The migrant as a weapon? In recent years, repeated attempts have been made to pressure the European Union with deliberately instigated illegal migration. In the Spanish exclave of Ceuta, which borders on Morocco, Spanish border guards were surprised a few months ago by the arrival of thousands of migrants who, swimming through the sea and risking their own lives, managed to get around the border fence.
Last March, Turkey also did not hesitate to open the Turkish-Greek border. An action born out of frustration at the lack of financial support from the EU for Turkey, which already has a huge effort with 3.6 million Syrian refugees within its borders. In the migration riot with Morocco, money also played a role that the leader of the independence movement Polisario turned out to be treated in a Spanish hospital.
For the past two months, Lithuania has also seen a rapid increase in illegal migration, from Belarus and driven by the Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko. The reason is the EU sanctions after the hijacking of a plane carrying the Belarusian journalist and dissident Roman Pratasevich. Last year, Lukashenko crushed protests against his regime with repression and violence.
After the 2015 refugee crisis, when more than a million migrants arrived in the EU, a toxic debate about fair reception sparked among EU countries. Not all countries want to take in migrants. Some countries want it, but are poor and therefore not popular as a final destination. Other countries think they are already doing enough, because they are guarding an external border of the EU. Opening legal routes to make illegal migration less attractive remains a hot topic.
From one’s own national perspective, all these views are often still quite defensible, but the European ambition to become a geopolitical player is weighed down by so much division. Every autocrat seems to know by now that asylum policy is a major weakness of the EU.
What was already a bad practice – using migrants as pawns – has now taken Lukashenko to the next level. The migrants crossing the Lithuanian border did not stay in Belarus before, but mainly come from Iraq. They use the extra scheduled flights that have suddenly come to Minsk and the abolition of the visa requirement. Once she has arrived, she is not hindered by any means to reach Lithuania.
Just as Lukashenko hoped, Lithuania (population 2.3 million) is struggling to cope with the situation. Last year there were fewer than a hundred illegal migrants. This year there are already more than four thousand. Lithuania has declared a state of emergency and decided to build a kilometer-long fence along the border – entirely in line with a trend that has been observed in EU countries for some time.
The EU is not defenseless. Brussels managed to persuade Baghdad to suspend flights to Minsk through diplomatic channels. The European border service Frontex was able to quickly send an additional 60 people to Lithuania. That’s good news, but even better news would be a working asylum policy. Only clear agreements on how to deal with sudden migration peaks can remove mutual tensions and prevent the EU from becoming a plaything. Ultimately, this will benefit European citizens more than just another fence.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of August 12, 2021