, which has been at loggerheads with the E.U., got a show of support from European governments who praised Poland for defending its border. The government, led by the Law and Justice Party, got the opportunity to portray itself as a defender of Europe against migrants. The current government won an election in 2015 by capturing xenophobic sentiment and warning of migrants carrying "parasites and protozoa." In a signal that the government does not see the crisis ending anytime soon, the Polish parliament passed a law last week making the state of emergency declared at the border continue indefinitely. The state of emergency bars the press and NGOs from direct observation, giving the government control over the narrative at its border.

While several hundred migrants have returned to the Middle East on repatriation flights and a few have successfully crossed into the European Union, thousands remain trapped in Belarus. There are few obvious places for these migrants to go. Some may try to stay in Belarus, which has little history of allowing (or being a draw for) immigration. It's not clear if the government would accept them long-term. There is little political will in the European Union to accept these migrants, out of fears that it might encourage more to try to enter.

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Over the past fifteen years, European attempts to deter migration have failed. Countries in the European Union have built border fences, adopted harsh policing strategies, and the bloc has paid off various countries to stop migrant flows. None of these steps has worked. One way to smooth out these crises is for the bloc to adopt a streamlined and unified system of processing migrants. Right now, individual member states are responsible for processing asylum applications. Eight member states in 2015 received 90 percent of asylum applications. Were the E.U. to adopt a unified system, as has been proposed, it would spread the burden more evenly than the current ad-hoc system. 

The European Union is the only body with the ability to deter these crises, as autocrats will continue to use migration to try to drive a wedge in the E.U. However, the possibility of this seems increasingly distant due to an absence of leadership with the impending exit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and increasingly widespread anti-immigrant sentiment.

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