The European migration conundrum

Rogue political actors and well-organized traffickers have created a migration crisis at the EU’s border with Belarus. Instead of helping the Central European member states to fulfill their duty of securing the Schengen border, Brussels accuses them of being inhumane.

A cartoon lampooning the inconsistency in the EU’s policy on migration
While no European state wanted uncontrolled migration, they criticized the measures taken by border countries to achieve this goal. © GIS

Recently, media all over the world have shown dramatic pictures of desperate migrants illegally trying to cross the border between Belarus and the European Union. Poland, Lithuania and Latvia are struggling to control the situation.

Immigration to the EU has been a touchy issue for a number of years. Waves of uncontrolled migrants have repeatedly come across the Mediterranean from Africa and Afghanistan, or from Syria and Iraq across Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean to Greece ,and through the Balkans to Hungary. The  Schengen frontier countries have the duty and burden to protect the EU’s borders.

The underlying causes for these migrations are mismanagement and war in the countries of origin. These countries also have experienced strong demographic growth in the last 50 years and have very young populations with poor prospects for employment. 

The lure

The highly developed economies of some EU member states are prosperous and offer generous welfare systems. Germany is particularly attractive. In 2015, when a colossal wave of refugees from Syria reached Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel greeted the huddled masses in her country. More than a few political parties spread the slogan “Refugees Welcome,” and a “Willkommenskultur” (a welcoming culture) was born. Many consider it an invitation to more immigration. 

Once migrants reach the border fence, they are ordered to force their way through.

These days, well-organized groups are making much money transporting people to Europe’s borders with promises of safe passage to the “promised land.” Some migrants naively believe in such promises, and others are deliberately taking the risk. Also involved in the drama are political actors outside the EU who cynically encourage and use migrants to create political pressure on the member states and disturb the union’s cohesion. 

What is happening now on the border with Belarus? Thousands of migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are flown to its capital city Minsk and escorted to the Polish and Baltic states’ borders. Belarusian police, border control, and the military are carrying out this operation. Once migrants reach the border fence, they order them to force their way through.  When they fail, they are not allowed back. The desperate migrants find themselves stuck in no-man’s-land.

This Belarusian “push” operation began in June on Lithuania’s border. It grew in scope and has now escalated on the Polish border.

Elections and sanctions

The motivation of the government in Minsk appears clear. Since October 2020, the EU has progressively expanded its restrictive measures against the Belarusian regime – a policy strongly supported by Poland. The sanctions were the EU’s response to the May 2020 incident in which a Belarus air force plane intercepted a commercial airliner en route from Greece to Vilnius and forced it to land in Belarus. One of the passengers, a member of the Belarusian opposition, was arrested before the plane could continue to its original destination. 

Another source of friction was the EU’s refusal to recognize the legitimacy of Belorusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s doubtful reelection in August 2020. 

In all likelihood, the Minsk regime believes that the EU can be blackmailed to drop some of the sanctions. The scuffles at the border could also bring another “advantage” to Belarus and Russia: undermine European unity and cause further deterioration in the relations between Central Europe, Poland especially, and Brussels.

Warsaw could let migrants in and lead them to the German border.

Brussels has been slow to react. In June already, the Baltic states and Poland warned about the escalating situation. However, the rest of Europe and the European Commission did not appear overly concerned. Brussels reacted negatively when Vilnius, then Warsaw and Riga, discussed the need to secure their borders with walls and fences. The project was declared inhumane, and support was denied. Left alone, Poland announced a state of emergency and brought military units to fend off illegal intrusions.

Who is irresponsible?

Warsaw was heavily criticized for its response to the crisis. The Polish authorities have been reluctant  – and understandably so  – to let NGOs into the area. This measure is not meant to hide inhumane activities. The presence of activists on the scene would create additional work, and they would need protection in a highly volatile environment. Also, one can understand Warsaw’s refusal to call Frontex to the rescue: the organization’s record in the Mediterranean is not very convincing.

Mr. Lukashenko’s devious plan might prove successful to an extent  – only not to the point of lifting the sanctions. The Commission’s head, who never misses a chance to bash Poland, also took the opportunity to declare her disapproval of the alleged Polish “brutality.”

The migrants at the border want to move to Germany. The easiest thing for Warsaw would be to let them in and shepherd them to the German border. However, the Balts and Poles are more responsible. They insist on maintaining legal control of their borders to carry out their duty to protect the union’s external boundaries.

Back in 2015, Hungary and other eastern flank member countries also faced the thankless task of protecting the border and were denounced as lacking in humanity in Brussels and other Union capitals. While no European state wanted uncontrolled migration, they criticized the measures taken to achieve this goal – essentially asking border countries to make an omelet without breaking eggs.

European countries must show they will only tolerate controlled immigration.

Departing Chancellor Merkel, reflecting on the migration issue recently, presented it as one of her achievements. However, she conveniently avoided discussing the problems of integration, unemployment and higher criminality among immigrant communities.

We do have an obligation to take in legitimate refugees running from brutal regimes or war, and Europe also needs some immigration for demographic reasons. However, Europe must be in control of its borders. While the circumstances of some of the migrants are heartbreaking, giving in to pressure would only encourage the illusions of many, not to mention the criminals and agitators taking advantage of the crisis. And succumbing to Mr. Lukashenko’s blackmail would only embolden him to try more mischief. 

This merciless human trafficking cannot be stopped with criminal prosecution and anti-money laundering measures – although these actions are necessary. European countries must take significant and credible steps to show they will only tolerate controlled immigration. And this policy needs to be underpinned  by a consensus in Europe that immigrants will be required to respect the culture and tradition of the host countries.

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