The use of migrants as a geopolitical tool

05 May 2022 /

10 min

In November 2021, the world witnessed an unprecedented crisis between Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, on one side, and Belarus, supported by the Russian government on the other. The incident took place when Belarus started attracting nationals from countries such as Syria and Iraq by loosening VISA rules and reducing the prices and increasing the number of aerial connections to bring them to its territory through commercial flights. There, they were strongly ‘encouraged’, by being physically pushed by the Belarus border authorities, to cross into the neighbouring border of the European Union, through countries such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. On their side, the EU countries refused to grant entry to these migrants, complying with the security of the EU border, which resulted thus in a deadlock with around five thousand of migrants staying several months in a ‘no man’s land’ during winter season.

A heated debate took place, with one side claiming that the EU should allow the entry of these people right away, securing their safety first and then dealing with the unethical conduct of Belarus later. Others defended that the EU should not succumb to Belarus’ pressure and should make the country take responsibility in repatriating those people. Several of these migrants later reported mistreatment by the Belarusian border guards after having been beaten, robbed and starved. Seeing how its people were being used, the Iraqi government temporarily suspended all its flights to Minsk, except for planes returning from Belarus to bring Iraqis back. While many of the migrants ended up returning to their home countries at the peak of the crisis, financed either by their national governments or by Belarus, the situation has been in a stalemate with several hundreds of migrants still locked in between Belarus and the EU’s borders in 2022, having registered 19 deaths so far.

The decay of relations between Belarus and the West

But why did Belarus, a country with a lingering economy, spend several thousand dollars to bring these people from the Middle East into its territory to then push them to its neighbouring borders? The answer lies in the destabilisation of Europe. Tensions between Belarus and the EU were considerably detrimental during 2020: the Belarus presidential elections were declared fraudulent, mostly because of the disparity between the polls and the real numbers. The election gave an absolute victory to Alexander Lukashenko over the opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was running in place of her husband, arrested for representing the opposition. She ended up being forced to seek political refugee in Lithuania, where she continues to lead a political resistance movement. The results of the elections stemmed in several protests in the country, which were shut down by the intervention of Russian military forces, under the pretext that Belarus was being targeted by “western interference”.

Later, on the 23 May 2021, the Ryanair flight 4978 with the course Athens-Vilnius was diverted to Belarusian territory under the pretext of a possible bomb threat. In Belarus, the government authorities entered the plane and arrested Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian activist, which could be considered as “State-kidnapping”. On 31 July, the Belarusian sprinter athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who represented Belarus in the summer Olympic Games of 2021 was forced to participate against her will in sub-categories she had not trained for. This later resulted in her refusing to come back to Belarus, being granted an humanitarian visa by Poland, where she became another symbol of the resistance and has been exposing the regime’s practices on its own people. After all these episodes, relations between Belarus and its neighbouring countries, as well as with the EU, have deteriorated significantly. Additionally, with the recent support of Belarus to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, tensions have gone one notch further, resulting in both countries being targeted by unprecedented sanctions.

Migration as an element of division

The question of migration is one of the most disputed and polarised debates within national politics in Europe, as can be seen in the case of France, Hungary, Poland, Greece and many others. This has created a serious division in society: usually, people are either for migration or against it. It is critical thus to emphasise in these times of polarised division that it is legit to discuss migratory policies. Just as any other topics that arise in democratic countries, it is through debate and a scrutinous analysis of the situation that solutions and compromises are achieved. How much money does a country have to spend on migration? Do we have the required infrastructure? How many people can we take in? What defines a refugee? How can we be sure we are taking in persons in real need? These are some of the questions that citizens and governments could be asking themselves as an alternative to making migration a taboo subject.

The question of migration reached the spotlight as a consequence of the Syrian war, during what would be then known as the Refugee crisis. It reached its climax in 2015, when more than five million people from Syria and other neighbouring countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan entered Europe with the status of war refugees. Just as it happened with the Euro crisis a few years prior, the EU had never faced a similar situation, and as such it had to improvise and find ad hoc solutions that met the expectations of EU countries whose economy, population and culture were significantly different. It goes without saying that the question of migration ended up strongly fragmenting the EU. The Brexit referendum took place just one year later, in 2016, at the same time that Poland and Hungary started to drift apart from the EU. Even Western European countries with a strong democracy index saw a great rise of nationalism, such as France. The migration issue has consequently become the central flag of far-right parties and one of the reasons for its success in national parliaments and governmental elections. Therefore, extremist parties ended up gaining a strong base of support in the eyes of the public and started catching the attention of other actors.

Double trouble in the East

This association of open border policies with the anti-EU sentiment was not unnoticed in the eyes of neighbouring countries, such as Russia and Turkey. The latter, for its part, has been since then using migrants as a leverage to blackmail the EU in order to obtain political and economical gains. In Russia’s case, its regime has no interest in having a strong united bloc, such as the EU, as its neighbour. After all, Russia is the country with the biggest territory and population in Europe. It can thus freely exert its influence and pressure on smaller neighbouring countries, such as Bulgaria, Moldova, Serbia and others to achieve its geopolitical goals. Russia’s government somehow plays the international game with an old-fashioned mindset: bigger and powerful countries have the natural right of deciding the fate of smaller countries, since they are the winners of the continuous battle among states throughout mankind’s history. Through this philosophy, it is natural that Russia’s regime sees the EU as a threat: a united Europe leaves no leeway for Russia to find economical, political or military opportunities in these countries.

In this line of thought, the Russian government assumes that most anti-migration parties are anti-EU. Hence, by creating more political and economical fragmentation both at the national and EU levels a great polarisation of the population takes place, resulting in a divided and crippled Europe, which increases Russia’s influence on the continent. As an example, in 2018, the Russian president asserted that the then British prime-minister, Theresa May, should “fulfil the will of the people” by not holding a second Brexit referendum. If Russia were to succeed in dividing Europe, it would have its zone of influence back in eastern European countries, forming what president Vladimir Putin describes as “The Russian World”: it would not only be a military superpower, but would hold diplomatic, cultural and political influence on millions of people. By relocating migrants into the eastern border of the EU, where countries are more ethnically homogeneous and have weaker economies, Belarus and Russia hoped to trigger far-right parties and popular movements against the EU. Russia is thus challenging the development of the EU, which seems to be ‘attracting to its side’ the remaining ex-Soviet countries, such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. It was perhaps by thinking that the EU was fragmenting apart due to Brexit and rule of law backsliding in Poland and Hungary that Russia felt confident to take the decision of invading Ukraine, since it did not expect a united answer of such a large scale.

A new kind of migration

The use of forced migration put the EU in a delicate position. First, it could not apply severe sanctions to Belarus, since there was a risk of alienating the country and making it gravitate further towards Russia. Secondly, because of the polarised nature of the issue, it was difficult for the EU to deal with it: if the EU publicly and actively supported Poland, it would improve its fragile relations with the country, but would trigger popular backlash for adopting an anti-migration position. If it pressed Poland to accept the migrants, however, it would widen the gap between the country and the Union. Quite surprisingly, the EU ended up supporting Poland.

This situation portrays the complexity of conflicts of the 21st century. Without shooting a single bullet, Russia and Belarus were able to exercise stress tests on the Western democracies’ weak points. If it were a foreign drone or military groups crossing the borders, the answer would have been smoother But since the matter concerned human beings, it placed the country on the receiving end in a delicate spot. The country could not kill, wound or assault the people that were being used by the other side, but had to find a way to physically stop them from entering its borders. At the same time, the EU was receiving internal pressure from civil and social movements to accept the migrants, while simultaneously being criticised for bowing to pressure from external countries.

There are International Organisations that regulate and protect the rights of refugees, such as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), as well as the International Organisation for Migration protects the rights of migrants. These organisations should in principle define what constitutes a refugee or a migrant, as well as their respective rights, and make sure that each state abides by them. Yet, no conventions or organisations could anticipate this particular scenario. This cannot be considered as ‘forced migration’, because the people from Afghanistan and Syria were not being forced into the scheme, but something rather as ‘manipulative migration’, where the objective is not the well-being of these people but to use them for political purposes. In other words, the migrants lured by Belarus were simply a means to an end, with their well being being neglected during the whole process by the Belarusian authorities.

The need to adapt the definition and rights of refugees and migrants to the complexity of the new century

In an increasingly more connected and interdependent world, borders have become an important subject of debate. Whereas 70 years ago it was unthinkable to have no restraint in border controls, nowadays some people even go as far as saying that borders need to disappear. When the UN Charter and the structures of what would be the main International Organisations that now manage international life were being drafted in the wake days of the Second World War, no one imagined that such scenarios could happen. This conflict creates a leeway for the use of migrants as a geopolitical tool, and only reaffirms the inevitability of revising the founding documents that established the new international order defined by the victorious powers of the Second World War.

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