Poland-Belarus migrant crisis: Where does the EU stand?

The bloc is failing to unify because of political disagreements, according to experts.

Migrants gather on the Belarusian-Polish border near the Polish Kuznica border crossing [Leonid Shcheglov/AFP]

Brussels, Belgium – Every time there is a sharp increase in the number of refugees along the European Union’s borders, debates heat up in Brussels.

Despite having a Common European Asylum System, EU leaders squabble over how to implement it in a unified manner.

In recent months, a migration crisis has been rumbling along the EU-Belarus border, where thousands of people are stranded in the cold, being denied entry into the EU.

The bloc has accused Belarus of “weaponising” migrants – luring in people from the Middle East to dump them at the EU’s borders, to retaliate against targeted EU sanctions.

According to some EU officials, this episode has once again been met with a chaotic response due to political disagreements.

“We continue to scramble from one refugee crisis to the other, blaming other countries for our problems and denouncing reality. Instead, EU nations need to start implementing the common asylum policy in a unified manner,” Dutch Member of the European Parliament Sophie in ‘t Veld told Al Jazeera.

“What the Belarusian regime is doing is cruel. But when EU member states are unable to agree on a common migration policy and try to externalise migration management, other countries can easily take advantage,” she said.

This situation escalated last week when visuals of thousands of people walking towards the Poland-Belarus border, with hopes to enter Poland, went viral on social media.

“This is a hybrid attack. Not a migration crisis,” tweeted Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission.

Bram Frouws, head of the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) monitoring group, explained that such a response feeds into a narrative of war.

“With von der Leyen calling it a hybrid attack, I think that’s exactly what Lukashenko was hoping for. Even though we are talking about a few refugees and migrants trying to get access to Europe, the language is all about war stemming from political panic,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The moment you start referring to refugees and migrants as bargaining chips and as weapons of people being instrumentalised, it strips away their agency and dehumanises people,” he said.

Sanctions to the rescue?

With an aim to stop undocumented migration from Belarus, the EU has also imposed a new list of sanctions targeting all individuals and entities that it believes are helping the Lukashenko administration move people towards the border.

These fresh sanctions come despite threats from Lukashenko to cut off gas supplies to the EU.

While the list of sanction targets are yet to be finalised, Josep Borrell, the bloc’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, welcomed the decision.

“It reflects the determination by the European Union to stand up to the instrumentalisation of migrants for political purposes,” he said.

EU diplomats have also been cosying up to the countries that have been transition stops for Minsk-bound migrants and refugees.

Such diplomatic lobbying has proved fruitful; Turkish authorities have banned citizens of Iraq, Syria and Yemen from boarding flights to Belarus. Iraqi airlines and Syria’s Cham Wings Airlines have also suspended flights to the country. The United Arab Emirates has also curbed flights to Belarus.

“This is the moment where Europe is in a way counting our friends. We’re very happy to see that we have many,” Margaritis Schinas, the vice president of the European Commission, told reporters in Lebanon.

The three EU countries around Belarus – Lithuania, Latvia and Poland – have fortified their borders by increasing the presence of guards and announcing plans to build a wall.

Speaking to journalists before a recent EU foreign ministers’ meeting, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis suggested making Minsk airport a “no-fly zone” and encouraged repatriating people.

The Iraqi government’s first repatriation is expected to leave Belarus on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Polish border guards have begun using tear gas and water cannon against people to deter them from entering.

“It’s shocking to see that the EU is showing solidarity with Poland when the country is letting a  humanitarian crisis unfold,” Philippe Dam, Human Rights Watch’s advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, told Al Jazeera. “These people have been manipulated into this scheme. The EU should be questioning how to help them and not just how to respond to Belarus.”

Human rights and migration experts drew comparisons between the current situation and the 2015 European refugee crisis.

“In 2015, it was the first time the refugee policy was discussed at a national level in Poland. Right-wing groups began fuelling an anti-immigrant sentiment by referring to migrants as terrorists who would destabilise Poland and the EU,” Marta Gorczynska, a human rights lawyer based in Warsaw, told Al Jazeera. “But people who are afraid of refugees often don’t know anything about them.”

She explained how locals have been stopped from helping the people along the Poland-Belarus border.

“A lot of people living in this border zone are old and lived through the Second World War. They know what it’s like to be a refugee. They initially kept their doors open to help those stranded in the forest, but Polish border guards have ordered them not to do so,” Gorczynska said.

This crisis also takes place against a tense backdrop as Poland has been confronting the EU over the primacy of EU law.

According to MEP in ‘t Veld, Warsaw is playing a dangerous game.

“It’s interesting to see that Poland, which has been one of the strongest opponents of the EU’s common asylum system, is now asking the EU to help fund a border wall,” she said.

“We are talking about a few thousand migrants. A wall is not the solution. It’s time for EU nations to speak with a unified voice when it comes to migration. Nationalistic dialogues are pushing the Union to the brink.”

Path forward

As political tensions simmer, refugees continue to bear the brunt.

An EU spokesperson said the bloc is coordinating with the United Nations to provide immediate humanitarian assistance and assist the safe return of people to their countries of origin.

But Gorczynska called on the EU to stop pushbacks to Belarus and instead develop safe and legal pathways to enable migration.

Germany’s outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel has also been in dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko’s main ally, to de-escalate the situation.

Speaking to journalists on Monday, EU foreign affairs chief Borrell said: “I don’t think Lukashenko could be doing what he’s doing without strong support from Russia.”

The Kremlin has denied involvement and encouraged opening lines of communication directly with Belarus.

MMC’s Bram Frouws said: “Dialogue is always good with Putin, Lukashenko and also with the countries of origin from where the Minsk-bound migrants are coming. But a wall and militarisation is never the right approach. It just escalates the situation and makes the EU look very weak.”

Source: Al Jazeera