Thousands of migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East are pouring into the European Union from Belarus, a landlocked country in Eastern Europe. The surge in illegal immigration is being orchestrated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who is accused of trying to blackmail the EU into reversing the sanctions it imposed over his disputed reelection and a crackdown on dissent.
Many of the migrants are being flown to Belarus from the Middle East and then bussed to EU borders by Belarusian authorities. The trips are being organized by Belarus's state-owned tourism agency, which charges migrants between $1,800 to $12,000.
The number of people illegally entering the EU from Belarus increased sharply after Lukashenko signed a decree on July 1 that allows citizens of more than 70 countries to travel to Belarus without visas and stay for up to five days, ostensibly to get Covid-19 vaccine shots.
The EU's notoriously fraught relations with Belarus deteriorated in August 2020 after fraudulent presidential elections which Lukashenko claimed he won with 80% of the vote. He subsequently launched a brutal nationwide crackdown against pro-democracy protesters. The EU responded by sanctioning 40 officials suspected of election misconduct — but not Lukashenko himself.
Relations deteriorated further on May 23, when Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, and arrested a 26-year-old Belarusian opposition journalist on board.
The EU responded a month later by expanding sanctions against Belarus, which retaliated by suspending an agreement with the EU to stem illegal immigration. "Before, we stopped drugs and migrants," Lukashenko said. "Now you will eat this and catch them yourself."
While the EU — hampered by its ideological commitment to open borders — appears at a loss as to what to do next, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania are being forced to spend millions of euros to build fences along their borders with Belarus. An EU spokesman explained that Brussels "does not finance fences or barriers."
In Poland, more than 3,000 migrants — mostly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, but also from Iran, Somalia and Tajikistan — tried to cross the border from Belarus in August alone. By comparison, 122 people crossed the border illegally during all of 2020.
"These are not refugees, they are economic migrants brought in by the Belarusian government," Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz said at a news conference. Poland accuses Belarus of retaliating against Warsaw's recent decision to grant asylum to Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, a Belarusian athlete who refused to return home from the Tokyo Olympics.
On September 2, the Polish government declared a 30-day state of emergency along parts of its 400-kilometer (250-mile) border with Belarus. The move would limit people, including Polish pro-immigration activists, from approaching the border.
On August 23, Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak announced the construction of a 2.5- meter-high (8.2-foot) "solid fence" along his country's border with Belarus. Since then, Poland has deployed more than a thousand troops to secure the border.
"The situation on the border with Belarus is difficult and dangerous," presidential spokesman Blazej Spychalski told a news conference. "Today, Poland, being responsible for our own borders, but also for the borders of the European Union, must take measures to ensure the security of Poland and the EU."
Meanwhile, dozens of Afghan migrants remain trapped in a stand-off along the border between Poland and Belarus. They have been camping out in a forest near the village of Usnarz Górny for almost a month after being taken there at gunpoint by Belarusian authorities.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that although he sympathized with the migrants, they would not be allowed to enter Poland. He described them as "a tool in the hands of Mr. Lukashenko" and vowed that Poland would not succumb to "this type of blackmail." Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz added: "If we accept this group, the next moment we will have not 10 or 20, but 1,000, 2,000 and 10,000 people trying to enter."
In Lithuania, more than 4,100 migrants — mostly from Iraq, but also from Cameroon and Congo — have entered illegally from Belarus so far this year. By comparison, just 74 migrants crossed the border illegally during all of 2020.
The Lithuanian parliament recently voted to build a 508-km (310-mile) fence along its border with Belarus. The 4m-high (13-ft) metal fence topped with razor wire will cost €150 million ($180 million) and be completed by September 2022.
"Without this physical barrier, it is impossible to protect our borders, it is very clear," Interior Minister Agnė Bilotaitė told the Reuters news agency. She also announced a plan to purchase plane tickets and offer cash payments of €300 ($355) for migrants who agree to return to their country of origin.
Lithuanian officials have accused Belarus and Russia of operating human smuggling networks with the help of Iran to transport people from Iran, Iraq and Turkey to the Lithuanian border. A video filmed by Lithuanian border guards shows Belarusian troops forcibly pushing migrants into EU territory.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that Belarus should be a concern not only for the Baltic countries or the EU, but for the "whole democratic world" which, he advised, "needs to wake up."
In Latvia, approximately 500 migrants have tried illegally to enter the country in recent months along its 175-kilometer (109-mile) border with Belarus. The government has declared a state of emergency, which allows the military and police to support border guards. They have been ordered to instruct illegal immigrants to return to the country they came from, and authorized to use physical force if they refuse. The state of emergency is effective until November 10.
Latvian Interior Minister Marija Golubeva said:
"Belarus is weaponizing international migration and making a special path for irregular migration to the border of the two Baltic states, Lithuania and Latvia. This is not any sort of spontaneous emergence of a migration trail to our countries; this is a specifically directed action by the government of Belarus as perhaps a way to have revenge on the European Union for the sanctions that were imposed after the plane was hijacked."
A joint statement issued by the prime ministers of Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on August 23 accused Lukashenko of engaging in "hybrid" warfare:
"It is clear to us that the ongoing crisis has been planned and systemically organized by the regime of Alexander Lukashenka. Using immigrants to destabilize neighboring countries constitutes a clear breach of the international law and qualifies as a hybrid attack against the Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and thus against the entire European Union....
"In the EU we need to use this momentum to rethink our approach towards the protection of our borders. We firmly believe that the protection of European external border is not just the duty of individual Member States but also the common responsibility of the EU. Hence, proper political attention should be paid to it on the EU level and sufficient funding allocated....
"Belarus must assume its full responsibility for people whose arrival to its territory it has organized itself. It is unacceptable that people who have arrived in Belarus are being unlawfully directed to the EU external border, to be later prevented from returning to their countries of residence. Weaponizing refugees and immigrants threatens the regional security of the European Union and constitutes a grave breach of human rights. Such behavior should be condemned in strongest terms by the whole democratic community."
A joint statement of the presidents of Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania added:
"Since June, we have been facing hybrid attacks on the European Union's and NATO's eastern border. Vulnerable citizens from third countries are being used to fuel illegal border crossings from Belarus. This is not a migrant crisis but a politically orchestrated hybrid operation by Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime to divert attention from the regime's growing human and civil rights abuses. We condemn this unacceptable behavior. Futile pressure and reckless actions will not change our agreed policy on the crisis in Belarus."
The European Union's bureaucracy, which famously operates at a glacial pace, has issued a flurry of empty statements but has failed to implement effective steps to stop the migration inflow. European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said:
"What we see from Lukashenko is an extreme act of aggression towards the European Union. He's using human beings in an instrumentalized way. This is totally unacceptable. This is really, really a dangerous way to act. So, I think it's important that we stand together against Lukashenko and what he's doing."
Lukashenko, undeterred, has mocked the EU, saying that Belarus will not become a "holding site" for migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East that he himself has welcomed into his country:
"If some think that we will close our borders with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine and become a camp for people fleeing Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Tunisia, they are mistaken. We won't hold anyone. They are coming not to us but to enlightened, warm and cozy Europe."
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis concluded:
"Only a very clear and unified EU policy on returning irregular migrants can effectively prevent criminal groups and regimes from exploiting illegal migration for their own purposes. Europe's message must be short and precise — those illegally entering the EU cannot be granted a refugee status and will be returned to their countries of origin."