Why Belarus has ‘unleashed a wave’ of migrants on the EU’s borders

Germany and Poland boost border patrols as Minsk hits back at sanctions

A Polish border guard stands watch over a group of migrants
A Polish border guard stands watch over a group of migrants
(Image credit: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images)

Belarus has weaponised thousands of migrants in its dispute with the EU over sanctions related to the hijacking of a Ryanair passenger plane in May.

More than “5,000 migrants have entered Germany illegally via the route through Belarus and Poland since August”, The Telegraph said. Regional officials have reported that crossings are still rising “rapidly”, peaking at “more than 100” a day.

The spike in migrants has come as a result of Minsk’s “policy of encouraging migrants to use its territory to enter Europe”, the paper added, prompting German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer to accuse the country of “state-sponsored human trafficking”.

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‘Hybrid threat’

The EU has blamed the sudden rise in migrants on the Belarusian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko. The bloc “accused the authoritarian leader” of “facilitating illegal migration into the bloc in revenge against sanctions on Minsk”, euronews said.

The increase in migrant numbers came after Belarus added Iran, Pakistan, South Africa, Egypt and Jordan to the list of countries whose citizens can obtain visas on arrival. The change “unleashed a wave of migrants”, The Times said, prompting concerns in Germany “about the prospect of a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis”.

Sanctions were imposed after Belarus forced a plane bound for Lithuania to make an emergency landing in Minsk in order to arrest an exiled opposition journalist on board.

The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was in Belarusian airspace when the country’s authorities scrambled a fighter jet to divert the passenger plane to Belarus’s capital. Belarusian journalist and activist Roman Protasevich, who had been living in exile in Lithuania, was detained on arrival alongside his Russian-born girlfriend Sofia Sapega.

Protasevich then appeared on state television in Belarus and “confessed” to organising “mass riots”, The Washington Post said.

The apparent confession was “met with skepticism from scholars, family members and human rights groups” who stated that “there is little doubt that he was coerced” and possibly “tortured”. He is currently living under house arrest.

Seehofer has “stopped short of ordering temporary border controls as the German police demanded earlier this week”, The Telegraph said, telling reporters that “closing the border is not an option”.

However, he described the Lukashenko regime as a “hybrid threat”, adding: “State-organised or at least state-sponsored human trafficking is taking place in Belarus.”

Poland has “nearly doubled the number of soldiers deployed to guard its border with Belarus”, Al Jazeera reported. Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who is currently embroiled in his own battle with the EU, said the bloc was facing a “cynical attack”.

The additional troops will take the tally on Poland’s border region to almost 6,000, a “significant rise in military presence”, the broadcaster added. Warsaw has also “declared a state of emergency in the region and plans to build a wall on the border”.

The EU is finalising plans to introduce more sanctions, “amid concern that EU-registered companies are leasing aircraft to the country’s national airline Belavia”, according to Politico.

Three EU diplomats told the news site that firms in Ireland, “the EU’s hub for aircraft leasing”, are continuing to “lease planes to Belavia, which are used to transport migrants to the EU’s border”. The firms have argued that they are “contractually bound to do so”.

Several countries that share a border with Belarus such as Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Estonia back the introduction of sanctions that “directly target Belavia”, Politico added. The measures will “ban EU companies from doing any business with the national airline”.

Rights abuses

As the “situation along the new migration route from Belarus into the EU is escalating”, several human rights organisations have warned that “the tension could come at the expense of the thousands of migrants trying to enter EU territory”, InfoMigrants said.

The German migrant advocacy group Pro Asyl and the German chapter of Catholic charity Caritas have both “criticised the Belarusian regime, but also the EU”, claiming that they are “suspending human rights” on the eastern border, the site added.

“At the EU external border in Poland, the [Geneva] Refugee Convention is virtually non-existent,” Pro Asyl's Karl Kopp told the Dusseldorf-headquartered Rheinische Post. “Dictators win when countries with rule of law break the Refugee Convention, too.”

Berlin has said that it has “offered assistance” to Poland by sending “border guards and providing logistical support for housing migrants in the country”, euronews said. But “there have been accusations of illegal pushbacks by Polish border forces and a failure by authorities to ensure medical support”, according to Al Jazeera.

At least seven migrants have died in the region since August, prompting Ireland's Foreign Minister Simon Coveney to tell reporters in Brussels that while Belarus is “exploiting vulnerable people”, the EU must “look out for the human rights of those people”.

German activists have also accused the bloc of “failing to honour its commitments to genuine refugees by not challenging” Poland’s plan to build a border wall to stem the illegal crossings, The Telegraph said.

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