Fears that Belarus’ authoritarian leader is using migrants and refugees as a “hybrid warfare” technique to undermine the European Union’s security are placing new stresses on some of the bloc’s ideals and regulations.
The situation on Poland’s, Lithuania’s, and Latvia’s eastern borders is prompting calls for the EU to fund the building of something it never intended to build: border barriers and walls.
This perspective was expressed this week during a ceremony honoring the collapse of the Berlin Wall, one of Europe’s most renowned and historic boundaries.
For months, a border issue with Belarus has been smoldering. Top EU officials claim that Belarus’ long-serving authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, is enticing tens of thousands of migrants and refugees to Minsk with the promise of assistance in reaching western Europe.
Belarus denies using them as pawns, but the European Union claims Lukashenko is retaliating for sanctions placed on his regime following the president’s disputed election to a sixth term last year, which sparked anti-government rallies and a crackdown on internal dissent.
The situation erupted as huge numbers of asylum seekers congregated outside the Polish hamlet of Kuznica at a border crossing with Belarus. Warsaw beefed up security in the area, sending in riot police to stop people from cutting over a razor-wire barrier.
Polish legislators declared a state of emergency and altered the country’s asylum regulations. To the dismay of refugee groups and Poland’s EU allies, only military have access to the region. Lithuania has begun expanding its border barrier in a similar manner.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive department, considers that walls and barriers are useless and has thus far refused to fund them, however it would support infrastructure such as surveillance cameras and technology.
That mindset may be shifting in light of the current security situation.
“Our EU frontiers are under siege by a nasty, hybrid onslaught.” Belarus is cynically and shockingly weaponizing migrants’ suffering,” European Council President Charles Michel said at a commemoration in Germany on the 32nd anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
“We’ve started a discussion on EU funding for actual border infrastructure. Because the Polish and Baltic borders are EU borders, this must be resolved quickly. “One for all, one for all,” Michel explained.
This technique, as well as other border procedures, is causing consternation. Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, spoke to EU parliamentarians on Wednesday, calling for European leadership and urging the group to avoid a “race to the bottom” on migration policy.
“These challenges simply do not justify the knee-jerk reactions we have seen in some places: irresponsible xenophobic discourse; walls and barbed wire; violent pushbacks that include beating refugees and migrants, sometimes stripping them naked and dumping them in rivers or leaving them to drown in seas; attempts to evade asylum obligations by paying other states to take on one’s own responsibilities,” Grandi said.
“The European Union, as a rule-of-law union, should and can do better,” he asserted.
According to European Commission estimates, roughly 8,000 migrants have arrived from Belarus this year, and border police have blocked about 28,000 attempted crossings.
Most are Iraqis or Syrians, according to Monique Pariat, a senior commission home affairs officer, who travel to Minsk from Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates. They pay a large sum to a state-owned tourism organization, which she claims goes “right into Lukashenko’s wallets.”
It’s the farthest thing from Europeans’ minds. The influx of over one million migrants into the EU in 2015, the most of whom were escaping turmoil in the Middle East, caused the EU’s most intractable political crisis. They can’t agree on who should be in charge of refugees and migrants, or if other EU nations should be required to assist.
Six years ago, Greece and Italy were on the front lines. Thousands of asylum seekers have arrived in Spain in recent years. Now it’s Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia’s time.
Many in the West feel that Russian President Vladimir Putin is assisting Lukashenko in his efforts to destabilize Europe.
“They are well aware that this is a contentious issue among European Union member states. “We have to be extremely mindful that bickering among ourselves would be playing their game,” Isabel Wiseler-Lima, a conservative EU legislator from Luxembourg, said.
Leaders of the union urged the commission “to propose any required adjustments to the EU’s legal framework as well as specific measures backed by significant budgetary assistance to guarantee a prompt and effective response” during a summit late last month.
Twelve member countries – Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia – had demanded that the European Commission strengthen the rules governing Europe’s passport-free travel zone, known as the Schengen area, just a few weeks before.
They demand “stronger border protection” and “additional measures” to prevent the “grave repercussions of overcrowded migration and asylum procedures and depleted accommodation capacity,” which might undermine public confidence in the EU’s ability to act decisively.
The concern is whether these methods would constitute “pushbacks,” which are prohibited under international refugee treaties and EU law. Pushbacks are the denial of admission to persons, frequently by force, without giving them the opportunity to request for asylum.
Officials from the European Union and the United Nations are already concerned that Poland is restricting access to its border area with Belarus, where hundreds have been denied entrance in conditions that cannot be independently confirmed. In the border no man’s land, eight individuals have perished.
The commission is also looking at recent revisions to Polish law regarding the right to asylum, which “does not appear to be guaranteed in this case,” according to spokesperson Adalbert Jahnz.
Security is tightening as tensions rise, and outdated techniques are regaining popularity.
“Time has proven that the only effective solution to secure European citizens against the mass arrival of illegal migrants is physical barriers,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban wrote in a letter to the commission last week, requesting reimbursement for funds his government spent on its own border fences.