Highlight 23/2021 – Calling a migrant influx a “security attack” and migrants mere “instruments” risks normalizing avoidance of international commitments
Boris Ohanyan, 24 August 2021
On 21 June 2021, the European Union imposed restrictive measures against 78 Belarusian individuals and 8 entities in view of the escalation of serious human rights violations in Belarus and the violent repression of civil society, democratic opposition, and journalists. Moreover, seven individuals and one entity subject to this new round of restrictive measures were designated in connection to the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in the capital of Belarus and the detention of opposition blogger Raman Pratasevich.
After these sanctions, Belarusian President Lukashenka declared that Belarus would not become a “holding site” for migrants from Africa and the Middle East and would no longer prevent them from crossing its western border into the EU. The Belarusian President also stated that Lithuanian authorities would have to “catch” the migrants themselves along the 680-kilometer border with Belarus and ordered Belarusian defense and security agencies to “close every meter of the border” and not to allow the migrants back into Belarus.
To note, Lithuania has been one of the critics of Lukashenka regime, calling for a robust EU response and granting the Belarusian democratic opposition led by Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya official status in the EU country.
The recent arrival of over 4000 migrants at the border between Lithuania and Belarus and the increasing migrant influx on the borders of Latvia and Poland have thus created a tense political situation, largely viewed by the EU as retaliation of Belarus for the imposed sanctions.
On 30 July 2021, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy issued a Declaration “on the instrumentalization of migrants and refugees by the regime”, stating that “using human beings in need to advance political goals violates fundamental European values and principles.” The President of Lithuania said at the meeting with the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs that the current developments along the EU/Lithuania-Belarus border “are not a typical migrant crisis” but a “a hybrid attack against Lithuania sponsored by the Belarus regime and retaliation for the EU’s support for the Belarus civil society, opposition, and democratic processes.” EU Commissioner for Home Affairs in turn noted that this is primarily “an act of aggression from the Lukashenko regime and not a migration crisis, a regime that has not allowed free elections, that has diverted a flight, that is attempting to destabilize.”
The Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the EU held a videoconference meeting of the EU Ministers of Home Affairs on 18 August 2021. The ministers expressed solidarity with the affected states, namely Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, and agreed to “deploy additional experts and agency teams as well as the necessary technical equipment to these member states, to help increase reception capacities, to call on the European Commission for additional financial assistance and, above all, to strengthen EU external border control.”
Lithuania currently plans to build a physical barrier along border with Belarus that might cost it more than €100 million. The Lithuanian government has also announced a plan to offer migrants who agree to return to their country of origin €300 each. Estonia has sent supplies of concertina wire and electronic equipment to Lithuania, while Latvia has provided tents. Latvia also has declared a state of emergency on its border with Belarus, planning to tighten the control, including authorizing the border guards to return illegal migrants by force.
The response of the EU and Member States to the situation created now at EU’s external borders shows again that having to deal with such huge migrant influx is perceived as an Achilles’ heel for the EU politics. Clearly, the EU should take action to show that the migration issue cannot be deployed as a tool against EU to achieve various political goals.
This said, however, refusals of entry and expulsions without any individual assessment of the protection needs have become a documented phenomenon at Europe’s borders and sometimes part of national policies rather than incidental actions. The highest risk attached to such “pushbacks” is the risk of refoulement (expelling or returning a person to territories where his/her life or freedom would be threatened). By failing to allow the individuals to remain on Lithuanian territory pending the examination of their applications, the Lithuanian authorities can knowingly expose these individuals to the risk of being returned to their home countries from Belarus.
Qualifying 4000 migrants as a security threat perhaps seems an understandable response in the particular situation created at the border of Lithuania, but it does not help to fight against the persistent and increasing practice of violating the rights of asylum-seekers and refugees guaranteed at international level. Amid such political tensions, there is always the risk that those who fled difficult conditions will be stranded, subjected to refusals to hear their asylum claims, to mistreatment, and deliberate use of excessive force.
Boris OHANYAN, Calling a migrant influx a “security attack” and migrants mere “instruments” risks normalizing avoidance of international commitments, Highlight 23/2021, available at www.meig.ch
The views expressed in the MEIG Highlights are personal to the author and neither reflect the positions of the MEIG Programme nor those of the University of Geneva.