Europe’s sharper edges: EU migration policy after Lukashenko

15 December 2021

Geopolitics is accelerating reform of the EU’s border and asylum regime. An external European frontier that once only existed on paper is taking shape. And Lukashenko’s hybrid attack may have accidentally given birth to the Union’s migration foreign policy.

Despite seemingly eternal gridlock over European asylum procedures, 2021 was still significant for EU migration policy. Skillful Portuguese diplomacy saw the Union pass its first migration-related legislation since 2016, in the form of revised rules to attract more highly skilled workers to Europe. A surprise compromise with the so-called Med 5 countries ­– Italy, Spain, Malta, Cyprus and Greece ­– gives new powers and status to the EU asylum agency from next January on. More unlikely still, Greece finally brought the migration crisis on its islands under control. Only 12 months after the over-crowded Moria refugee camp burned to the ground, less than four thousand asylum seekers remain on Lesbos, Chios, Leros and Samos, with irregular sea arrivals down to a handful year-on-year.

Most spectacularly, Belarus’ leader Alexander Lukashenko tried to use some 20,000 asylum seekers to rush the EU’s eastern frontier. Targeting first Lithuania and then Poland from August onwards, Lukashenko lured Iraqis, various African nationals and Syrians with single entry visas to Minsk via Turkey, the Middle East and Central Asia. (Small numbers of Afghans, Iranians, Indians and even Cubans were among the cohort, too.) Having paid up to €12,000 each for passage to Germany the travellers were then pushed towards the frontier by the Belarussian regime, in now all-too-familiar scenes, to force a confrontation with border guards, and tip the EU once again into panic and division over the issue of asylum rights.

Lukashenko assumed the Europeans would cave into pressure to open the border, especially given the inevitable media circus when authorities were obliged to use force to restore order. To up the ante, Belarussian servicemen tried to dazzle Polish border guards with green lasers and strobe lights, destroyed infrastructure and even trained migrants as militias to charge the frontier. A border collapse would gift Lukashenko both a new weapon of political coercion and a badly needed revenue stream from smuggling fees. (A forthcoming study from DGAP estimates the regime pocketed over €40 million from the desperate travellers.) After a few months of profitable chaos, Lukashenko’s envisaged endgame was to demand some relief from EU economic sanctions: a de facto recognition of his authority at home after disputed elections in 2020.

On 8 November Polish authorities, refusing either to be intimidated or manipulated, completed effective barricades at the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing. This caused Belarussian authorities to worry about a build-up of migrants on their side of the frontier. Belarus is, after all, a fully signed up party to international refugee protections, and the regime is obligated to hear the asylum claims of those it invited.  Simultaneously, the Union mobilised its diplomatic and market power to cajole civil aviation and countries of origin and transit into closing down the air route to Belarus. European Commission vice president Magaritis Schinas made a whistle stop tour to Dubai, Baghdad, Beirut and Ankara between 10-18 November, helping to trigger a domino effect of cooperation from airlines and local authorities across the region. Passengers now had to prove Belarus as their final destination, with some flights simply being suspended altogether. Turkish airlines, for example, has a €2 billion stake in access to the European market. That is a lot to risk for a small trickle of flights to Minsk. Syrian airline Cham Wings ceased flights from Damascus without needing to be asked.

On 12 November, Iraq withdrew the rights of Belarus’ consulate in Baghdad to issue visas (around 60 per cent of the arrivals were Iraqi Kurds). Over the next week, state airline Belavia began to refuse boarding to nationals of Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya transiting to Minsk through Turkey or Uzbekistan. On 23 November, the EU announced it would blacklist any transport company that, implicitly or explicitly, allows people smugglers to operate on their routes. This effectively turns transport staff on transit routes into proto-EU immigration officials, with a directive from management to look out for suspect cases. Meanwhile, over 1,200 Iraqis who managed to enter the EU from Belarus have returned home voluntarily or are waiting to do so.                                            

Hence the gamble backfired badly on Lukashenko. In response to his move, the EU and US activated a fifth round of sanctions against the regime in early December. Amongst other things, these already cut Belavia’s fleet of planes in half with the Belarussian president stating “our economy is under external pressure on an unprecedented scale and depth”. Visa facilitation for Belarussian officials is suspended. Thousands of irregular migrants remain stranded in heated sheds in Belarus’ west, with instructions from the regime to cross into Poland immediately, or be sent home. An estimated 3,000 were already unceremoniously returned to Iraq and Syria by a regime determined not to have any migrants from the Middle East on its territory. Most galling of all for Lukashenko, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, head of Belarus’ democratic opposition, has a far higher international profile after the incident than hitherto, receiving adulation in parliaments and chancelleries across the EU over the past weeks, and a profile in the New Yorker.

Nonetheless many critics argue the EU actually brought the crisis upon itself. First, because the situation highlights the Union’s ongoing ‘failure’ to agree a system to share out responsibility for asylum seekers applying at the external border (ignoring the fact that Germany and France receive far more applications than Italy or Greece). And second, since strongmen everywhere know Europe is ‘obsessed’ with preventing a recurrence of the 2015-2017 migration crisis, the EU has needlessly handed them leverage to make demands lest they unleash mayhem on Europe’s air, sea or land frontiers. Neither argument really stands up to scrutiny, however.

In the first instance, robust agreements, policies and infrastructure to determine asylum status at the border rapidly are important and necessary to have. But they do not by themselves prevent an actual crisis or stop one that is already happening. The US has had such arrangements in place for many years, including for hearing asylum claims and resettlement of refugees across different states. Yet the asylum crisis at its southern border with Mexico remains at a heightened level of seriousness with President Biden forced to retain several elements of Trump-era policies. Liberal democracies are largely victims of their own attractiveness. This asymmetry with autocracies is the main reason such regimes feel free to ‘weaponise’ irregular migration, not the EU’s unimplemented migration pact.

As to the second charge, that the EU is too blinded by the events of 2015: foreign threats to ‘flood’ Europe with migrants long predate that crisis, and even the Schengen area itself. A 2010 study by former Harvard academic Kelly M Greenhill (‘Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion and Foreign Policy’) – much thumbed in recent weeks – documents dozens of such cases worldwide over several decades. Two examples are Muhammar Gaddafi against Italy in 2010 and Slobodan Milošević against Germany in the early 1990s. In other words, despite the undoubted impact of disruptive phenomena like social media, there is nothing fundamentally new under the sun. Such actions and threats of action may indeed have discombobulated European leaders in the past but did not grant autocratic leaders lasting influence, even in the rare instances hybrid pressure was actually applied. What really is new is the blatant crudeness and public visibility of Lukashenko’s stunt. This has sharply reduced popular sympathy towards smuggler-led mass arrivals at the border, rendering such tactics less usable by other leaders in future.

Moreover, the EU has just demonstrated the heavy price to be paid if they try. The Union has had to think hard about the leverage it can bring to bear in such situations, testing out a toolbox of negative leverages that includes official sanctions, carrier blacklisting, removal of visa privileges, and perhaps soon trade restrictions. It has also further developed its nascent crisis management intelligence system, the so-called Blueprint network, sharpening Europe’s ability to think and respond in a crisis. And Schinas’ whistle stop tour revealed the vital importance of face-to-face diplomacy with a clear mandate and a strong sense of urgency. To date, this was lacking in the Union’s attempts to build up migration partnerships in the regions around it. Lukashenko’s jolt to the system may prompt a re-energised approach in 2022, as new EU spending programmes for external migration priorities also come online.

Lastly, the Belarus crisis has accelerated the transformation of the EU from a project based on unconditional openness to a Union which “knows how to protect its borders”, in the words of President Emmanuel Macron, who takes over the rotating EU presidency in January. At the beginning of December, the Commission proposed new crisis arrangements allowing authorities in a crisis to halt irregular arrivals at the border whilst asylum claims are heard, and to return home those with inadmissible applications with a minimum of legal obstacles. New proposals for reforming the EU’s passport-free area further develop this trend, by strengthening the right to refuse entry to migrants clearly being channeled to the border by outside actors, and by mainstreaming the 2020 Melilla judgement of the European Court of Human Rights into the Schengen acquis. This unanimous ruling states repressive action to prevent mass irregular crossings is legal, especially where migrants use force as in Bruzgi-Kuznica, so long as procedures to apply for asylum are available at the official border posts. Taken together with growing efforts by border agency Frontex to sharply increase returns of irregular entrants back to their countries of origin, these developments put the Union in a stronger position to control its borders than before. (However, the EU has yet to find a solution for smuggler-led irregular maritime arrivals and may yet have to revise its sea borders regulation to do so.)

This enhanced freedom of action may well be tested to the limit over the coming months, given a plethora of conflicts likely to impact the Union’s borders. To mention only the most obvious: the inevitable rise in those seeking to escape repression and famine in Afghanistan; potentially renewed military conflict between Russia and Ukraine; slow-burning political tensions in the Balkans; and the raging Ethiopian conflict between government forces and Tigray and Oromo rebels. Furthermore, the pandemic may have temporarily slowed irregular arrivals over the past two years. But it has also driven smuggler rates sharply down, in some cases around €1,000 per person. Such circumstances underline that it is chiefly the Union’s action or inaction as a geopolitical player that has the most impact on irregular migration flows to its borders, followed next by its crisis management arrangements, and then the flexibility of its asylum regime.  

Open borders advocates need not despair. Achieving control credentials and resilience to crisis is likely to be a better enabler of future openness than the failed policies of the past. Whilst 2022 will reopen emotive debates over external processing of asylum claims and whether Europe’s asylum arrangements have departed too far from the spirit of the original refugee conventions, the EU has no shortage of progressive champions in the form of a new left-leaning German government, the Union’s new asylum agency and the European Parliament. Tougher procedures and more clear-eyed debates are necessary if the Union’s migration policy is ever to deepen into areas such as labour migration and alternative legal pathways. Not to mention having the remotest chance of agreeing a permanent new asylum settlement, as optimists continue to hope, during Sweden’s EU presidency in early 2023.


Hugo Brady is a senior strategic advisor at ICMPD.


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